I knew exactly what it took to get into college – it was to press a newly-bloomed flower between the pages of a notebook. To fade the colours into bland theses you made up for Cambridge. To align the sweeping petals with the compact paragraphs of a 650-word personal statement.
I knew exactly what it took.
I grew up on a diet of A*s, certificates and report cards more flowery than my teenage prose. The hushed envy I attracted sated me, as did the silent applause I always seemed to hear. It was a drug. And like all drugs, it left me in shreds, wondering when I had sold my ‘self’ to a comprehensive SAT guide.
After I read William Deresiewicz’s essay Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, I felt a kind of slow-sinking sadness. His arguments on the ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset of elite students made my mind shake. And I found myself grieving for the girl I have been through my high school years – fed on plastic pills of false success and perfection.
I was the definition of an ‘excellent sheep’. My academic record was a smooth sheet of silk, free from the snags of failure or risk. I read large books and used large words but did not understand their beauty or power. I practised flute and piano to earn cream-coloured certificates; you couldn’t have heard a more soulless Beethoven. In fact, every art form I indulged in, from ballet to music to literature, was simply an act of exploitation, milking my talents for hollow prestige. Eventually, I reached a point where all the art I made was technically flawless, but lacked the gossamer warmth of spirit. Each pirouette, each trill, each pretty metaphor, was just a plea – a silent bid for self-worth, collected from the claps and compliments of everyone but the one who mattered most: me.
It’s dangerous for self-esteem to hinge on the top position. Top of the class, top of the list, top of the school. In his essay, Deresiewicz mentions how this aggressive ‘grandiosity’ can impact a student’s mental health. The panic of meeting a deadline means stress. But that stress becomes toxic when it’s having to meet a deadline with a perfect product. Eventually, you feel like a soldier facing an endless barrage of assignments, each needing to be executed with the precision of a surgeon. There is no time to daydream or delight. There is no time to enjoy just breathing for a moment. The pressure of moulding yourself into an admission-ready template grows more rigid and relentless with your rising ambition. And stress morphs into a silent, colder kind of monster – depression.
They say knowledge is power, and education is the way to attain it. But it seems that education itself has turned into a frenzied race for only power, not knowledge. A significant point that Deresiewicz makes is the crazed desire for an Ivy League education. For many students, it’s ‘Harvard or the gutter’. Because being an ‘exceptional’ student comes with the invisible yoke of moon-high expectations – get perfect grades, flourish in your extracurriculars and attend the likes of Ivy Leagues or Oxbridge. A neat line of arrows pointing to imminent prosperity. The problem is that most students will scramble to an Ivy just to gain a status symbol, a flashy brand name to drop casually in conversations – “Yes, I go to Harvard“. I see very few students really thinking about how Harvard, or whatever college they apply to, will stretch their perspectives and awaken thoughts, ideas and innovations they never knew they could have. How will their place of study challenge and nurture the kind of creativity and projects they are specifically interested in?
It seems that picking a university has turned into a kind of classism. When I told people I would be attending New York University Abu Dhabi, many thought I was being ‘brave’ and ‘unconventional’. But I didn’t understand it. The fact that I had not selected a university based on its name, but on how its values and atmosphere would catalyse my aspirations, was somehow deemed ‘weird’. When did it become radical to choose a university that caters specifically to you rather than society’s applause?
In the rat race our educational systems have become, students are addicted to the destination of their studies, rather than the journey. So many of us feel adrift on a wave of textbooks and graphs, unsure where on the page our heart even flutters. Is it in a maths equation? Is it in the caesura of a poem? In the quest for gold stars, people forget to ponder and wonder. So they settle for safe, salary-guaranteed career paths because they’ve had no time or space to explore who they are and what hobbies and pursuits kindle their hearts.
Ever since I began to write poetry, I have started seeing people as moving, breathing verses. They teem with unspoken meanings, a multitude of desires, burdens and feelings flowing beneath their skin. We are all poems, and life is a journey in which we learn and try to understand the stanzas of our ‘selves’.
But I have no idea what kind of poem I am yet. It was never on my syllabus.