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The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

The Saratoga Falcon

From middle school to high school: learning how to like myself

Editors' note: Due to some of the feedback received from the Harker community, this story has been reposted on the site, and we have chosen to remove a sentence regarding a student’s suicide, as well as made minor alterations. We apologize for any hurt that the reference has caused. The story is intended to portray one student’s experience at the school and nothing more.
   -Megana Iyer and Amy Lin, third-period Falcon editors

Most people see middle school as a time for growth and exploration. It’s supposed to be an opportunity to seek out new passions and a bridge between the lightheartedness of elementary school and pre-college nature of high school. Middle school is supposed to be a good thing.

For me, it was anything but.

I entered The Harker School at the precocious age of 11 as one of the only transfers from Saratoga Elementary. I didn’t have friends, lacked confidence and soon realized that I wasn’t ready for the level of commitment the school demanded.

The first two conditions weren’t the biggest problems; I managed to attract a small group of friends fairly quickly and, as I became more familiar with the school, I began to feel slightly more comfortable. But mainly what I gained was something that I would never wish upon anyone: a sense of inferiority.

I was at a lower math level than my classmates at Harker, and my general knowledge lacked in comparison to theirs. While most of my classmates started in pre-algebra in sixth grade, I started at the level directly below that. At Redwood Middle School, that isn’t a big deal. At Harker, it was like wearing a scarlet letter. The environment never let me forget that I was not as good as everyone else.

The kids at Harker generally strive to be on top, no matter what the cost. The normal lunchtime conversation, instead of being about things like TV shows and gossip, centers on comparing and bragging about test scores.

Keeping scores private is a seemingly unheard of concept, as much of the satisfaction from good grades comes from the proof that the grade was better than someone else’s.

I hated competition, and it caused me a lot of embarrassment. I remember getting a B on a test in my Spanish class and having the teacher overtly call me out on it. Even worse, though, were the snickers behind me from all the kids who had aced it. This wasn’t a rare occurrence; it was embedded into the culture.

Most know that Harker is extremely rigorous, ranked as the third best school in California in one ranking, but few realize that excessive competition and high standards take a toll on those who aren’t at the top of the class.

In retrospect, these feelings were somewhat ridiculous, since the only class that I was truly behind in was math, and even then I was taking a class that was normal sixth-grade math.

Still, when you’re in a group of highly motivated, competitive kids who function at ridiculously high levels, even the slightest feeling of inferiority can be blown up. The thing about Harker is that every single student first has to pass rigorous entrance tests and interviews, guaranteeing admission only to the top students: ones who have ranked nationally in math or won incredible academic awards. I had somehow managed to scrape by with a passing grade on the exams.

I pushed myself constantly. I was hard on myself, and I got straight A’s, but I never got happier. That pit in the bottom of my stomach that told me that I would never be good enough, smart enough or motivated enough, pulled at me constantly. Even though I had clawed my way up to the same level as my peers, even though I was doing well in my classes, it was never enough. I always needed more, to be better, to work harder.

I had convinced myself that I was never going to be equal to my peers, and through that lost any shred of self-confidence that I had.

As alone as I felt during those years, I’ve come to realize that what I went through truly wasn’t that rare.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, one of the leading causes of childhood depression is academic pressure or trouble at school, especially in private schools. Furthermore, the children of affluent, well-educated parents suffer from anxiety, depression or somatic symptoms twice as often, according to Psychology Today. This is because the social standards for these kids are set so high and the definition of success and failure is polarized to reflect this skewed world view. Essentially, they end up thinking they have to be the very best or they’re failures.

I never told my parents about my issues at Harker, although they seemed to deduce some of my unhappiness. I was scared that if I did, it would just give me another reason to feel weak and for others to look down on me. I didn’t think that I could handle pity from anyone else, let alone my own family. I concealed my unhappiness for three years and put on a smiling facade that nobody ever seemed to see through. I stopped taking interest in the things that I used to love and I stopped wanting be happy.

Throughout my personal hell, I held on to one beacon of hope: After I got through middle school, I was going to leave. I knew from the second semester of sixth grade. I was going to a new school with a fresh start. I was going to Saratoga High.

My parents and siblings tried to change my mind. While they offered a wide berth of high schools for me to choose and promised to support my decision, they truly believed that I would be happier at Harker. They made extensive lists of the benefits of going to Harker, citing the world-class facilities and the lauded teaching staff. They believed that I would have more opportunities if I stayed at such a renowned school. They researched after school activities and urged me to invite friends over in the hopes that I would miraculously change my mind and want to stay. I never did.

I came up with fake reasons to leave, telling my parents that I wanted to experience a less sheltered environment, and talking about how the decrease in competition would help to let my academic achievements shine. In truth, I just had to get away from the ridiculous competition and the excessive focus on academics. I needed distance from an environment that had become toxic for me.

Many people stop me when I mention this to them today and remind me that Saratoga is also known for its competition. To that, I reply that compared to Harker, Saratoga’s competition is almost nonexistent.

In Saratoga, students can be defined by anything, whether it be athletics, music, theater or a multitude of other activities. At Harker, academics is the sole factor that defines you.

The separation from such intense competition and the transition into an environment in which academics were not the be all end all factor were some of the reasons why I fell in love with Saratoga.

After just a few months here, I finally stopped stressing to the point of making myself physically ill. A few more and I was able to stop freaking out over my grades (to a certain degree). Before, I would beat myself up for weeks over even an A minus, but now I no longer see myself as purely defined by my grades. By the end of the year, I had begun to enjoy school. Best of all, I began to like myself again.

And so, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that how you perceive yourself is much more important than how anyone else perceives you.

I no longer have to hide behind a happy facade, because I truly am happy now. I don’t have to lie to my parents, because I have nothing to lie about. I’m proud of myself, and that's more of a reward than being at the top rung of an elite private school could ever be.

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