I spent the first year of high school, like many others in this area, comparing myself to the people around me. I’d ask people for their test scores and spend hours seething with envy over little victories I saw people achieving. In retrospect, I realize that it was easier for me to base my own self-worth on a numerical system: if my friend got a 95 percent and I got a 92 percent, then she was three points higher than me. Concepts like kindness or honesty or courage were a little less concrete and so more difficult to use as the foundation for a fifteen-year old’s identity.
After a while, this system started to fall apart. I took a class in tenth grade and failed almost every test. I would study frantically, only to get 60 percent if I was lucky, and 30 percent if I was not. That would have made me 25 points worse off than the person next to me even on a good day. Eventually I realized that my worldview wasn’t sustainable, at least if I wanted to graduate with some sort of sanity, and I opened my eyes. I looked at my classmates for the first time and tried to remember something about them that didn’t have to do with their grades or SAT scores.
I couldn’t. Some of these people had been in my classes since the first grade, and I couldn’t remember a single thing about them beyond a subject or two that they’dexcelled at, or a test they had done poorly on. Sure I might know a few of my friends, but most of my relationships with people were firmly based on school— teachers, subjects, scores and homework. Fluid and fragile, these relationships were liable to break at the slightest amount of pressure applied.
So I decided to ask them, about anything other than school. I spent the next three years talking about the art they drew, their favorite authors, issues revolving around social justice and a recipe for a mug cake they’d made three nights ago. I asked about their first relationships, their dreams, and whether they really did want to be a doctor and do dissections which I found disgusting. (Apparently, the answer was yes from more than a few.) My classmates told me about their internships, the last movie they watched, their parents and who their favorite Bollywood actor was.
It seems simple, but the truth about growing up in a desi-dominated suburb like Cupertino is that we’re all raised to see each other as nothing more than the sum of our academic careers—all of us defined by the same metric of test scores, college lists and weighted GPAs.
The pressure we talk about, the weight that sends kids into spirals of depression and anxiety is a function of trying to fit a mold too small to contain our own excesses.
I know that changing culture is hard, and that is what our state of academic one-upmanship has become—a culture. Simply identifying that we’re over-stressed and under-confident doesn’t help us find a solution, unless we start doing things differently than what we’re doing right now.
If the problem is that we don’t know each other, then the easiest thing to do is to start asking the right questions. Let’s take all those conversations we have at desi parties, we can all identify with the scenario which plays out something like this: the smile, the inquiry into general well being and then finally the inquisition. The merits of the ACT vs the SAT are debated rigorously, the optimum number and minimum score of SAT 2s pondered over an appetizer and soft drink. College lists are compared, adjusted for number of schools, along with acceptance rate and the difficulty of gaining admission to a prospective major.
Each of these conversations reduce a student to nothing more than their occupation, makes them feel like their academic ability is the only metric that matters. When this ability is the only thing everyone wants to know about, it makes you believe that your test taking skill is the only thing that makes you a person that people want to know. Theoretically, we all know that every person is more than the college they will attend, but it’s hard to grasp that concept when your prospects are the only topic on the table.
Personally, I took the ACT and three SAT 2s. I didn’t apply to any of the top 20 schools.
None of this is as important to me as Captain America, Hindu mythology, or the last thing Donald Trump did. The issue
isn’t that we can’t have conversations about school, but when conversations about academics dominate the conversation that’s a problem. Academics are a part of every kid’s life, but so are sports teams and music, movies, books, as well as the plans made with friends last weekend. Someone’s college list or test scores don’t tell us about the muffins they baked for a birthday party, nor do they show us the comic strips they read as a child.
I asked my friends about what they wished someone could have asked them, and mostly, they said that they wanted to talk about their passions. They wanted to talk about the movie Legally Blonde. The future of journalism. Varun Dhawan, the actor. The 2016 presidential election. The TV show The Flash. The San Francisco Giants. Harry Potter. Someone wanted to talk about their cat. Another wanted to talk about how it felt to fall in love for the first time. Food, favorite teachers, books, fictional characters, current affairs.
“Anything,” they all said “anything but college.”
When I graduated, I took with me a collection of facts about the people I had known, little inconsequential things like the way one friend doodled eyes in the margins of notebook paper, and how another loved mixed martial arts. A friend of mine looked at colleges based on their dance teams, while another decorated her bedroom walls with old birthday cards. I had friends who made their own trail mix, friends who were nationally ranked fencers, and friends who loved to wear tie dyed pants. One friend wrote her college essay about Rajnikanth, while another insisted in sitting in the exact same center row in a darkened movie theater. None of these interests were even vaguely similar, and so I was able to know each person as themselves—whole and complete on their own.
So now that school has begun I’d like to ask a favor. The next time you meet a high school student, ask them about the movies they last watched, or the things they wish they could bake. Because I promise, there’s absolutely nothing you could learn from their test scores that you couldn’t figure out talking about literally anything else.
Maya Murthy is a first year student at the University of Toronto who loves pop music, easy to follow muffin recipes and stories about heroes. She tries to follow politics despite her better instincts, and inevitably ends up watching romantic comedies when things look too bleak.
This article was first published in October 2016.