Overachieving & Anxiety

Ian White ’19, Guest Writer

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On paper, my K-12 education was all that a person could hope for in the United States. I went through one of the highest-quality public school systems in the nation, which spends over $19,000 on each and every student. My high school has a graduation rate of 94%, and it offers a wide array of challenging Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes for students like me, who excel in a classroom setting. However, looking back on my pre-Dickinson education, I can’t help but think that the picture-perfect Arlington Public Schools system failed me in some crucial ways, mainly due to the culture in which it operated.

The U.S. education system loves to turn people into numbers, and its goal seems to be to turn the greatest amount of people into the highest possible number. If a student has a perfect GPA and test scores, then that student is considered perfect, no need to worry about them.

This mentality hurts students of all capabilities; people who do not perform well in school think they are unintelligent or worthless while students who do perform well are lead to base their self-worth in their academic transcript. Speaking from the latter perspective, this culture of education is toxic.

From middle school onwards, I was pushed to take the hardest classes I could, buff up on extra-curriculars and work relentlessly for straight A’s. I was told that challenging myself would make me a better student, improve my test scores and land me in an elite college. It was only these things that mattered to my school, not my health or happiness. I went along with this advice, pursuing a full IB diploma and signing up for a bunch of clubs and volunteer work. As a result, I got 4-5 hours of sleep a night through most of my junior and senior year of high school. This was okay not because I was necessarily happy, but because I was doing what I was supposed to do.

Coming into college, I had three main skills: taking tests, writing papers and functioning on half of a night’s recommended sleep without naps. I had learned to live with a very high level of stress, but I had not learned how to take care of myself.

I did not have much time for exploring myself in high school. Many people spent those years making friends, finding hobbies, getting summer jobs and dating. I spent them working on homework and studying for tests and I was acutely aware of all that I was missing out on. When I graduated, I felt completely useless outside of a classroom. I believed that I was completely incapable of doing anything besides schoolwork and I hated myself for it. I had also picked up a lot of anxiety from an environment in which if you weren’t perfect, you were putting your entire future at risk. B on a paper? You won’t go to college. C on a test? You will never find a good job. Combined with my low self-esteem, this sense of anxiety made me think either that I had already ruined my life or that I was just about to. I also know that I’m not alone in my experience here. When I talk to my former classmates from high school, I hear a lot of similar stories.

I share my experience not to say that I am ungrateful for what I have or that I have had it the worst out of anyone. That would be absurd. As a cisgender white male from an upper-middle-class household, there are many other issues that I never had to face in school. However, I do think that there is something wrong with a system in which kids think a bad grade is a death sentence. A school is failing if students aren’t learning, but it is also failing if students aren’t healthy. Even if a child is doing well in classes, they cannot truly grow if their environment causes anxiety and self-doubt. What if we taught kids to be kids and not test scores?

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