I should be delirious with happiness. Ecstatic, rapturous, elated, overjoyed. Thrilled, at the very least. Summer is before me, with her promise of evenings out and mornings in, ice-cream and the beach boardwalk, re-runs of my favorite sitcoms, holidaying in my native Kerala, and partying on the weekends. Time to waste, to relax, to soak in the sun. No homework, no tension, no stress. Freedom. Liberation from the monotony of everyday routine life. I ought to be euphoric.
But such joy has no home in me. For I am to be but a junior in high school, and any freedom, relaxation, or indulgence will be short-lived and misleading. The soothing light of summer at the end of the tunnel is, as Metallica’s James Hetfield sings (albeit in a different context), nothing but a “freight train coming my way.” I am walking head-on into SATs and APs and exams and applications and college, oh college.
Toward this year’s graduates I harbor sentiments of congratulations and profound jealousy. I am admiring and envious in the same breath. Prematurely struck with sophomoritis during the second semester of this past year, I’ve begun to wonder if I will ever make it. If my motivation will hold, my drive remain firm, my resolve unwavering. Can I get through two more years of high school? I dare not answer my own question.
This year, for the first time, I’ve been involved with seniors in high school and had the opportunity to live vicariously through their respective college application processes. Such a nightmare is incomprehensible if you haven’t lived through it yourself, but I am an incredibly involved observer. The deadlines, the waiting, the agonizing, those dreadful rejection letters that try to account for their brutality with hollow praise and empty words of reassurance. The phone calls, the e-mails, and the ceaseless questioning by parents, friends, Aunties and Uncles. Most days it seems as if the communal mindset has come to focus on your personal college related pursuits; everybody and his mother is discussing your failures, achievements, and SAT scores with no intention of digressing. It is altogether terrifying.
And all the while I’ve been asking myself, “Is this what I am working toward?” The answer comes to me in two imprecise forms. The indignant “No” is inevitably followed by a second question: “Then what?” And the hesitant “Yes” leaves me incredulous, shocked by my self-abnegating, formulaic pursuits. What on earth am I doing, staying up to study and researching undergraduate programs when I should get eight hours of sleep a night and enjoy my youth while burning CDs and watching Friends? Doubtless my peers share this conflict of interests.
We all strive to enter the prestigious universities, dubbed by some as “collective psyche” schools, recognized by all as the ideal places to be. We abandon many of our interests and aspirations in favor of society’s readymade goals and pursuits. Many of us neglect to enroll in the stimulating subject of choice, be it journalism or environmental science or video production or women’s issues, solely because the course in question lacks an “Honors” or “AP” heading. Others take on leadership positions or community service roles with the singular objective of expanding their resume. We base our decisions on how they will affect our GPA, miss concerts and plays and parties in favor of reviewing SAT vocabulary. Discussions are centered on university rankings. Collegesearch.com is book-marked on every student’s home PC. Spring break is relinquished to college tours, and summers are spent taking advanced linear algebra courses or the Princeton Review.
Which doesn’t go to say that all students are affected by the “live for college” syndrome, or that those who are affected feel negatively about it. Far too often we talk of parents pushing their children and denying them a childhood; the Indian community is especially notorious. What we fail to mention is that we, the students, do the majority of the pushing. With the rare exception, we pressure ourselves, setting standards of perfection and working without outside force to reach our goals.
This is the reality I cannot come to terms with. I have, of my own will, set myself on this university-obsessed path of academic tensions and strain. Funny, I’d always imagined such masochism beyond my capability. But here I am, floundering, dreading my junior year of high school as one can only dread a TB shot or an enema. My summer has become a season of resignation, of waiting, an interim between the frying pan and the fire. Webster my very best friend. Coffee my only solace.
Now comes the contradiction. I wouldn’t choose an alternate path if I had to start over from grade school. Yes, the tensions on the path to college do outweigh the immediate enjoyment, the homework outdoes the parties, the deadlines outnumber dates and so on. The unbelievable gratification that follows graduation, however, will be immeasurable. For there is an aspect to high school and the college application process that I have neglected to mention. The satisfaction of earning the grade you desire after working all month on your semester paper. The pleasant tingling sensation of impressing an interviewer or teacher. And finally what I can only imagine: the heart stopping sensation of finding a large envelope in the mail, addressed to you by a university of your choosing, the culmination of years of sweat and study and little sleep.
And so I trudge on. Complaining and cribbing all the while, speaking only of how I ought to be relaxing, and mentioning often those despicable rejection letters. But remembering, all the while, the satisfaction of this year’s high school seniors upon their graduation. I only hope now that I may follow in the footsteps of my predecessors and conclude high school with my sanity intact. That I may persevere and persist and arrive at a happy ending.
Graduates, I, in all my sophomoric envy and apprehension, salute your achievements and celebrate your triumph. You have surmounted the obstacles I am faced with today, braved the college application process, and lived to tell about it. Your success gives me hope for my tomorrow.
I’ll save euphoria for when I truly deserve it. The beach boardwalk can wait.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, 16, is a lover of school and an aspiring essayist.