Editor’s Note: The author has requested to use only her first name to speak candidly on the stressors of being a student in a high-pressure environment without professional ramifications.
I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York City. Stuyvesant was a part of the eight “specialized high schools” run by the NYC Department of Education that “supports the educational needs of students who excel academically and/or artistically.” To be admitted, students needed to score well on an exam called the SHSAT (Specialized High School Admissions Test). Stuyvesant stood at the top of the nine schools, and my experience there unfortunately both met and exceeded its grandeur and intimidating image.
The picture I am about to paint in your mind may seem like fiction, but all I can say is that I wish it was: Most students wake up at 6 in the morning to make a one-hour commute to school, they sleep about four hours a night, they have about eight to nine academic classes scheduled per day, of which about four to five of them are Advanced Placement or honors classes. When school ends at 4 in the afternoon, most students have around one to two hours of extracurricular activities (which colleges love), then they get home around 6 or 7 to work on their mountain load of homework until 2 a.m. Yet, even the seven to eight hours of studying students do a night is not enough time to finish all the work assigned to them.
Of course, students did have the option to take fewer classes and not participate in extracurricular activities, but it simply was not a choice for many. The peer pressure and cut-throat environment of my high school severely limited students’ autonomy over their decisions.
You could only imagine the mental and physical toll this would have on the students. Mental health was a big issue at Stuyvesant. A year didn’t go by without hearing about a suicide attempt or students suffering from depression or anxiety.
Being in this kind of environment fostered a perpetual restlessness inside of me. There was always something that needed to be done. It didn’t matter the month, week, day or hour.
This feeling of being chased by deadlines didn’t go away even during breaks or the summer months. There was always summer homework and the need to prepare for the next big thing —the SAT, SAT subject tests, next year’s curriculum and college essays. I don’t remember if there was ever a moment when I felt like I didn’t have something I had to do.
I became used to this kind of constant pressure and developed a persistent need to keep myself occupied. This is why I wrote notes from my biology textbook on train rides to and from church, why I brought my design homework to volunteering events, why I laminated my chemistry notes and studied them in the shower, why I read on my bus rides to school, why I read from small sheets of paper on my bike rides to school and why I studied while walking to class.
Sustaining this lifestyle of constantly doing something developed into my need for constant stimulation. If I didn’t feel stimulated by anything, I felt like I was wasting time. Whenever I was in the shower, doing the laundry or washing the dishes, I felt the need to at least turn on a YouTube video or listen to music.
Being a child of immigrant parents and coming from an Asian family with high expectations also heavily influenced this type of behavior. My mother always compared me to other students and insisted that I must keep working no matter what. She was quite emphatic of this to the point that whenever I slept, I would be terrified of my mother catching me in the act, because she always yelled at me when I was unconscious.
Everything changed when I entered the University of Michigan as a freshman. The main difference was that I began to have so much free time. At first I embraced this change; after all, who doesn’t like a break? During my free time, I started to work on my unfinished novel from middle school, read books and spent time watching videos. But, eventually my pervasive habits from high school began creeping back into my life.
I started feeling restless again. I was conditioned to stress, so I wasn’t comfortable with any other state of mind. I was anxious whenever I didn’t have something to do in the upcoming hour. I felt guilty if I took an hour of break at the end of the day. I never did anything unless it had a purpose. And you may find this the craziest of all: Whenever I walked into a bathroom stall, I found it necessary to console myself that I wasn’t wasting time.
When I stopped to reflect on why I would not let myself fully adopt the more relaxed lifestyle I had indulged in at the beginning of my freshman year, I arrived at three answers.
First, I feel like I am in a race — one that will not end until I die. Let me clarify: In this race, I feel like I am being tested as a human being. If I do not build up perseverance and a tolerance to stressful events now, I believe in 20 years I will feel inadequate as a human being. Of course, the ability to handle stressful events is not the only measure of human competence, but it is the one I find myself emphasizing the most.
Second, it was simply difficult to get rid of old habits. I kept telling myself, “Life won’t always be as easy as it is now.” I won’t always have a few hours to spare and relax every day. I won’t always have the opportunity to sleep eight hours a day. I won’t always be blessed with a light workload. Hence, by indulging myself right now and not toughening myself up, I would become unprepared for life’s misery in the future, thus dooming myself to failure. These grim thoughts about the future, led me back to my first point: Stuyvesant taught me that what I experienced during high school would be what the “adult world” was going to be like. I couldn’t expect anything but a stressful future, because that was the only thing that life had given me in the past. And who can blame me? If the only thing that life teaches you is suffering, how can you hope for anything else?
I watched a TV show a couple years ago about a protagonist who suffered from child abuse and developed schizophrenia as a result. The protagonist compared himself to a camel. He explained how owners of camels tie the animals to desert trees during the night. The next morning, even when the owners untie their camels, they don’t run away. The camels remember their imprisonment to the tree the night before, so they remain “trapped” there the next morning — just like how we remember our past wounds. The pain manifests into a trauma and our past keeps us forever chained and imprisoned.