It’s time to join the race

May 23, 2018 — by Mathew Luo

One autumn day in seventh grade, I was sitting on my bed crying. For the past hour, my mom had been berating me.

For most of that hour, I sat on my bed with my head down, blinking away tears that would come every so often after a particularly nasty comment from my mother. She drove herself into a half hysteria telling me how much she worried about my future.

That night, I went to sleep early and did my homework more diligently than I had done in years. My hands and feet felt cold, but my chest felt colder. It seemed as if blood was flowing out of my head, making me faint and dizzy. There was a terrible, irrational anxiety squeezing my chest.

Two weeks later, I started attending extracurricular math classes to make up for my “wasted” years. I resumed DACA swimming practices. I did all my homework the day it was assigned, and I even stopped playing video games after school.

I was working at everything with a maniacal frenzy.

Upon seeing my improvement, my mom told me how lucky I was to be whipped into shape. I didn’t feel very lucky.

My inspiration didn’t continue. I fell back into my old routine of procrastination in a single month. Three months later, I failed to pass the American Math Competition (AMC) 10. Six months later, I quit a speech and debate class after spending five months learning nothing.

All the while I was never happy. I resented my mom pushing me for the sake of getting into a “good college” and having a “good future.”

I found justification for my struggle in the words of my teachers and counselors. They continually espoused the need for students to follow their passions and seemed to implicitly suggest it was important to value personal happiness above academic achievement.

Still, I wasn’t happy when I was flouting my duties. I felt a burning hollowness as the result of doing less than I was capable of.
Internally, I rejected the high-pressure academic culture, even though I knew I wasn’t happier doing so. All I knew was that my contempt toward those grasping for achievements to put on their college resume was well justified.

Weighted with this mindset, I spent my eighth and ninth grade years dull, sullen and unhappy.

At times, my mom showed a lot of empathy for my struggle. She would console me, paint me a picture of a bright future and tell me about her own hardships growing up in poverty in rural China and about her own youthful dreams.

She would tell me about her desire to be the first person in her extended family to get into college, which she said came to her in a rush of amazement and desire one day on her two-mile walk to school in third grade.

She would tell me about her pride at graduating at the top of her class in high school and securing a place in Nanjing College, which ranked eighth among all Chinese colleges.

As for me, I didn’t have a dream of my own.

Other times, she would grow angry at my lack of initiative.

She meant that I wasn’t succeeding at academic Olympiads, that I wasn’t looking hard enough for summer programs and that I wasn’t finding unconventional ways to get a leg up on my peers.

She meant that I wasn’t running hard enough in the rat race to college.

Her lectures were often barely an hour long, but they were always enough to instill a sense of urgency and anxiety in me. Every time, that same cold feeling would return.

In seventh grade, I was the one crying after these rants, but by eighth and ninth grade, I only sat sullenly as my mom spoke. Instead of me, my mom would usually start weeping halfway through.

I developed deep, stupid misconceptions. Rather than seek differentiation among my peers, I sought superiority over them. I rejected my mom’s expectations, yet I simultaneously wished for a way to express that I was better than others.

My attempts at superiority through academic endeavors miserably failed. I failed to pass AMC 10 four years in a row, dropped out of speech and debate, quit USA Computing Olympiad after a brief flirtation with it and struggled through a year of extracurricular AP physics.

Finally, I found a sort of solace in spiritual superiority. With my delusions of grandeur shattered, I resorted to thinking myself better than others because I had transcended the need to succeed, that I had broken myself out of the struggle of the rat race.

But my mother’s message finally clicked one day recently, after I failed to qualify for the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME), failed to get accepted into any summer programs and finally felt the weight of finals and looming APs pushing down on me.

College applications have become startlingly close and my vague fears of the future have crystallized into a realization.

I have to work harder. I have to run faster.

Now, I see my contention and dissent, and it all seems shallow.

For many years, I shirked the duties my mom placed upon me. I slogged through my extracurriculars. I did the minimum I thought I could get away with, and often, even less than that.

I had thought my excuse of “doing what I loved” was a mature justification for my attitudes toward the standard Asian educational dogma. But there was nothing I actually loved. I was lying to myself. I was wasting my time.

By acting glum and gloomy, I was making a fool of myself at home and at school. I was living a life of angst and unhappiness. By refusing to work hard, I had achieved so much less than many of my peers.

My mother had been right all along. The college rat race is evil, but it is necessary to participate in it. My contemptuous refusal to compete only dragged me down.

It is the best way forward. I am not sacrificing my happiness, for I had never previously found it.

It’s time to start running.

 

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