The Eleven Year Itch

Standardized TestTwo weeks ago, I made one of the biggest changes of my life. I left my school of eleven years and transferred to a different one after school had already started.

To be a successful student, we’re taught to follow the rules, to raise our hands, and to do all the homework. We’re also taught to stand up for ourselves, become passionate about an area of life we can later pursue as a career, and make creative choices. We’re taught to take PSATs, SATs, SATIIs, ACTs, APs and do as many as possible. We’re taught to value the college application process as the climax of our entire teenage life. We’re taught to pick a college that will suit us, and we’re also taught that college should be an Ivy. Sometimes the things we’re taught conflict with each other. Like the fact that we’re told to be creative, yet all our choices seem to have already been made for us. Or, the fact that we’re told to join tons of clubs and do lots of extra-curriculars, but somehow we’re also supposed to be doing all the homework we get from school and doing it well.  We’re told to get lots of sleep and not to stress, and underneath it all our teachers and parents don’t want anti-social kids. How is any of this possible?

The problem is, I think we all wonder how it’s possible, but we just go with it, because these ideas are so engrained in our minds as the right ideas, the right choices, and the right way to live our lives. No one ever stops to wonder why we apply to college, why we go to college, or why we even go to high school. Why is college viewed as the end of a long journey?  I, truthfully have no idea what happens after college. As far as I can tell, people just drop off the earth, have no reason for living, or maybe they go on to graduate school.  The perception of the world I have been taught ends with college.

When I was four, I was given an IQ test. That sentence alone is kind of funny, but I’m not going to start on IQ tests, because I know there’s lots of debate about whether or not they actually measure intelligence. Anyway, as a result of my doing well on this test, I got to attend a free specialized public school with a very good reputation. The lower school offered me an education similar to one I might have gotten at a good private school. The grade was relatively small, and the teachers knew the students very well.  In seventh grade we received two hundred new students and entered the high school. Similar to schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, my high school became more of an institution than a small, personal situation. It was very sink or swim. The teachers were wonderful, the classes engaging, and the students incredibly smart. However, the stress level built every year as we received more and more homework and moved closer to that day when we would begin the college process.

I’ve always been passionate about out-of-school activities such as music and politics. I have an internship with a Congresswoman, and enjoy blogging and writing for several websites, such as (Barbara’s Angels and The Huffington Post).  As my life outside of school blossomed, with the opportunities to attend conferences, do interviews for my website, and even gain access to political events in Washington DC, my life inside of school also changed. I was in a position where I had to choose between getting good grades in class and focusing on activities that interested me outside of school. I didn’t want to make that choice, so I stretched myself to do both. There’s a saying at my old school that you can pick only two out of three pleasures: sleep, friends, or grades. I was trying to add another factor into the equation.

I wasn’t surprised at the level of work; all my life I had been told this was what it was going to be like. That was probably one of the reasons I didn’t seriously question it.  That and the fact that I knew that changing schools would mean leaving all my friends, teachers, and what had been my second home for a decade.  In ninth grade I questioned the situation more seriously, but didn’t take the leap. However, leading up to tenth grade, my interests outside of school presented me with more and more interesting opportunities; I realized I needed to change schools.  Because I made my decision over the summer, there wasn’t enough time for me to switch right when school started.

This was how I came to transfer to a small, progressive private school a few weeks ago, where I’m hoping to pursue more of my interests outside of school without becoming caught up in the AP-taking, standardized-test-obsessed, stressed-out culture I’d been trying to survive in. I explained it to my parents one night as feeling like you were swimming laps in a huge pool, and you only had a few opportunities to breathe. Every summer you could take a breath, and sometimes during winter break you’d be able to catch some air, but then you were off again and the pressure was getting harder and harder to take. I plan to still challenge myself, because I enjoy learning. Now, I hope I’ll have time to actually learn deeply, rather than cram, rush, and cut corners to cover all my bases. I’m also hoping I’ll get to pick up the guitar more often.

On Saturday I take the PSATs for the first time, and I feel surprisingly calm. At my new school, the whole student body isn’t up in arms about it, and I feel confident I will do my best. All of a sudden the college process seems like it has a purpose, and is nothing to be afraid of.  I’m starting to feel that the laps I’m doing now are just for exercise.

Fiona is a politically-active teenager and song writer in New York City.

  1. Fiona

    Thanks so much all of you for your great comments! The new school is going really well, and I already feel very adjusted. I’m finding my life to be much more balanced than it was before, which is such a relief. Jenn, thanks so much for your support–I look forward to working with you too!

  2. Jennifer de Forest

    Hi Fiona,

    Thank you so much for this post – I particularly appreciated 2 points that you made, or implied, in your post- 1) that teenagers can’t possibly explore the world beyond school and *teach themselves* about citizenship, community, and responsibility (as you do through your work) when we employ them full-time+ in a race to some sort of imagined finish line at Harvard Yard, and 2) that “learning” and “cramming” to perform are far from the same thing.

    As the Director of your new school, I feel so lucky that we get to be partners in your learning – I hope that you will bring your experiences back into our community to teach us!

  3. Lauren Herold

    Hey Fiona, I think it’s amazing you had the courage to switch schools in the middle of high school.  I remember feeling similar things in high school–like there was this big push for college but no one really knew why. And when I got to college, I had no idea what to expect because no one talked about what college was actually like.  I think that’s one of the reasons why freshman year in college is really hard–it’s a big mystery and you sort of have to figure it out for yourself.  The only ideas you get, at least from the media, are "WOO PARTY NO PARENTS" stereotypes that don’t apply the majority of the time–college is still school, after all.  Where are the nuanced and interesting depictions of college life in TV and movies?  Everyone seems pretty obsessed with high school life but people skip college and head write to talk about the lives 20-somethings. Maybe that’s because movie producers realize that real college isn’t as spectacular as adults tell kids it is.  A lot of the time it’s just class, reading, writing, and working.  Not that I don’t like college–there is more freedom and newness and there are more interesting and amazing people and things to do.  I think college is a million times better than high school.  But it’s not worth the amount of stress that parents, teachers, and our society puts on high schoolers in preparation for it. 

  4. Maddie Alpert

    Fiona, this is so great; so gutsy and also SO true! I can really relate to all of what you’re saying.

    I hope that the new school is going well! And I’m just so impressed with all of the amazing things you’ve been doing (I looked at the HuffPo blog and your website, seriously inspiring!) Anyway, I don’t really have anything insightful to add, but just wanted to tell you that you’re a total rockstar and I adored this post.


Leave a Reply