Four years of high school, four years of college, maybe a couple years or so of grad school. It’s a progression most high school students I know don’t spend much time considering the necessity of, as unspokenly expected as it is. It’s a progression that my deviation from has resulted in a painful degree of internal strife. It’s also a progression that, as I approach the end of my six year high school career, I now understand to be unsuspectingly formative and fortifying for me.
The average student can make it through high school in four years. They all do it differently and to varying degrees of academic and personal success, and there’s no denying that being able to get through high school in the typical four year time allotment would be ideal for almost any teenager. So both times I found out I’d have to stay back a year are permanently embedded into the shameful part of my memory. My first missed year was the result of a cumulation of mental health issues I was struggling with and my second missed year was the result of a severe concussion. In between, I’ve had periods of weeks and months where school was the only place I wanted to be, and I’ve had periods where merely the thought of getting onto my bus in the morning made me want to throw up. As tumultuous as my journey through high school has been and as much as part of me wishes I’d been able to do it in four years, the lessons I have learned about myself and others from this extended journey have been invaluable. Without further ado, here is a sampling of three of them!
1. No one’s paying that much attention to you.
I’ve learned this lesson in a lot of ways, but none more strikingly than I did when I finally got around to admitting my academic delay to my peers. A common source of anxiety is catastrophizing, which is when one assumes that an outcome will be dramatically worse than it likely will end up being. It’s a phenomenon central to an anxious person’s experience, and leads to a great deal of unnecessary suffering for the individual.
I was absolutely convinced, especially when I realized I’d be delayed the first time, that everyone in my grade would be gossiping about it. In my head swirled images of my friends cross-checking with each other the facts of my vacancy, scenes in which casual acquaintances or random strangers whispered and giggled to each other about my unintelligence, craziness, or general inadequacy. I was certain that my peers would actively deem me stupid, lame, a failure. I refused to re-enter my public school in any capacity, for I decided that the moment I sat down in a class with students who’d been a grade below me my entire life, not only would the folks around me assume the worst about me, but they’d be right.
I needed no facts to support my fears, for they weren’t based in any experience I’d had. No one my age had previously accused me of those things. I’d never observed my peers whispering or gossiping about me in that way, nor had I been denigrated by them for possessing any of the aforementioned qualities. However, the intense catastrophizations persisted, for they weren’t based in reality. They were based in my internal fears about myself and what I was afraid a school delay said about my character. The work to be done was not in avoiding my peers or leaving my school; my work was in tackling my core beliefs about my intelligence and the meaning of success.
The best way to assuage catastrophizations is to face the fear head on, for once it is experienced, the likely underwhelming outcome will re-train the anxious brain to be more comfortable facing uncertainty and fear. I obfuscated the explanation of my academic situation to most people, at first. Inevitably, I simply had to explain to administrators, adults, and even friends why I wasn’t in their class. Everyone I explained my situation to was unfailingly either supportive or unflinching. Neither of those reactions were what I expected, and neither affirmed any of my fears about my intelligence or social standing or adequacy. Everyone was caught up in their own worlds; most of my friends were poring over SAT prep books, attending debates and MUN conferences, waking up early or staying out late for sports, or otherwise experiencing their own worries and fears. I was the last thing on their minds, and it was only when I chose to disclose my journey to them that they seemed to spend time considering it. The considering that they did do was empathetic and casual. In general, people are much less worried about your life, your successes and failures, than you think they are. They’re generally most consumed by their own successes and failures, as are you. If I’d allowed myself to understand that all along, I would have saved myself a significant amount of suffering.
2. Academic success is subjective.
Most kinds of success are subjective, but this specific noble truth is one that I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. I was raised on the praise of being the “smart one” or the “academic one,” both comparably as a twin and more broadly as a little member of my community. I was pretty athletic and did passably well socially, but the way I really shone was by getting better grades than everyone else, by reading faster than everyone else, by being the teacher’s pet. I remember emerging from my fifth grade math placement test in inconsolable tears because I was convinced that not having gotten around to the last question within the allotted time would disqualify me from being placed into the highest math track for sixth grade. At age eleven, I had no concept of the valid implications of tracking for college admissions; I thought I would objectively cease to be smart if I didn’t get into the highest track. Not being “a smart kid” would have marked the end of my identity, and external, standardized measures determined my “smart”-ness. I ultimately qualified for the highest math track and have stayed on it ever since, but that memory has stayed with me, too. And I don’t even like math.
Particularly in affluent, homogenous, competitive communities, there is a specific version of academic success that is commonly touted, and it’s tantalizingly simple; the higher/more the better, everywhere, always. Those who take the most AP classes, have the highest GPA, go the most hours without sleeping, win the highest number of academic/class awards, are the successful ones. They’re the “smart” ones. To be fair, there is often correlation between academic success and intelligence. The rigidity, however, of the model of “more is better” leaves painful damage in its exponential wake.
A core belief I had about myself- that I had to be a “smart kid” according to others in order to be of value as a human being- was brutally challenged during my high school career. Though I took four AP classes (already far fewer than I’d ever expected to), I never sat for an AP exam. The special needs school that I attended for my sophomore and junior years only offered a sparse selection of AP and honors classes. Even in those, I would struggle to show up and hand in homework that I could do in my sleep, had I been mentally healthy. The most common phrase uttered to me during high school was “There’s no question that you’re smart enough for these courses, Olivia. It’s the emotional piece that gets you.” My academic potential was always such that I’d be enrolled in the highest level of courses the school allowed for, on principle. I took the most AP’s out of anyone at the school. Despite my presence in the courses and the truth being that I was doing all that I could, I was miserable. My friends in public school were taking six AP classes in a year and getting A’s in them. They were getting to soccer games, debate practices, FBLA conferences and volunteering for dozens of hours on top of it, all while managing to keep it together, so to speak. Instead of being comfortable in the knowledge that I was smart enough to do the same and simply was not emotionally able to, rather than taking comfort in the thought that I was doing the best I could, I saw the fewer AP’s and lower GPA and took that to directly mean that my character was actually lesser than that of my peers.
My model of academic self-doubt is specific to my own internal fears, but it can be felt by a wide range of people who are not at the top of the academic food chain for a wide range of reasons. All kinds of mental illnesses prevent students from peak academic performance. Perhaps a student must work in order to help support their family, or take care of siblings to allow a parent to do so. Perhaps a student is so enamored by and dedicated to an extracurricular activity that academics naturally fall by the wayside. Perhaps science and math are simply not interesting to a student, and AP Calculus BC would bore them to tears. It’s easy to judge a student by how many, how high, how much. It’s easy to assume those who aren’t at the top are lazy, less intelligent, unmotivated, short-sighted. It’s much more difficult, but ultimately fairer and more fruitful, to judge a student in a nuanced, holistic way.
Do they put forth the highest degree of effort that they can? Are they actively participatory in the classroom? Are they kind, cooperative and inclusive among their peers? Do they demonstrate effort to push academic boundaries relative to their own abilities? Do they engage in academia (and the world, more broadly) with eagerness and an open mind? The answers to these questions are much more likely to give you a true picture of the kind of student someone is.
Everyone’s level of achievement within the typical academic model is going to be different, so expand the model! You can’t control how a top college interprets success (though there is a recent, slight shift in this, top colleges generally adhere to a strict “more is better” model), but you can control how you interpret it. If you allow yourself to understand success not only as a nuanced concept that is relative to every individual’s abilities but one that does not reflect definitively on the moral character of a student, you will save your peers, and most importantly yourself, a whole lot of judgement, criticism and suffering. If I ultimately succumbed to my automatic interpretation of fewer AP classes and less expediency being indicative of objective underachievement (and let that underachievement reflect on my character), I’d be a non-functional, self hating mess. At the end of the day, such judgement and suffering are likely to stunt any metric of success, anyway!
3. Time is an illusion!
Sorry, I had to. Low hanging fruit… in what capacity time exists is a debate for another day. Specifically, I mean that some deadlines only serve to induce judgement, as opposed to serving as a metric of the quality of work done. While it’s important that you file your taxes by April 15th and that all of Santa’s presents be in place by wake-up, they are only important because their outcome relies on the deadline. If you don’t file your taxes, you will be fined. If the presents aren’t placed, magic is lost and tears will need to be wiped. The amount of time it takes you to get through school is arbitrary and does not dictate the outcome of the years spent in school. While cliche, the adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination,” (or, as Miley Cyrus most succinctly preached, “it’s the climb”) rings true.
When my brother graduated from preschool and into kindergarten, I remember asking my mother why some of his friends didn’t follow him into his class. Several remained for an extra year of preschool, despite having made it through with seemingly the same level of ease as my brother. My mother explained it to me as the parents of those children had explained it to her; being older in a grade was an advantage, and their kids were among the youngest, so they wanted to hold them back in order to place them at the older end of their group. While at first this came off as a bit shady, it makes sense strategically. Their kids, previously destined to be the smallest and most immature, were now going to be the biggest, strongest, and most developmentally advanced in their grade. This would likely boost their standing in the grade in all kinds of ways, ranging from academic to social comparisons, and even in terms of their own internal confidence. They’d have a needed extra year of schooling to mature and grow, and would be better off for it. It’s a common practice, as it turns out, but it is usually only applied to students at the cusp of new academic stages; namely, kindergarten and the freshman year of college.
The application of this concept- delay for growth and better outcomes- isn’t commonly applied to the in-between years. How often is it that you hear “Oh, Josh? His parents kept him back, he’s still in 7th grade. His birthday was, like, at the end of July.” Usually, if a student stays behind from an in-between year, it’s assumed that they’ll be worse off for it because it was not intentional. If the reason isn’t that they’re entering a private school that requested they repeat, or “red-shirting” for freshman athletic eligibility, taking a gap year, or something similar, the blanks that are filled in are rarely done so generously. Before it happened to me, I assumed that kids who were held back were either troublemakers (disciplinary issues) or less intelligent (failed all classes). Before it happened to me.
Staying back a grade is neither punitive nor the end of the world, and is almost always the best outcome for the student. I stayed back because at the end of my freshman year, I was hospitalized for a range of mental illnesses and remained so for part of the summer. My illnesses persisted past my hospitalization, however, and I wasn’t able to attend more than a month or so of school come the fall of my sophomore year before I was usually unable to get myself through the front door. Come April, it became clear to me that my grade advancement was in danger, and my parents and I scrambled for an explanation of how I could advance, after all. I was told by school administrators that I had two options. I could either cram many hours of academic tutoring in at my local library every day, with teachers I’d never met and work I hadn’t seen for months in order to earn merely passing grades, or I could surrender and repeat the year. If I hadn’t repeated, my sophomore year would look wholly unimpressive and rushed, and little if any education would have been internalized.
My choice to repeat was vehemently reluctant at the time, but I’m grateful to my sixteen year old self for making it. I grew a lot during my repeated sophomore year, a year I completed at a special needs school designed to get me through the door. Given my mental/emotional struggles, I needed an extra year at a time when most of my peers didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t “extra” at all. It’s exactly what I needed to advance from sophomore to junior year. For a football player or a young preschooler, an extra year is exactly what is needed to be able to perform on par with, or better than, their peers. There is no actual logic behind high school being a four year endeavor. Any pressure for it to be so blossoms from a generalized fear of being different, but if that difference is what gets you to the same destination- high school graduation, making the team, comparable maturation, etc- is there all that much difference, after all?