An abrupt farewell

Blogging is weird- once you get past the trial period of a few weeks and keep posting, it seems like you’ve signed a lifelong contract to keep going. When I want to stop, it feels like I’m actively choosing to break a promise to anyone who reads.

But I want to start writing things that aren’t blog posts. I didn’t have to do much writing for my high school classes, so this blog made up most of what I produced. I’ve wanted to write articles for other sites, perhaps join a student newspaper, or delve into more academic writing, but I’ve always known at the back of my head that I couldn’t do that alongside blogging. Blogging gives you a fierce sense of ownership over your work, and I didn’t want to have one more obligation when I ended college.

Lately, most of my posts have evoked a feeling of uncertainty, of confusion, and I’ve been constantly trying to make sense of it before college. The “For another day” section in my OneNote folder keeps growing. A few weeks ago, I finished a longer post and realized that “Hey, this piece could be a lot better if I waited a year and had more perspective. Heck, it’d be even better if I waited 10 years.” There’s a reason why people wait until the end of their lives to put together memoirs. Maybe it’s better for me to keep my emotions a bit more raw and private– maybe I won’t really figure out the consequences of my actions until later. My first semester of college might be better captured in random bursts of emotion, better for capturing anecdotes to use later. If I’m spending so much time in college reflecting, does that mean I’m not spending enough time living? If I were to keep up this blog, I’d constantly be haunted with the idea that I could be posting more.

I’m glad that I got to write so openly to the internet away from the pressure for “likes” on social media- finally after 4 years, I’ve become comfortable with publicly writing. And in many ways, this is disappointing. I wanted to keep this blog up until I got out of college. I dreamed of reaching 1,000 posts, 10,000 followers, 100,000 views. I wanted to be famous. But as of now, I’m still at a couple hundred posts (234 to be exact), a couple hundred followers, and a couple thousand views.

For now, I’ll be keeping posts up. I see a lot of bloggers making their blogs private, but I feel like a high school freshman version of me would have loved a blog like this, even (and maybe especially if) it were years old.  And so it stays.

My only hope is that when I look back upon this blog, I can understand the emotions behind everything, that this wasn’t just some stupid side project. I was never Adora Svitak, who can take ordinary life and spin it into something beautiful.

So to WordPress: it’s been a great 3.5 years (Blogger owns the other 0.5 years). I’ve enjoyed the freedom, and thanks for somehow giving me that feeling that I had to put proper and adequate effort into my posts.

To anyone who’s reading this: Thanks for reading. You’re probably the only reason that my posts aren’t literally crap. Look for me elsewhere.

If I still have the urge to write, I’ll most likely be posting on Medium. See you all later.

Transit

16027962396_dc920bf2e0It’s the summer after my freshman year of high school, and I’m riding the metro home from my first day of volunteering.

Halfway through the route, an old man -a veteran it appears- boards the bus. As he hobbles down the aisle, I unwittingly smile at him.

Mistake. He stops in front of me, articulates something incoherent, and shakily produces a Dum Dum from his pocket.  A ghost of a beard covers his chin. Everything I learned about drug safety in elementary school flashes through my mind, but I take the lollipop, smile, and immediately break eye contact.

That was the only time I ever accepted candy from a stranger.

Whenever I tell people that I semi-regularly ride the metro in a city where public transit is associated with people who aren’t rich enough to have a car, I feel like I get judged. Maybe it’s because they expect me to have a bunch of stories like this. Maybe it’s because they know I also have my license already.

But that first year, taking a lollipop from a stranger was the only interesting story I had. I was coming and leaving during rush hour with people working in the medical center, and I wanted to believe that my red volunteer polo and khakis made me fit in with their scrubs and business clothing. This was nothing like school bus rides in elementary and middle school, which were characterized by conversations with my friends and frantically bugging people for food.

Here, I was amongst a bunch of strangers and eating was prohibited. But in sixth grade, I did run a origami business from the front pocket of my lunch box, folding on the bus rides. (Instead of money, I charged Post It Notes.) I could still do that. I spent my bus rides folding with scraps of paper in my purse, leaving the piece on the bus in an attempt at an artsy project.

Over the next few years, I began travelling other places at other times, and I began to notice more things.

If you were selfish, you took the aisle seat so that no one could take the window seat next to you. Most people generally sat in the window seat. Not that the buses were full enough to warrant filling up both seats. No one in my neighborhood ever waited at my bus stop. The buses usually came at least a minute later than the published schedule, so being slightly late was ok.

As an Asian girl, I was stereotypically one of the most vulnerable populations on the bus. The further away it was from rush hour, the more likely I would be the only non black person on the bus. And the bus wasn’t the place to forge lifelong connections, but I acutely felt like an outsider. The drivers would always answer questions if you asked them, even the stupid ones.  If there were a lot of people waiting at the stop, there was a good chance that the bus was coming soon.

On more than one occasion, I’ve been 5+ miles from home waiting for a bus that’s 15 minutes late, with my phone at 1% battery, with no data plan, alone on the edge of a busy street, in the middle of a Houston summer day. I have a friend who was mugged after getting off a bus, yet I choose to have an almost sickening faith in the good will of people. That maybe the rational side of my brain telling me that crime rates are at record lows might actually overpower whatever psychological fears I have.

Even so, I still keep my keys and money in my pockets when I have a choice in case my purse gets stolen. I rarely take out my phone on the bus.

Sometimes, I feel like a tourist on the metro, since I clearly don’t rely on it as my sole source of transportation. Yet, I’m grateful to know that for 60 cents, I could get an air-conditioned ride to anywhere in the city without bothering anyone else for a ride. The metro makes me feel like a silent ninja, moving me around while leaving behind a minimal carbon footprint. I have $1.80 left on my metro card and less than 2 weeks left in Houston.

What are my last three rides going to be?


photo credit: 20140405 03 CTA Blue Line Shuttle Bus via photopin (license)

Rejected College Essays: The First

This was the first college essay I wrote and probably my favorite in retrospect. Kind of wish I had submitted it.

We might as well be blindfolded. Nine of my peers and I are ushered through a maze of cubicles into a conference room.  No one remembers the way back. We take seats in chairs around a conference table. The door clicks shut, and the interrogation begins.

I spill out how we broke into a school with 80 students on the weekend and encouraged students to gossip about their schools. Someone produces a box with “classified evidence”: notes I told students to write behind the adult’s backs, reminiscent of a Burn Book.

As the adults hold the notes in their hands and read them to themselves, I blurt out when and where our group is conspiring next . They say they’re going to infiltrate.

I’ve ratted everyone out. We’re exposed.

But that was all part of the plan.

The plan to get the student voice into education, that is. After a year of negotiating, the Student Congress has finally gotten its first monthly meetings with the district administration.

Interrogation? The administration asking how our first meeting at a local high school went. Burn Book? Post it notes we had students write with their concerns. District infiltration? Inviting the administration to come listen to students at our next monthly meeting. It really wasn’t that scary.

But that’s not to say the above scene isn’t how I used to perceive the district. My interest in education reform began as a private endeavor, something I explored on my own through books and articles in a quest to discover how schools sucked.

The process of making my interest public involved a few growing pains. Freshman year, I started a secret Twitter so that I could participate in Twitter chats I had read about online. Sophomore year, I wrote my first article about the student voice. When I shared it on Facebook, I closed the tab immediately and refused to check for an hour. I never dared start a conversation with anyone in person.

The first time I spoke at a board meeting to support the founding of the Student Congress, I stumbled on my first word and confessed 10 seconds in that I was absolutely terrified. My first time on TV, everyone told me that I spoke way too fast and fidgeted too much. Every time I shared my story about how I found my refuge in math problems like how other people found their refuge in art, people gave me weird looks. Whenever we met with adults that first year, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the bulk of the talking, because I had clearly missed some sort of social training in my 17 years. On the Student Congress trip to Austin, I constantly was unable to stop legislators and engage in a simple conversation.

But after beating myself up after these debacles, I realized that this fear of awkwardness and talking to adults was what held back so many of my peers. The same tiny things that terrified me also stopped those who didn’t speak up, and those perhaps for whom the student voice mattered the most. And until we truly slowed down and listened to everyone in the room, we would only be a congress of the most outspoken students in the district, not everyone.

And if I wanted to convince the people around me that being awkward was ok, I needed to believe it myself first.

As the weight of leading the Student Congress has shifted to me, my heart still skips multiple beats before meeting with any adult. I still sometimes don’t know the right thing to say. I stumbled on the first word of my last board meeting speech again. I still catch myself speaking too quickly sometimes. Sometimes I question if I’m the right person to do this. But reality doesn’t care if I’m the “right” person– reality cares that I am the person that is doing this, and I have no choice but to do my best.

We’ve restructured the monthly meetings for conspiring to create safe environments for sharing.  We’ve promise to keep the stories anonymous, but not the underlying issues. We only bring in the administration after the students talk to each other and build trust.

I’ve learned that listening is as much an emotional act as it is a physical one, and that everyone’s voice is equally strong, whether it’s from the student whose school doesn’t offer enough challenging courses, or from the student whose school offers so many AP courses that student are discouraged from taking classes they genuinely like to protect their GPA. The student who can barely read English and the one who has been labeled GT all his life.

And maybe, some point in the future, many years after my graduation, expressing the student voice doesn’t have to feel like enhanced interrogation.

Organizing a Blogging Notebook in OneNote

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A few months ago, I made the executive decision to create a new notebook in OneNote solely dedicated to blogging.

This was a huge decision for me. Previously, I only had two notebooks: one to hold everything I was working on and one to hold everything I wasn’t working on. But after seeing people devote entire binders to blogging, I figured that a digital notebook wasn’t too much.

That still seems excessive. Can’t I just use the WordPress editor/Microsoft Word?

For the longest time, I only used the WordPress editor to write and edit my posts. But ideas came to me sporadically. Sometimes, I’d get a marvelous idea and realize that I only had 2 sentences to write down. This led to an incredibly messy “drafts” folder. When I wanted to work on a post, I had to open all my drafts to see which ones I was interested in working on. Sometimes, I would write something I liked but didn’t want to publish. I didn’t know what to do about that. And I never quite figured how to keep all that writing advice I read online in an easy to access place.

The blogging notebook fixed all that. There were other things I liked about OneNote as well- no distractions a Ctrl+T away, the flexibility of the page (Literally, you can just click and write something on the side if it pops up in the middle of writing.), that it syncs with my phone, that it’s free.

After some trial and error, these were the sections I came up with:

  1. Word Vomits
  2. Currently Writing
  3. Advice
  4. Finished Posts
  5. Trash
  6. For another day

Looking back, these sections were a bit arbitrary, but it worked for me. Here’s how I use each section.

Word Vomits: The first place where all my well, word vomiting, goes. If something comes to me spontaneously, it goes here, whether it’s good or not. I recently purged a good number of drafts, and there are 13 other ideas I could write about here. The first page here is a running list of ideas.  If this notebook were a brain, this would be the working memory.

Currently Writing:  These are “Word Vomits” I feel comfortable with publishing. Once I feel like the post is coherent, I copy paste the post into the WordPress editor and move the page into “Finished Posts”. This section usually holds about 3/4 posts.

Advice: I reached out to two of my favorite bloggers via email a few months ago and asked for advice. I created this section after they both responded, and I never wanted to lose those emails.  If I ever find a good piece of advice on the Internet, I put it here as inspiration.

Finished Posts: After a post gets moved to WordPress, I move the page with the draft into this section. Sometimes there’ll be snippets of lines I didn’t use or personal side notes that I didn’t want to publish. Usually a post will go through much more editing before it gets published on WordPress, and this is another way to preserve the drafts.

Trash: The receptacle for “Word Vomits” that turn out to be actual vomit. I keep them around in case I change my mind (and to remind myself how I can write crappy pretentious stuff at times.)

For another day: I created this section after I wrote a reflection on a trip I took and the people I met. I felt like it was a good piece…but not something I wanted to make public yet. It was a bit too raw, something that would be more interesting to look back on a year. For now, this section is littered with half-baked anecdotes, as well as a page that’s literally “List of awkward moments”.

I could write more about the merits of such a notebook, but frankly, it’s a relief to come up with a writing process that doesn’t mind when I come up with 5 ideas in 2 hours and want to write about each of them, that doesn’t mind when I end up trashing more than half of said ideas, that doesn’t mind when I want to recover some of those ideas again.

Usually, it takes me multiple days to write, review, and finalize a post. This was an exception- 20 minutes to write in one sitting, 30 minutes to look over and publish a few days later. 

What it’s like to unfollow 98.5% of your Facebook friends

A few months ago, I unfollowed someone on Facebook on my phone.

Conveniently, Facebook prompted me asking if I wanted to unfollow more people, leading me to a page with a bubble for each of my friends, groups, and pages. To unfollow, I simply had to tap the bubble of their face.

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And over the next few months, I used this page to unfollow massive amounts of people. In one sitting, I unfollowed half of my friends. In another, I got it down to about 60/70.

But after a bit too much deliberation of “do I really care to know what ______ posts”, on an impulse, I unfollowed  everything: all my friends, all the pages I liked, all the groups I was in. It took about 5 minutes of frantic bubble tapping.

Slowly, I’ve been adding people back in and unfollowing them again, trying to reach some sort of equilibrium for the “ideal feed”. Here’s where I’m at right now:

  • 2 groups – my college class group and my scholar group
  • 2 pages– my high school and the Student Congress page
  • 8 people– 1 friend from middle school, 5 people I regularly talked to in high school, and 2 family members.

Observations:

  • My feed got boring. Fast. It’s hard to notice at first, but soon you’re looking at the same few posts over and over again. I don’t think unfollowing people decreased the frequency with which I checked Facebook, but it definitely decreased the amount of time I spent each time
  • You become acutely aware of how stalker-like social media is. I noticed it the most the few days I decided to only follow one person. It’s creepy to keep up with all the pictures someone likes and people they friend. And some people I wanted to keep for precisely that reason. (I convinced myself to unfollow them…eventually.)
  • I missed seeing stuff. I missed almost all the pictures from my high school graduation and prom. Sometimes I saw a profile picture change a week late (or more). Sometimes I felt awkward liking a post or a picture late so I didn’t. (To those friends-sorry.) But now it bothers me less.
  • FOMO and social media envy died down– Seeing a post with 200 likes on it that’s a week old doesn’t feel that bad anymore. Realizing that I missed a social outing a month ago matters less than it used to. And it doesn’t feel like people are bragging about their social lives anymore, even though I made the conscious decision to unfollow them, not them.
  • I read individual profiles more. Now my new time waster is bouncing around individual profiles. Cue the stalker factor.

I like social media like this- a way to look up profiles of people you’re thinking about, and a way to message them if needed, a reference book of sorts.

Can I undo my choice now? I don’t think Facebook allows you to follow massive amounts of people in the way I unfollowed people. So unless I manually go through all 500 friends I unfollowed, this change is for the most part permanent.

I don’t regret this decision, and with the influx of people I’ll meet in college, it might be for the best. I’d encourage you to try something similar. At the very least, try unfollowing half your friends. It’s easier than you’d imagine, and no one has to know.

Guest Post: Relative Deprivation, aka The Psychology of First World Problems

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By: Dinah Baum

[Note: Being only a newly minted high school graduate who has yet to know the ‘real world’, the examples given will be mostly school related. Exactly what you want to read about during the summer, I know.]

It’s second semester senior year, and university admissions decisions are being sent out. I’m absentmindedly checking my email when I notice that Rice University has sent me a notification indicating my admission status has been posted. I eagerly type in my email address and password to see the outcome. It takes less than 10 seconds for me to read “I regret to inform you that….” The sentence doesn’t need finishing. I know I have been rejected.

I suppose I am lucky. I had not developed any emotional attachment to the University, nor did I have a parental alumnus I had to shamefacedly break the news to. Even if I had been accepted, I may not have chosen to attend. Thus, this rejection, while disappointing, did not reduce me to tears or throw me into an existential crisis. And yet…I was still more upset than I should’ve been.

Was it because I’d applied as a history major, my strongest academic subject and still been rejected? Or because I had chosen to drop debate that year, making me look “uncommitted” to the admissions officers? As joyful Facebook posts found their way onto my feed, the answer became clear. I was demoralized not by my own rejection – instead, I was dejected over the acceptance letters many of my friends had received.

[Note: Friends who were accepted/are attending Rice: Those well wishes I gave you were genuine, not just some attempt to not appear bitter. I don’t begrudge you your acceptances at all.]

Enter the concept of relative deprivation. A term coined by sociologist Samuel Stouffer during WWII, it describes the fact that our sense of deprivation (in my case, an acceptance letter) is governed not by absolute position but relative position in relation to others. There’s another catch – we tend to only compare ourselves to those we’re around most often rather than everyone in the world.

At that moment, I was not comparing myself to all the high school seniors across America, or in Texas, or even in my own high school. Intellectually, I understand that many more students were rejected from Rice than accepted. I was in good – and plentiful – company. However, psychologically, emotionally, I was comparing myself not to the students down the hall in regular classes, but to my own group of highly academically competitive friends, and they seemed to be experiencing great success. To expand on this, who was I to be so upset about a simple rejection? I’d already received several acceptances from other good institutions. There are millions of children who will never have the chance at any college education, or even a primary school one. How could I complain when I know there are children in my own city who are attending failing schools, growing up in poverty, and are statistically unlikely to even set foot in a community college, let alone a four year institution? What a first world/privileged problem: “None of the universities that accepted me are prestigious enough!

Relative deprivation is a surprisingly simple concept that has a multitude of implications. For example, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway have higher suicide rates than China, Vietnam, and Greece. This is in spite of the fact that Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway are ranked as the top 3 happiest countries and (on average) have a better quality of life than China, Vietnam, and Greece. Why are people in the “better” countries committing suicide at higher rates than people in the “worse” countries?

As Malcolm Gladwell put it, “If you are unhappy, but everyone else around you is unhappy too, then you’re actually sort of fine. You don’t feel so bad. On the other hand, if you are unhappy and everyone else is jumping up and down for joy, you are really unhappy – you’re in a very serious place.”

On an ending note, I think I’ll steal one of Mr. Gladwell’s examples of the effects of relative deprivation.

Consider two universities. One is Harvard, the other is Hartwick. Odds are you only know about one of these places. Consider this chart. (I realize the SAT is of dubious value in predicting college performance, however this gives a rough idea of basic math skill.)

Harvard

STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                753                        674                   581

Hartwick

STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                569                      472                    407

It may surprise you to learn that the percentage of STEM degrees earned by each third is roughly the same. At both Hartwick and Harvard, the top third earn a bit over 50% of the STEM degrees, the middle third earn about 30%, and the lowest third earn about 20%. What these results show is that while math ability certainly matters in obtaining a STEM degree, it’s not the only factor. If that were the case, one would expect almost everyone at Harvard to be earning their STEM degree – the Harvard low scorers are still better than the Hartwick high scorers. Morale, not just math ability, matters – and if you’re the last in your class (even if it is at Harvard) your morale is probably not very high.

Considering I’ll be studying computer science, perhaps my rejection from Rice was a blessing in disguise.

Letter to myself at 15

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Dear Fan Amy,

Hello! Yes, people still call you “Fan Amy” because of your stupid Facebook name. Don’t worry- you’ll get it fixed after you send Facebook your driving permit.

Is everything alright? High school going well for you? Okay, that was a rhetorical question. I know that you’re going through a ridiculous amount of insecurity and frustration right now. I remember all those nights where you go to sleep hoping you won’t wake up and all those nights where you don’t know why you’re awake but don’t want to go to sleep.

And oh dear the AWKWARDNESS. Your junior year, you’ll hear a police officer say that a place isn’t safe if it doesn’t feel safe. Similarly, you couldn’t be unawkward if you didn’t feel unawkward. Despite what people told you, you certainly felt awkward.

I was going to include a description of how all your failures and insecurities from freshman year got better by senior year, but I took it out. It’s three times as long as this letter, and it’s too personal for the web. Besides, I want you to become comfortable with that uncertainty, that horrible existential fear of not being enough, and to keep doing things even though they you feel out of your skin uncomfortable.

Because one day last semester, I spent 20 minutes during lunch wandering the quarter-mile halls alone because I didn’t want to talk to a teacher. And that was after an hour of working up the courage during my office period. Sound familiar? I felt just like you then, an awkward freshman with a heavy backpack not knowing where to go during lunch.

Except this was second semester senior year- literally when I should have felt on top of the school. After too much overthinking, I eventually opened the door, had that conversation, and it was worth it- it takes you to New York, you get on national television, and you meet some pretty awesome people.

But it still bothers me. What took me months of indecision, self-hatred for not simply brushing aside the inferiority complex and working harder, my friends telling me that I wasn’t one of them, an hour of talking to myself, and 20 lonely minutes in the halls, other people had decided at the beginning of the year in an instant it seemed.

In college, I won’t have the luxury of wrestling with my feelings and indecision for that long, and I’m worried about what price I’ll have to pay. It seems like you would understand, since you’re already a freshman- what are your thoughts?

Embrace the awkwardness, because it’s not going away. I love you.

-The 18 year old Amy

P.S. I’m making things sound too melodramatic. Here’s two lighthearted spoilers: 1) “Amy didn’t make the AIME” will continue to be the biggest joke in Math Club until you graduate, 2) Something called “dank memes” will make their way into conversations with your friends. You’ll have a love hate relationship with them.

“Hey, I’d like to talk to you more…”

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Someone asked me for my number about a month ago. After I typed in my number into their phone, I failed to reciprocate. And after some other stuff ensued, I’ve been thinking about it.

I haven’t asked for someone’s phone number or email for personal reasons in a reallyyy long time. Instead, I’ve hidden behind Facebook friend requests and other forms of stalking to stay in contact with people.

Maybe that’s just a reflection on how easy staying in touch with someone has become, but it’s also a bit screwed up- to no longer have that in person acknowledgement of “Hey I want to talk to you more. How can I contact you?” 1

I found an old index card in my 6th grade pencil bag with handwritten email addresses on it. 2 This wasn’t for a class project, and these weren’t my closest friends. They were people I sat with during homeroom for 40 minutes a day, people I didn’t mind spending a few minutes to get in contact with outside of school, even if they were stupid conversations and chain mail…heh.

I would never dream of doing something like that now, mostly because I could just find them on Facebook and then message them “Hey what’s your email?”

But when I found those handwritten email addresses, now gone the way of physical contact books, I realized that the way I communicate with people has changed dramatically. Even though my 26 year old brother reminds me that I barely remember life before the Internet (I have vague memories of dial up when I was in kindergarten), I also can’t quite relate to middle schoolers texting on their iPhones and fluent in social media lingo. I do remember what it was like before smartphones and widespread instant messaging.

In late elementary school/early middle school, it looked something like this:

Instant Messaging: IT WAS SO COOL TO BE ONLINE THE SAME TIME AS SOMEONE AND BE ABLE TO TALK TO THEM. IN. REAL. TIME. I would schedule times to IM my friends, or secretly hope that someone I knew was online. Otherwise, I would send them an email. Chat statuses on Gmail were the coolest thing ever.

Calling: I had to get the phone numbers of my friends’ landlines, call them, get through their parents (“Hi this is Amy, one of Julia’s classmates. Can I talk to Julia?”) before asking some question about homework.

Email:  There was a point where I had 20 email conversations going on with a friend. I used to be a chain mail forwarder. (I’m so sorry.)  I could email my friends (or even all of my email contacts) with a draft of a story I had written out of the blue, ask for feedback, and expect them to respond.

Now it looks like this:

Instant Messaging: The assumption is that you’re online more often than not. I take reaching someone almost instantly for granted.

Calling: Many people I know don’t even have landlines anymore, and I can reach them directly, no proxy (assuming that I have their number). I’m more likely to voice/video chat them now as well. But now I feel like have to text someone “Hey is it alright if I call” before I call. Otherwise, it’s too surprising, too spontaneous.

Email: I think this analogy is appropriate:

 Email: IM :: WordPress: Facebook

In other words, email is the older version of the more convenient technology that most people don’t bother using anymore. Yet I use it because it has a degree of formality, the pause when you know that someone has set aside the time to read things, a bit more secluded from the rush.

Even this is a primitive description of modern technology. I still don’t have 1) a data plan on my phone,  2) unlimited text, 3) Snapchat, or 4) Instagram. 3 Regardless, I still talk to people online more than I do in person, and I hear enough about the lack of face to face communication in my generation. I wonder about all the lost subtleties in technological communication- the awkward pauses, the awkward eye contact, the awkward laughs, everything wonderfully awkward and personal.

And is that really worth the cost of not being able to talk with some people at all? In other words, is the missed connection, the missed communication really worth?


  1. But let’s be honest, if I asked for numbers/emails in the way I took pictures, I would constantly hate myself because I would constantly not feel comfortable doing it. Wait that’s why I’m writing this post. 
  2. I used to swear on carrying index cards everywhere like I swear on carrying plastic bags everywhere now. They could serve as bookmarks, scrap paper, straightedges, and uh, I don’t actually remember. 
  3. I suspect that with those 4 things, I would be more likely to ask people to stay in touch. Sharing Instagram/Snapchat handles is a thing, and had I texted more, maybe I’d have a reason to ask more people for their numbers. 

Inequity in optimism distribution

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Some books make my rational side happy. Some books make my emotional side happy. Some books make neither side happy. And then there’s Paul Tough’s lastest book, Helping Children Succeed, a compilation of the latest neuroscience research on 1) why certain students who grow up with hardships succeed and 2) how those findings can be used to improve education for all at-risk children.

The entire book is available online for free. Here’s an excerpt:

Farrington concluded from the research that the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset — the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. She distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:

  1. I belong in this academic community;
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  3. I can succeed at this; and
  4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington wrote, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The complication, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

Those 4 messages match the narrative that students have been constructing for years about school. They address complaints, from “we’re never going to use this in real life” to “I’m just not good at this” to “the school doesn’t care about us beyond our test scores” to “my teachers don’t have time to know about me as an individual”. This confluence of neuroscience with the true, real experiences of students, if anything, shows the importance of students sharing their stories.

And maybe that the most damning inequity in education isn’t necessarily one of resources -counselors, social workers, quality teachers, Pre-K programs, extracurriculars-  but instead one of hope, of belief- that less privileged students don’t have.  I’m constantly reminded of this Atlantic article about the stories we craft about our lives:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

[…]

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

Life’s Stories

And this same sentiment in a blog post:

It is gratifying to believe that we are the sole operating agents of our own lives. It is uplifting to believe in stories of redemption, wherein those with nothing make the independent choice to strive and turn their lives around. It is unsettling to imagine the great fortune we have in a confluence of circumstances that is entirely outside of our control. It undermines the distinction between us and those less fortunate.

The Narrative of Privilege

I’ve been force-fed the narrative that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. And I’d love to believe that it’s true, as it motivates me and gives me faith in the world. But more and more, I’ve become aware that this optimism in and of itself is a manifestation of privilege.

Before my high school graduation, I was talking with some of the first people I met in high school and some of the last people I would talk to: the people alphabetically next to me.

Among the red itchy fabric, (almost) all 800 graduating seniors in a high ceilinged concrete hall with dampened lights and poor ventilation, behind the scenes at one of the district’s largest graduations in Houston’s football stadium, one girl asked me: “Would you do high school the same again?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to do it all over, would you work this hard again?”

I pause before I say: “You definitely won’t believe me when I say this, but I probably didn’t work as hard as you think.”

“Bullshit, you worked your ass off for this. Don’t tell me that you going to college for free ranked in the top 1% and that you didn’t work hard.”

And somehow, I managed to do precisely that with some remark about grade inflation. 1

What I meant, I guess, was that I didn’t work any harder than what would have been expected given my environment. You can call it privilege, or segregation, or why affirmative action exists: I was a product of all of those.

I was the student that teachers didn’t need to pay much attention to because they knew I would do well regardless. I was the student that counselors didn’t need to pay much attention to because I would definitely be going to college. I was the Asian girl who came from the magnet middle school that over-prepared its students for high school. I would be graduating from the high school that was somehow an exception from the typical comprehensive, urban school, a school that could compete with the exclusive magnet schools, the private and charter schools, the suburban schools. That I had every reason to believe that the 4 years ahead of me are, for the most part, going to be great.

And that even in the face of all science and personal experience, I still choose to have this illusion of control in my life, this almost sickening degree of optimism and faith, that in the end, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to be okay.

And I don’t know whether to feel stupid, guilty or grateful.


  1. Actually though. When more than 70% of your AP English III class gets an “A” and when 30-40 point curves on tests are the norm in other classes, you start wondering what your grades actually mean. 

Concluding Stories from Middle School

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But how much has my handwriting really changed since 7th grade.

While I packed away my high school stuff (read: the 5% of work I deemed worth keeping) into a large plastic bin, I found some of my middle school writing- mostly academic assignments from my English classes, from a time where I cared about my school writing and knew that it would be read. Somewhere in high school, I lost that motivation. 1

But alongside those assignments (and a daily diary), I also wrote other things back then- namely, the pieces that would later become Stories from Middle School, a combination of A) true personal experiences and B) true personal experiences disguised as fiction. And four years later, all of them have been made public.

I like to think that these stories span a variety of topics. There’s a story about the guy in the year above me I stalked throughout 6th and 7th gradeThere’s 2 stories about how I enjoyed nerding out to math problems with my peers.  There’s a story about a lunch ritual I did with my friends that involved Yoplait yogurt. There’s a story that I refused to admit was about an elementary school crush (but it totally was). There’s a story about how my entire grade seemed to idolize one of my best friends and how I dealt with the resulting inferiority complex. There’s a story about my 6th grade math teacher that I must have annoyed the hell out of but gave me some odd sense of identity.

My writing notebook, a wide-ruled composition notebook from 6th grade, is still on my bookshelf. I used to handwrite stories 2 or 3 times before typing them up on a computer. First drafts were a bunch of segments that had no coherence, and crossouts, arrows, and doodles littered the pages.  Each rewrite was a chance to string together ideas until they made sense- very much the way I write nowadays.

Emotionally, I mostly just remember balancing the fear of sharing my writing alongside the desire for it to be seen, especially when I got mixed feedback about my writing. My teachers usually liked my writing, but my friends didn’t. (Looking back, my friends were the honest ones.) The only compliments I ever got were that my writing had “voice” and flowed well, so much that I questioned whether that voice was even good and whether “flow” was just a generic compliment.  I was picked as one of 7 students in my grade to enter the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition, but even with extensive help from my English teacher, my piece didn’t win anything. This happened two years in a row, while my friends always got awards. Talk about feeling inferior.

I have one last story that I still don’t feel comfortable posting (or even rereading.) It’s a 10 page story- to date the longest I’ve ever written- from the end of 6th grade about how one of my friends had changed upon entering middle school. It drew a lot of judgement from my other friends and essentially marked the end of a friendship. Yikes.

What do I think of my middle school stories now? Some make me cringe, some make me laugh. Some of these stories are undoubtedly silly. And I could choose to remember middle school as a place where an idiotic me did idiotic things, under the premise that my brain wasn’t fully developed or that I was underexposed.

But on the other hand, in some of these stories, I see a raw and innocent energy, that same desire to write down ideas and experiences, that same desire to connect my life into a narrative, a less refined version of that same “voice”. These stories embodied the experiences I cared about enough to write and then to share, experiences I could proudly embrace and call my own. And given a choice, that’s how I choose to remember middle school instead, because chances are, I’ll look back on high school in much the same way. 2 3


  1. But actually, if your teacher is reading and grading 100 essays in a night, is she really reading them. 
  2. I’ve contemplated putting together a series called “Stories from High School”, but I’ve decided against it. If a story needs to be told, it’ll find its way into a post. 
  3. Reminder to self: You just graduated high school, not middle school. Stop thinking about middle school. Also, stop with the consecutive footnotes. You’re not Wikipedia.