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By Jordan Prochnow
This semester’s mental breakdown is upon me. The other patrons on my Regional Transportation District bus look at me briefly, my shaking hands and smeared makeup probably evident. Even the service dog next to me, blurry due to my migraine and tears, doesn’t make me feel better. I’ve had to cancel my last two shifts at work because of the amount of stress that I can’t handle. I now understand why people develop serious substance abuse problems.
You’d think this emotion would be due to some life-changing, significant event. It’s not. I’m “just” a high school junior.
Let me walk you through a typical, second semester week in my life. I refresh my browser constantly, waiting for my ACT scores. When they come, I’m angry and upset with myself for several hours, sometimes days. I call myself stupid and wonder why I’m not good enough. I’m reassured of my intelligence and “good” test scores by my teachers and friends, and I manage to feel better after several days. Then the next set of scores come in, and I’m destroyed once again. On top of that, I have school from 7:30-2:00 every day, I’m trying to get my license, and I work four and a half hours a week. I visit a college counselor once a week, I eat dinner with my family, and the rest is dedicated to homework or test preparation. Sound fun?
I’m constantly dodging the same questions from adults around me. What schools are you looking at? What do you want to study? How did your ACTs go? When are finals? I’m never asked How are you really doing? When are you hanging out with friends? How is your social life? The only thing that matters when you’re in high school is the numbers you earn on tests.
I’ve had pretty much straight As my entire life. I become consumed with fixing grades if I don’t. No matter how much I declare “I don’t care about it anymore, I’m done with school,” I know that I’ll be turning all of the homework in that week. I’ve never skipped class. My grade book has no “missings,” no late or unfinished work—but this all comes at the price of my mental health.
I’m very fortunate to be able to attend school every day and to live in a country that prioritizes education. I shouldn’t be complaining. But at what point does education become too much? At what point do we realize that our lives revolve around school?
I was asked on a student form recently, “Is your life balanced between home and school?” Colleges want well-rounded individuals, you know, so this is clearly important. My answer is no. No, my life is not balanced. I strain to listen to my younger brother’s stories, because I’m trying to remember my odds of getting into certain schools. I have to miss soccer games because I am studying. I once turned down my friend’s birthday party because I was too worn out from a test I had just taken. My life, sadly, revolves around school.
It’d be easy to say I’m overreacting. Hell, I probably am. But if you think about it, so many kids feel the exact same way. There’s so much pressure on kids, and not only relating to their education. There’s the pressure to fit in, the need to feel confident in one’s appearance, and the ability to talk to peers. Schools require community service hours, earned outside of school, and we are expected to do volunteer work, extracurriculars, and other activities to make us stand out on college applications. How are we supposed to accomplish these things when I can’t even get a B on a test without feeling guilty?
An episode of the show Modern Family discusses the amount of homework that students get from difficult classes. Claire, the matriarch of the titular family wonders why her daughter can’t enjoy her sixteenth birthday, saying that she puts too much pressure on herself. Once Claire attends back-to-school night, she realizes the amount of homework, standardized tests, and study time is the reason for her child’s mental deterioration. She remarks that she doesn’t understand how she handles all of it and her daughter essentially collapses into her arms, finally feeling understood.
This feeling is all too familiar. I feel overshadowed and overwhelmed when family members offer up their own ACT and SAT scores. I will be taking the ACT for the third time, as well as needing to take three SAT subject tests. My ACT scores were certainly above average, nearing the 95th percentile, but it’s never good enough. I feel inferior when a classmate gets a “34” instead of heralding them. I feel crushed under the pressure of this year.
I wish that I didn’t place so much pressure on myself. I wish that numbers on a scantron didn’t represent the possibilities of receiving college acceptances or not. I wish that I could feel at ease with the stresses that are places on people my age. But when anxiety levels of teens are harming our mental health, how can we stay calm?
I ask myself “Will this matter in one month? In one year? In five years?” but unfortunately, this stuff is important. Colleges look at grades, so you can’t slip up. ACT and SAT scores are huge factors in determining the school you go to. Choosing a school is enough of a decision by itself. All of these things make it hard to breathe.
I don’t have advice for how to handle the pressure of being seventeen. I wish I did. I just hope that in the end, it’s worth it. I hope that adults will realize the amount of strain that we can take before we eventually crack. Someday soon, I just hope that test scores won’t define me. One day I hope I’ll be seen as the living, breathing person that I am.
Jordan Prochnow is a young writer living in Denver, Colorado. After high school, she plans on studying engineering or creative writing to make a positive difference in the world. Jordan loves dogs, pretzels, crime shows, and Target.