Dear High Schoolers, This is Not Real Life

“You’re just in regular Chemistry, right?”

I looked up. The girl who said it was wearing a bright blue UCLA sweatshirt. The girl she directed the question at— or rather the shamey-slight at— was sitting cross legged at her table, eyes downcast over her latte.

“Yeah,” the girl sitting at her table said, the casualness in her tone forced and overplayed, “I’m just in regular Chem.”

“Oh good,” UCLA sweatshirt replied, patting the other girl delicately on the shoulder, “enjoy it.”

It took everything in me not to take out a soap box right there in the middle of that small cafe in my old hometown and shout at the top of my lungs:

"THIS IS NOT HOW THE WORLD WORKS!"

Overhearing this brief exchange between two girls who currently attend my old high school provoked an unsettling combination of familiarity and bewilderment. I, like many other college students in this country, grew up in an affluent suburb riddled with academic rivalries and burdened with an over-achieving, pressure-cooker mentality.

 

As a college student and recent outsider to the world of high school high achieving competitiveness, I found the clearly backhanded comment in the cafe so transparently rude and inappropriate. You can’t talk to people like that, my rational mind said. No one talks to people like that anymore.

 

But the side of me that still remembered what it was like to attend my highly competitive high school knew that kind of exchange was so typical, so exemplary of the culture in which I was brought up. What was so clearly passé to me now didn’t even seem to warrant an objection from the girl who the judgement was directed at. In my high school, and at many high schools like mine, there was a language of nosey-ness and judgement that permeated all school and college related conversations. There was shame in admitting an ACT score below a 30. You had something to hide if your GPA included more than one B. You were admitting to your own inadequacy if you were taking a “regular” class instead of an AP class. High schools like mine made smart kids— in fact, devastatingly intelligent, hard working kids— feel stupid. Why? Because it was acceptable to talk to each other in a way that disregarded all things- talents, nuances, and insights that existed beyond supposed markers of academic exceptionalism.

 

And another thing I would like all high schoolers wracked with feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt to remember: Millions of people profit from you feeling like you have to be perfect and high-achievement obsessed. From personal college counselors to The College Board, there are many people and organizations who benefit from the fact that high schoolers from a certain background treat each other and themselves without basic decency and hold in esteem these falsified notions of success and impressiveness.

 

In my experience, and in the experience of many who have graduated from similarly competitive, affluent high schools, people really do not care if you are in a higher level chemistry class or not. In fact, in most circles, it’s actually socially lewd to bring such matters up in a self-promoting way. In college, everyone is busy. Everyone is working really hard and they’re also having fun too. No one cares what your ACT score was. No one wants to hear about how much you have to study and how little you got to sleep. It’s not important. What people care about in college is if you are a good person who works hard and knows how to have a little fun.

 

When I heard these high schoolers talking about their grades and classes, all I could think was, this is not how it works. I recognize with compassion that this was how they felt that they had to survive the culture they found themselves in— by playing their role in the hierarchy of high achievement. But I wanted so desperately for them to know that after high school, it wouldn’t have to be this way. They wouldn’t have to answer ridiculous questions about their course load or their GPA. And if they did, it would either be a genuine inquiry from their advisors or an out of place comment from someone who themselves was still stuck in high school.

It was just the cherry on top of my week home when my dental hygienist asked me if my college had been my “first choice.” When she asked me, I laughed aloud and just shook my head.

“I have no idea,” I told her, “it doesn’t matter now anyways. I love my school.”

Here is what I want every high school girl to believe with all her heart and soul so that next time Susan from swim team asks a prying and presumptuous question about college or AP classes or SAT scores you can remember this truism:

Your best is good enough.

Everything that aims to convince you otherwise is noise. You don’t have anything to be ashamed of— not your grades, not your course load, not your extracurriculars, not your resume. There is only shame in making others feel ashamed. Your best is good enough. And by the way, it’s quite alright to be in regular, plain old, unremarkable, remedial Chemistry.