In the midst of AP season for high school students, we find ourselves incredibly anxious, brain-dead, and emotionally distressed. Sitting through four-hour exams, we read passage after passage and circle bubble after bubble. This score, a 1-5 number we receive, is all that counts: It becomes a determining factor in your life after high-school: college. The pressure is beyond excessive—it’s colossal. College indeed becomes so important that our childhood and well-being are compromised. The pressure is so high that students become deprived not only of the joy of learning, but of the joy of life itself.
As a high-performing junior in high school, I experience this constant stress day in and day out. Sadly, I speak for many of my classmates, also high achievers. Many of us start our weekdays before dawn. What feels like an endless day in class, lecture after lecture, with short breaks in between, is followed by piles upon piles of homework, more studying, and test prep. We’ll often go to bed well past midnight, mentally exhausted and physically worn out. As if this wasn’t enough, we often find ourselves having to manage time to fit in athletics and extracurriculars. These after school activities, supposedly our outlets for pleasure and leisure time, have become almost essential components in our college applications, adding more ingredients to a stuffed pressure cooker. It all boils down to checking the most amount of boxes for our college applications.
On weekends, I tend to think constantly about schoolwork and upcoming exams. The lack of sleep combined with sudden moments of “how am I supposed to finish everything by tomorrow…” drains my energy, leaves me unmotivated and yearning for those rare moments of relaxation. But we cannot afford to relax, we must keep going because the stakes are too high. We have been trained like machines to produce or, like slaves to obey the orders of our taskmasters. It often feels as if we are being made into robots. Our brains are being conditioned not to unplug and not to press on the “I need a break” button.
This week, following two grueling four-hour periods of lengthy passage reading and arduous essay writing in my AP exams in United States History and English Language and Composition, I rushed home to prep for my next test in AP European History. I was tired and mentally fried. I knew that my studying would be lousy and ineffective. But, I had little choice. I forced myself to complete one more practice exam. The results were poor, no surprise. And so, I decided to heed my parents’ advice to unplug. I didn’t pick up my history textbook for the next couple of days. “I’m not going to study for this, I’m finished,”—I told myself. I felt like giving up. Well, that wasn’t an option.
We’re told that the high school experience prepares us for college and the “real world.” Really? Is that what the “real world” is about? Is that what life is really about—no stop stress? Without warning, we are thrown into deep waters not quite knowing how to swim. We are supposed to suddenly be self-sufficient and independent. What they don’t get is that we need help and guidance to acquire the skills to navigate through rough waters and to help us deal with the inevitable stressors we face now and later in life. But schools, unfortunately, pay far more importance to academics, high achievement and reputation than to our own happiness and wellbeing. And so, we’re left wondering with “do they actually, really care?”
Many times, we are afraid to ask for help because we are held to an expectation of independence; we are supposed to know everything, to do everything and to be perfect at it. Rather than receiving guidance through this period of growth and maturity, we find ourselves with little backbone to keep us mentally sane. As students, we lean on each other for support but, in high stress situations, we are not trained to respond to our peers’ signals for help. In school, we’re told to get rest, to relax, to destress but, as soon as we turn around, we get assigned more homework and new projects. These words may mean well but, eventually, they start sounding empty and rhetorical.
The pressure comes at us from every angle, sometimes from parents and sometimes from students themselves. Peer-pressure and competition are huge and, as students, we many times feed off of each other’s anxieties. For some, the pressure is so much, that the only way to get the needed higher scores and winning at the college game is to manipulate and cheat. Silently, many students’ voices cry out but are not heard. For some students, the pressure gets to be so much that they decide to pull the plug on life altogether. It’s no surprise that suicide rates among teens are growing at an alarming rate across the country. Unfortunately for our school, we share a part in these statistics. These suicides are real and too close to home.
Something in our system is broken. Schools are only a part of this system. Our society has lost perspective of what it is to be human and what is important in life. We are dragged mindlessly into a fast-moving current that we cannot swim against. We’ve become obsessed with scores, ambition, money and power. For this, we pay a heavy price with our wellbeing. It’s just not worth it.
This brings me to next week. I was in disbelief when I found out that right during AP exam period we are being asked to participate in a weeklong state-mandated test for high school juniors. With my stress levels at peak levels, I started panicking. I started thinking about how I would manage this and six more exams next week, among my other projects and school work. Fortunately, a friend from a different school mentioned to me that I could opt-out without any consequences. Wow. I felt relieved and, the next day, went into the school’s office to put in my request.
During third period, I was called out into the assistant principal’s office. As I waited patiently, I decided to take a quick trip to the restroom. I entered one of the small stalls and suddenly took a step back. There, on the walls, I saw comments that read “I’m not worth it,” and “I want to die.” I was in shock. Quickly, I ran back to the office to report my findings. Wasting no time, the assistant principal and I went back to the restroom. Having seen what I discovered in the small stalls, she opened the door to the large stall—and my jaw dropped.
Maybe fifty or so similar comments in many handwritings filled the metal rod that connected the wall to the door. Some comments such as “CCA is shit” expressed dislike for the school. Not very respectful, but people are entitled to their opinions. But other comments, like “if I jumped off a bridge, nobody would give a f*ck” were really alarming. The assistant principal and I were in utter disbelief. She said she would quickly order a janitor to clean it up right away. For a minute, that sounded right. But then, I began thinking. Was cleaning up the walls silencing the voices of students that cried out in despair? Was this it? Would the school investigate who might have been responsible? Would they hold an assembly? So far, I haven’t heard but I really hope it’s taken seriously. For the next couple of hours, my stomach was in knots and I could not stop thinking about the experience for the rest of the day. My mind replayed images of the comments over and over as I thought of those students looking for an outlet to their suffering.
The assistant principal finally called me in to her office to ask about my decision to opt-out of the state mandated tests. I explained that I simply was not able to fit more into my already packed test and study schedule and add to my stress. She expressed empathy for my situation but explained that state exam scores did not go on a college transcript, are beneficial to the school community, and are scheduled in a way that is “not stressful.” Unfortunately, I could not be persuaded. I had made my decision.
We all have different time commitments and each student’s situation is different. But, if like me, you are stressed and overwhelmed please know that you have option to opt-out of CASSP testing.