The High School Life I Could Have Lived

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The only real tangible accomplishment after a year.

My senior year, I was an office worker for an assistant principal. For an hour each day, I helped with office tasks (read: mostly cutting ridiculous amounts of lamination for biology teachers), worked on homework,  wove paper strips,  and got a behind the scenes look at the school.

I watched a student get expelled right in front of me. (The devastation I saw on the student’s face still haunts me.) I saw the chronic class skippers befriend the office secretaries. I was in the odd situation of knowing a school administrator well without being a troublemaker. I wandered the halls twirling my hall pass and saw random kids sitting out in the halls, teachers on their off periods. I ran around the quarter mile long hallways with a stack of schedules, knocking on doors, pulling kids out of class, interrupting lectures, walking in on tests.

And as I talked with the other office workers in my period- people I otherwise wouldn’t have approached- I heard stories about prom drama, crappy boyfriends and girlfriends, crappy teachers, stupid political debates, backstabbing friends, drugs, parties, alcohol, stories that are interesting to hear about but must be horrible to be part of. (Spoiler: Talking about drugs and alcohol loudly in an assistant principal’s office won’t get you in trouble.) In other words, stories from the high school life I never had. I was kept in the loop in these conversations, but I was clearly the innocent, nerdy, girl.

I spent my free time finishing homework due later that day, wasting time on the computer,  preparing stuff for a club,  or running around doing personal errands. Meanwhile, the other office workers complained about being bored, took walks around the school, shredded paper, played games, and occasionally last minute crammed for a quiz. I thought myself lazy for waiting until the last minute to get stuff done, but to them, I must have seemed ridiculously hardworking.

Sometimes, I wonder about the high school life I never lived- my other peers I never talked to because they weren’t in my classes, the teachers I never had and the classes I never took because they were unweighted, the administrators I had no reason to care about even though they kept the school running, the schools I hear about at school board meetings but have never visited, the experiences that made for great stories that I never had

I’m glad I met the people I met and spent my time doing the things I did in high school. Proud, even. But more and more, I’m becoming aware of the people I’ve alienated myself from already and the people I’ll alienate myself from in college. I get glimpses here and there of “alternate lives”, but I still wonder about how elitist, how out of touch, I’ll eventually become. This bothers me, nags at me, and I wish I had an solution.

That is all.

Song: Pandora has been playing in the background most of the time. The only song that I can associate this post with (or more precisely, associate with late May when I started this post, which I later broke up) is No Words by the Script. As I finish this post, I can’t bring myself to play this song as it carries too many emotions. Or rather, one emotion very strongly.

 

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This Kid I Talked To

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This past weekend, I was at a restorative justice conference downtown. 1 For an hour I listened to a principal, a school administrator, and a group of students in purple “Let’s start a movement” shirts, talk about how they trained a group of ~30 student “Circle Keepers” to help their peers resolve and prevent fights and conflicts by tackling the root of the issue, as opposed to simply disciplining students with the code of conduct.

After the session, one of the circle keepers walks up to me, a boy with brown hair streaked blonde at the tips.

Him: I went to B my freshman year.

I had mentioned my school once during a question- I didn’t think anyone had notice. Nonetheless, he starts listing things about the school- the “crack” hall, the laptops, the international festival, the horrible bathrooms, the ramen room, the hour long lunches. I confirm that the school he remembers is the school I go to.

We try finding mutual friends:

Him: You know those people who walked around wearing all black? That was my group of friends.

I shake my head. He starts naming people.

Him: Were you in Anime club?

Me: No.

Him: Live Music club?

Me: No.

Him: Color Guard?

Me: No.

Him: Were you in any clubs?

Me: Uh, the really nerdy ones?

We go back to talking about lunchtimes.

Him: Oh, there was also that sushi place I always went to during lunch- you know, at that strip mall near the Target

Me: Wait you were a freshman. How did you get off campus?

Him: Oh, literally no one cared. My group of friends and I would walk right past the police officer and he didn’t care. Oh my gosh, there was one day- I literally skipped finals just to go run rampant at that strip mall. Yeah, those were the days when I was a bad kid.

As we kept talking, I realized that all I could do was laugh with him- to be in awe of this boy younger than me, brash and nice, someone who experienced a different side of the same school I went to.

I knew so little and yet so much about him. I knew that some teacher at his current school thought he was worthy of being a Circle Keeper, that he could help other people talk through their problems and authentically relate to them- that the things I would never dream of doing were completely normal to him. That he must carry personal stories more serious than what I had heard, stories that could resonate with the people that needed to hear it the most. That he knew his story and wasn’t afraid to share it to help others. And I respected him for that.

For the longest time, I obsessed with how other people saw me. One of my old notebooks literally has a page with “How I want to be seen” written on the top. I have multiple pages across multiple notebooks with this title in fact. And even though I hate leaving blank space in my notebook, I’ve never been able to fill more than 2 lines on this page.

Every time a college interviewer asked me “How would your friends describe you?”, I gave a shoddy answer:

“Um, well, we crack jokes with each other and nerd out. Sometimes we stuff food in our faces together.”

It terrified me that other people saw me in a light that I would never see myself. Throughout high school, I had trouble figuring out where I was rooted, where I was growing, where I was branching out. Where I belonged in the context of my class, my school, my community.

Over time, I’ve started compiling this identity through introductions to people, ridiculous amounts of introspection, and writing blog posts/college essays, but I’ve begun to recognize the downside of whatever privilege I’ve grown up with- that regardless of what I accomplished, I would never carry a compelling backstory.

Would the boy I met be the type of person I’d notice in my classes? Heck no- most likely, he wouldn’t even be in my classes. Would I meet him at college? Maybe, but he’d likely be the exception.

With less than 20 weeks in Houston before college, I wanted to have more of these types of experiences before I leave.


  1. Context: Restorative Justice is a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large. (Thanks Google.) In other words, using rehabilitation and understanding as opposed to punishment. 

One Weave, Three Styles

TL;DR Scrap office supplies can be used to make good art

I like symmetry, and I like geometric patterns. And in the quest to find and create more symmetric and geometric things, I’ve run across the triaxial weave (literally- a weave along three axes) a few times in the past few months.

 1) Sparse Triaxial Weave

When some students handed me a bundle of metal strips (the result of shredding a bunch of hanging file folders) during my office period, my first instinct was: This could make good art.

And after some fiddling around and class periods spent drawing different weaving patterns,

I produced this lovely beauty:

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It’s now hanging behind me as I type this, though I’m sure it’s going to get trashed when I go to college.

 

2) Dense Triaxial Weave

A few months later, I invested 4 office period for some more weaving:

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The paper strips were leftover trimmings from larger sheets of construction paper- another fringe benefit of working in an assistant principal’s office.

This article was my main reference on how to start, but frankly it was a lot of trial and error.

Currently on display in the assistant principal’s office.

3) Origami Basket Weave Tessellation

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To round out this post, I figured that there was some origami form of the triaxial weave that I could easily make.

The first part was true: Google quickly turned up the Basket Weave Tessellation designed by Joel Cooper, along with the crease pattern.

Folding this was another story. I printed out the crease pattern, cut the paper out, and expected that the model would mostly fall in place once I made the proper folds. Looking at the crumpled model above, that clearly was not the case.

But after a good amount of struggling, I ended up with a messy bunch of folds that looked close to what I wanted to make. Not sure if I’ll ever be making this again.

-.

Music: Untouchable, Taylor Swift and It Is What It Is, Lifehouse

The Gods of High School

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Every once in a while, I hear an underclassman drop a minor comment about someone in my grade – how that person is so accomplished, or how they aspire to be him/her, or how they’re so intelligent. And even though it’s typically nothing excessive, I know the ridiculous amounts of faith and love that must go towards these people I simply see as my peers who happen to be seniors in high school.

I still remember what it was like 2 years ago, and it’s embarrassing to admit how much raw admiration I used to harbor for those in the grades above me when I was a freshman and a sophomore.

My sophomore year, at an overnight school trip, I was fan-girling (pun intended) with a fellow sophomore in our hotel room about the seniors that year. I was enamored with their intelligence, while the other girl was obsessed with their looks. I was unaware that my other two roommates, both seniors, were listening in our conversation.

Later, one of the seniors asked us, “Were you talking about how [a senior] was really cute?”

I was mortified that the seniors overheard, but I can only imagine their amusement. (They agreed with us at least, and thus, that incident didn’t dampen any of my fangirling.)

Here are some other incidents I remember in an oddly specific amounts of detail that must have left some intangible impact on me:

Freshman Year, February

My high school holds an annual event to recruit prospective freshman. It’s a huge event that attracts 800+ people, and most of the clubs at my school set up booths in the cafeteria to recruit.

My booth is right next to the Student Government booth, and I overhear the student body president talking to a newspaper reporter (Okay, maybe it’s just a parent) about how she had become more confident as a senior because of Student Government. In particular, she mentions how she couldn’t look an adult in the eye when she was talking as a freshman. Listening awkwardly on the side, this catches me by surprise.

This must just be a story about a charismatic leader who pretends to have shortcomings in order to seem more relateable. Her story can’t apply to me. She can’t understand what it’s truly like to be awkward, that paralyzing feeling of being afraid to do anything, of over-analyzing every action. Earlier in the year,  my English teacher had told her first period class that I was bad at speaking. That night, I had an 8th grader (A MIDDLE SCHOOLER) tell me to “chill out” while I was describing one of my clubs. Surely nothing like that had happened to her.

Freshman Year, February 

The first round I ever participate in at the Rice Math Tournament is a proof-based team round. 9 other team members from my school and I are locked in a lecture hall intended for 100+ students, armed with only a packet of problems, pencils, and some printer paper. We’re expected to produce a set a proofs in an hour.

And after spending 20 minutes simply trying to understand the basic concepts [see: Chicken McNugget Theorem], I finally start on the first part of the first problem- which doesn’t ask for a proof, but rather a list. I grab a sheet of paper and started listing with a friend. The club president, a second semester senior, walks over and helps us, pointing out cases we forgot to include or didn’t consider.

We finally finish the list 10 minutes later and feel accomplished. However, another team member mentions that the president had already solved the problem before we even started working. He had simply been helping us discover the solution for ourselves. Indeed, there is another sheet on the table with a list that looks awfully like ours.

In his calm, caring,  yet somehow sarcastic, tone, the president responds: “It’s about the process of learning.

Maybe he has a point. Even though I’m upset because we could have spent that time working on other problems, we quickly realize that the rest of the packet is too challenging and give up. We spend the remaining time marveling at the chalkboards in the lecture hall and watching the club president and another guy engage in a pushup competition.

Freshman Year, May 

(Seemingly) out of the blue, a junior messages me:

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And after a spew of other idealistic things, I say this:

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Three years later, considering that students are forbidden to serve on school boards in Texas, I’ve pretty proud of where I’ve gotten.

Sophomore Year, December

The day after I finish NaBloPoMo for the first time, I start a private post on this blog gushing about some of the upperclassman. Over the next months, it evolves into a messy timestamped log of moments I noticed about people. I dare not share it, but I will acknowledge that it exists.

That is all.

Sophomore Year, March

I was sitting in the library during lunch working on English homework, when the valedictorian of the graduating class walks in. I say hi and ask him why he’s skipping the AP Biology review that day. Turns out, he needs to study for an English quiz. I’m slightly comforted by the fact that we’re both skipping something our teacher had strongly urged we attend, and that we both needed to do some last minute work for English. He, however, had gotten into Harvard a few days ago and was a low-key celebrity at the school, while I could only dream about going to college.

By some miracle, he sits down at my table, and we end up talking for the rest of the lunch period. Frankly, I don’t know whether I got anything of use out of the conversation. But what stuck with me were the pauses, the silent moments when he was thinking.  that though we had barely talked and he would be leaving off to, he really did want to give me advice. None of us got much English work done though. Whoops.

There’s more of these sorts of incidents- random, chance encounters and overheard conversations- that somehow collectively shaped my first few years of high school. No one incident made or broke my experience, but collectively, they created something very personal, something that makes me smile when I think back on it.

(Clearly, I’ve been trying to think more about college by thinking more about high school.)

The title is inspired by this post, the idea inspired by this TEDx talk

Songs: Say You Like Me, We the Kings

4 ways to make a difference in your community

21573029020_468587fe21photo credit: 2015 National Public Lands Day at Yaquina Head! via photopin (license)

The Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report a few weeks ago on reforming college admissions. One of their first suggestions was to have more students take “collective action that takes on community challenges”

But what is this “collective action”? What are these “community challenges”? And doesn’t that just mean starting a non-profit or doing a ridiculous amount of volunteer work?

Not necessarily. Volunteering isn’t bad, and American high school students make a tremendous impact on the community each year. But it’s not unique. If one person is volunteering, then certainly it’s a good thing. But the marginal utility of each additional volunteer decreases as the same places get flooded with volunteers year after year. Here are some other options.

1) Media and Journalism

Journalism is massively, massively, being undersold to high school students. The media plays one major role in the community: It keeps government and companies accountable. Without the media to expose scandals and update people on things that are happening, corruption can easily run rampant.

Think about the Jungle. Think about the role the New York Times played in releasing the Pentagon Papers. Think of all the investigative journalism that results in policy change. Think beyond the school newspaper.

I learned the basics of journalism ethics in middle school, but I know of very few student journalists who have had ethical conflicts in deciding what to write.

Journalism doesn’t just involve newspapers though. There are many ways :

  • Starting a radio show, a TV show, or a blog, and interviewing influential people. Take advantage of community radio and TV stations.
  • Publishing an op-ed in the local paper or becoming a columnist. If you can write decently well, most newspapers would love to hear a youth perspective. The challenge is in finding the right person to contact.
  • Pitching a story idea to a media outlet about an issue that needs further investigation.

A note on social media: Social media is a powerful medium, but TVs, radio stations, newspapers, have more credibility and can reach a broader audience. With social media, the best bet is to go “viral”, and viral content doesn’t always equal valuable content. (See: Buzzfeed food videos.)

2) Working with a non-profit 

Most of the largest societal issues already have non-profits devoted to them. There are tons of non-profits devoted to hunger, literacy, arts, poverty, already, and the people heading these non-profits are extremely knowledgeable about these issues. Working for a non-profit is just like working for a company, but with more flexibility. You can learn fundraising skills, marketing skills, communication skills, meet people in the community who are doing fantastic work, while learning about a social issue.

To this, Cal Newport offers a piece of unconventional yet valuable piece of advice:

“Students think they have to apply for already established positions,” Kate explained to me when we were discussing her path to innovation.

“For example, I had many friends sign up to be candy stripers at the hospital. But at a huge hospital, they’ve had lots of students work there, they have them answer the phone, they know exactly what their job will be.… There are so many student volunteers there doing the same thing, you won’t be noticed.”

Kate’s insight is sharp. A dangerous trap for a student looking to innovate is entering a community that already has clear roles for volunteers. It’s nearly impossible to stand out when your workday is confined to a rigid structure. To elaborate on Kate’s example, most hospitals have a large student volunteer program. This option might seem appealing because it’s a well-trod path including a clear application process, but as Kate noted, the hospital isn’t going to allow you a chance to innovate. The people in charge already have a useful place for students— answering phones and running errands for nurses—and see no need to change this.

-How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

The best opportunities generally arise spontaneously, and the best chance to grab these opportunities is to be in the right place at the right time. Yet generally, most people I know who work with a non-profit, apply for the same positions and do the same volunteer roles.

Find something interesting, something unique, contact the volunteer coordinator or the president, and ask if they would like a student to help with anything.

3) Research/Service Learning

This can be entering science fair, but it doesn’t have to. What if you were the first person to test the water in Flint? What about measuring energy costs in the city? And then following advice #1 and writing something in the newspaper about it?

There’s a certain excitement and virtue of doing medical research, of doing work that is only accessible to a small elite. But it’s also exciting to do something that’s accessible to everyone but that no one has ever done because they haven’t thought about it.

Even better, what about applying what you learn in school to improve the community? There’s a growing movement in the United States for service learning. This can easily be applied to environmental classes, but the connection isn’t as clear for more academic classes. In the end, the

4) Political Activism

This is generally the thing most people choose to get involved with. And helping with a political campaign is admirable. But the true way to gain political clout is through numbers.

If you can get 5 of your friends to come to something, that’s a good start. But getting hundreds of people to rally around an issue (especially a group of disillusioned high school students)

In the words of Augustus Waters from The Fault in Our Stars:

“When you’re as charming and physically attractive as myself, it’s easy enough to win over people you meet. But getting strangers to love you… now, that’s the trick.”

This is hard. This is insanely difficult.  People are almost always going to resist doing anything because of inertia. I’ve only seen mobilizing people attempted a few times, and it’s rarely been as successful as anticipated. At least in schools, everyone’s free time is at the same time in the same place, during lunch and after school. In that sense, it’s easy to get people to join a club or come to a school event. And extra credit in a class is always a good incentive.

Trying to do this in a larger community, where people’s schedules are more scattered. If you’re still in a school, be thankful for the easy access to this community.

The Biggest Challenge

Frankly, none of these activities require as much raw effort, talent, or time as becoming a nationally recognized athlete,  musician, or scientist. Those people generally start training at an extremely young age, while the 4 things above can easily all be picked up in high school.  I think it’s still remarkably difficult for a few reasons:

  1. There’s not someone telling you what to do. If anything, it’s driven by passion and personal interest, something that can easily be swept aside by a regimented life and deadlines.
  2. These all require finding the right issue to focus on. And often times, it’s hard to find the right issue.
  3. Very few high school students are doing this, and there aren’t many role models.

There’s a certain mindset that you have to adopt, a certain persistence that one needs in order to do these things. But in the end, it’s going to be worth it.

Go out and change the world.

Book Recommendations: Jan-Mar 2016

I’m a bad book critic.

Of the 200 books I’ve added on Goodreads already, I’ve only rated 4 books 2 stars and 0 books 1 star. I don’t have the literary taste to distinguish between good books and bad books. As a result, I rate almost every book I read positively.

What I can do, is compare books I have read. And in a quest to read more, I’ve blasted through 9 books this year, not counting anything in English class.

After some deliberation, here are my recommendations:

Warning: Due to above tendency to rate nearly all books positively, after a brief synopsis, most of my “reviews” turn into gushing about the book and/or author. I’ll try to keep it short.

Nonfiction: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam

22609334So I think about education a lot. Like, a lot. I’ve read on in school influences, out of school influences, teaching methods, etc. and I’ve constantly mulled over what factors really, really matter.

Our Kids analyzes these societal factors and nails their root causes on the head. After Putnam describes his own upbringing, he identifies 5 factors that contribute to a child’s upbringing, and uses a crazily impactful mix of research and interviews with students growing up in today’s society.  From the privileged child growing up with two parents, going to the best public schools, getting overloaded with extracurriculars, to the child raised by a single mother (who was also raised by a single mother) who isn’t guaranteed a place to sleep each night, who goes to an underfunded school and is unlikely to go to college.

I think everyone who reads the book can identify with at least one child growing up, and regardless, it serves as a good wakeup call as to “how the other half lives.” It includes a good mix of statistics that show the scope of the problem, as well as personal accounts that demonstrate how these factors apply to an individual’s day to day life.

Other books:

  1. In Defense of a Liberal Education, Fareed Zakaria
  2. How to Win at College: Surprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students, Cal Newport
  3. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough

Memoir:  Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman

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This took me a bit too long to listen to as an audiobook (3+ weeks), but I found every chapter incredibly fascinating. This book affirms my belief that yes, immensely smart people CAN BE and often ARE interesting.  But more importantly, they have a curiosity to learn about anything and everything and are constantly thinking about ways to improve . From going to strip clubs, to cracking safes, to criticizing the Brazilian education system, Feynman’s modest yet quirky personality manifested itself in multiple ways throughout his life.

It’s that same theme that keeps popping up: watching people who genuinely enjoy what they’re doing is attractive. Nuff’ said.

Other books:

  1. Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Ariana Huffington

Young Adult Fiction: Every Last Word, Tamara Ireland Stone

23341894This was the second book I’ve borrowed from my school library after Everything, Everything. The inside front cover revealed that the main character, Sam, was amongst the most popular in her high school, and I joked with a friend nearby that this book was my chance to vicariously live the life of a popular girl.

But this book quickly moves past the shallowness of high school culture to something more serious: Sam’s purely-obsessional OCD. To help, she meets a new friend, Caroline, who takes her someplace she’s never been to before: an enclave in the school called “Poet’s Corner,” where she meets a new cast of characters she would have dismissed had she stayed within her popular clique.

For most of the novel, I was expecting the generic plot of “a quirky but broken guy meets a quirky but broken girl and they don’t get along well at first but they totally fall in love afterwards”, but there’s a plot twist right when everything seems to be too normal.

There’s a special type of love I reserve for characters that I know can’t exist in real life but are somehow perfect in concept. There’s a special type of love I reserve for stories that I know can’t exist in real life but are somehow perfect in concept. This book gets pretty close to reaching that level of purity

Other books:

  1. Isla and the Happily Ever After, Stephanie Perkins
  2. All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven

Currently, I’m reading The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by Dale Russakoff and listening to The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathan Kozol. Hoping to finish both of these books by the end of the break.

Feel free to follow me on Goodreads and/or suggest any recommendations.

When a “success” feels like a failure

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Yes, that is JJ Watt’s mom at the front.

Last night, I brought students from 6 different magnet schools to my district school board meeting. Most of them were the only student from their school there. They spoke genuinely and authentically about the inadequate sports programs at their schools. And as a result, a racially divided board voted unanimously to not take away UIL sports at magnet schools, a drastic change from the heated and racially split vote from the month before.

Yet when I got home that night, I cried.

Why?

Because all the while, while the board members were complimenting the fantastic effort that the students must have put in, every single one of them was looking at the opposite side of the room from where I was sitting with my group.

Because even after spending all the time individually messaging students who I thought may be interested, making sure they had rides, and helping them craft arguments, I didn’t get a chance to talk to all the speakers beforehand as a group. Again, I sped through my speech.

Because even after the meeting, every time I tried talking to a board member, most of them didn’t even remember my name, even though I showed up to every board meeting since January of my junior year. I could blame it on them or on the lack of adults to introduce me, but it was also my simple inability to grasp this thing called “networking”- to start up a conversation, to have something to say, and to start that relationship and keep it going. Every insecurity I had about being an awkward Asian girl trying to fit in came flooding in.

Because it took me nearly a year and a half to even muster up the courage to take a stance on these issues, in my last semester of high school. And I have no guarantee that whoever will take on this role after me will even know why it’s important to come to these meetings, that they’ll face a similar struggle with simply starting that conversation.

Because I get the gut wrenching feeling that even had I not spent all this time getting a racially and socially diverse group of students, the board would have still voted the same way. In other words, we may not have made any impact at all.

On the bright side, some students spoke at their first board meeting on an issue that genuinely mattered to them, an issue that has come up at multiple meetings. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything of the sort.

But really, the atmosphere stuck most with me: After the board announced the result of the vote,  the audience cheered, and the board president rapped his gavel, demanding that the audience not disrupt the meeting. But instead of the solemn hush that characterized most meetings, the crowd laughed in response, releasing all the tension that had built up.  As students and teachers left the room, the board quickly reorganized, relieved that they had gone through the agenda more quickly than they had since the beginning of the school year.

And that made me smile.

Dealing with inferiority complexes

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A reflection on being un-extraordinary, plus a bit of advice.

I’m a second semester senior.

Let me repeat that again. I’m a second semester senior.

I’m a second semester senior.

I’m free to not care about anything, free to say #yolo to anything and everything. And yet for some reason, I’ve begun caring more and more about certain things. Knowing that I won’t see most of my classmates in a few months means that I should be nice as possible now. (Or maybe rather, there’s no risk in starting a friendship that could end poorly.) Knowing that I’ll be leaving most of the organizations I’ve been involved with motivates me to make some sort of difference before I leave. (Or maybe rather, that I’m finally not plagued with the idea that I’m just doing everything for my college apps.)

Of the organizations I joined as a freshman, Quizbowl has been one of the few organizations I’ve stayed in. And last week, as I saw 7 new members join the team for the last time, I began thinking back to when I first joined the team as a freshman.

Still fresh off the novelty of  high school, I was eager to join the team, to continue something I had done in middle school. In some ways, it was great. I was included in on the jokes. Most people knew my name. (This was a bigger deal to me than I care to admit.) My team members and the sponsors were witty and intelligent and nerdy. Plus, there was free food.

But something else wasn’t right: my actual quizbowl ability. Week after week, I watched juniors and seniors on the team name things I had never even heard of, much less could identify. Spending 90 minutes each week listening to hundreds of questions I didn’t know the answer to was demoralizing.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that after a few months, I didn’t want to come to practices anymore. I wasn’t contributing anything to the team, and people had no reason to pay attention to me.

* * *

If this were a good story, someone else would swoop in right about now, motivate me, and I would muster up the drive and self-discipline to become a national quizbowl champion. If this were a good story and had I not won the birth lottery, this type of story might even become famous: the girl who beat all her more privileged peers.

None of that happened though, and now,  I’m still mediocre at quizbowl. End of story. Simply another failed story, a direct result of my lack of hard work…

…but is that really it? I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly was so discouraging in the first place. Was it being exposed to the genius upperclassmen? Nope,  I had seen plenty good quizbowl players in middle school and been pummeled at every math competition I went to. I had been exposed to the limits of my own intelligence early on. That didn’t explain everything.

What was different, however, was that in middle school, there were other people affirming how I felt. When my friends and I saw these “geniuses”, we could marvel at their intelligence together before throwing ourselves into studying more. But as a freshman on the quizbowl team, I was an outsider among a group of people who had already assimilated. (at least from my perspective).

When I ask people why so few stories of people overcoming tough situations exist, their response has been “some people just aren’t cut out to do well” or that everything can be accomplished with enough “grit”. My parents occasionally talk about the necessity of “chi ku” (literally: eating bitter) in order to succeed. Every work of literature I’ve read in English has had the theme “Wisdom through suffering,” to the extent that it’s become a joke.

I believe that mindset too at times: I’ve told myself: “Screw the inferiority complex. I’ll just work twice as hard and prove myself” more times than I can count. Because maybe that’s the right attitude. Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my laziness, and maybe I’ll just have to face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to put the work into being a good quizbowl player.

Yet,  I can’t help but feel bad when year after year, I see the same excited students join the team each year and leave discouraged after a few practices. I see a bit too much of myself in them,  and most of them didn’t even have my exposure to middle school quizbowl. The last thing I want to blame it on is their own laziness or the lack of some innate quality.

This also makes me uncomfortable. By not doing more to help these new members, am I actively choosing to perpetuate the cycle that almost made me quit quizbowl? Am I guilty of my own crime?

I try to tell the new members “It’s okay if it’s tough. It’s always a difficult transition.”  in hopes that it will help. But I really doubt that’s enough to get them through the months it takes to realize that yes, Quizbowl  indeed only tests a finite list of topics, that yes, you can still have fun even if you’re barely answering any questions and that yes, it’s definitely worth staying.  What if they become systematically desensitized and developed a feeling of learned helplessness, like I been so close to? Until I had more friends join the team my sophomore year, I wouldn’t have had many qualms about dropping out.

* * *

It’s weird that I chose to focus on Quizbowl here–it’s been neither the most influential nor distinctive feature of high school for me, not by a long shot. But it’s something I’ve been involved with for a long time, something with easily quantifiable metrics, an activity in which I’ve felt both superior and inferior.

In fact, it’s a lot like school, though doing well in school has been an ego boost for me more often than not. What can it be like for the other half?

This weekend, I heard a former district superintendent talk about dismal literacy rates in my county. (Spoiler: two-thirds of students can’t read on grade level.)

At its heart, he said, not knowing how to read is a form of emotional abuse. Not even considering the social and economic implications of illiteracy, constantly being evaluated by your ability to take tests that you can’t even understand is emotionally devastating.

This bothers me. I didn’t grow up with parents who spoke English, I certainly wasn’t a hardworking preschooler (if that even exists), and I learned to read just fine. But for a myriad of other smaller, more subtle reasons, this isn’t a reality for the majority of my peers who grew up in the same community as me, and I can only imagine what their attitude towards school must be. 1

Ignoring that inferiority complex that we all possess in some form is just going to result in more and more insecurity, more jealousy, that constant feeling of not being good enough, or worst (and perhaps the most logical conclusion), simply not caring anymore. Affirming someone’s feelings goes a lot further than denying that they exist. We’re naturally hardwired to connect with one another, and ignoring emotional and biological feedback is rarely a good idea.

With that, I present…

Amy’s list of self-reminders:

  1. Find pleasure in what you’re learning/doing
  2. Find private, intrinsic, quiet pleasure in what you’re learning/doing. No one can take that away from you.
  3. Practice every day.
  4. Silence the outside voices and competition
  5. You’re not the best. Don’t get cocky.
  6. You’re not the best. It’s okay.
  7. Most of the journey is going to be done on your own. Be prepared.
  8. Other people are important. Find a good support system.
  9. Other people are important. Find a good system of people to support.
  10. Worst case scenario: Things don’t go your way, and you learn a bunch in the process.
  11. It’s okay.
  12. Get enough sleep .

Anything to add?

 * * *

Reading:


  1. To be fair though, one of the first things I did after learning to read was to pull a handle on a bright red box with the words “pull”. The fire alarm. Whoops. 

Just Bucket It

image

Every bucket list has a story.

In my case, it’s a boring story. I was looking for good places to study on Google Maps and Yelp. A few hours later, I was looking for interesting places (read: anything but a study spot) to visit on Google Maps and Yelp. The next day in class, I started a list in my notebook of places I remembered finding interesting. But at one point, the list became more about experiences to have  than places to go.

Here’s the entire list before, split between places to go and experiences.

Places to go:

  • Paperback Exchanges (used book store near my house) -DONE
  • Place that serves afternoon tea
  • Various coffeeshops
  • Escape the Room
  • Memorial Park
  • More food trucks
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Origami Houston Meeting
  • Toastmasters meeting
  • Slam poetry or a Moth event
  • Someplace to get a job
  • A paper store
  • Cooking/painting class
  • Dance studio

Experiences:

  • Participate in a public yarn bombing
  • Give away books and craft supplies
  • Sit in a class for a period that’s not mine + write a blog post
  • Interview an adult (preferably a teacher)
  • Sell origami
  • Run a 5k/10k/half marathon
  • Write 1000 blog posts
  • Record something personal at a local radio station
  • Confess to a former crush
  • Apologize to someone I was mean to
  • Apologize to my parents
  • Write and release a 20,000+ word ebook/manifesto
  • Spend a whole day (9-5) outside the house by myself
  • Have a post reach 5,000+ views
  • Eat lunch with someone new
  • Write 20 thank you notes–beyond yearbook messages
  • Have a meaningful conversation with a stranger during a train/bus/plane/taxi ride
  • Find the perfect notebook/pen combination (on hold until I get through all 9 of my small notebooks)
  • Wear something I made regularly
  • Play volleyball again
  • Teach a class (anything)
  • Get my writing published in print

Most bucket lists I found online involved some sort of travel. After some thought, I decided to keep all foreign places off, at least now. Until I can comprehend the depth and breadth of my own city, I don’t think I can get the full experience of another place. College may be another story.

Anything I missed?

Advice to Freshman

speech

Tonight, my school had its annual event to recruit 8th graders. I had the privilege of giving the opening remarks to an auditorium of 800 potential students and parents. My written out speech is below. (Not a transcript.)

Good evening everyone, and welcome to Bellaire High School! I’m Amy Fan, and I’m currently a senior here. Show of hands–how many of y’all have come to Bellaire before? And who’s here for their first time? Alright everyone put their hands down.

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain my experience at Bellaire to an auditorium of 800 people, and I think the best way to do it is by giving advice.

My first piece of advice is: Talk to people. And this sounds simple, but let me tell you a story. When I was at Cardinal Kickoff my freshman year, this same event three years ago, I was at the booth for one of my clubs. When I was describing my club to an 8th grader, I got told: “Dude, calm down. Why do you sound so nervous?” Trust me, when you get to high school, the last thing you want happen is to have a middle school student telling you that you suck at your job.

It didn’t help that there was a Houston Chronicle reporter interviewing two students. One of them was the student body president and the NHS president AND also happened to be an amazing dancer. The other was a national level debater, incredibly eloquent, student body secretary and president of multiple clubs already. As a sophomore.

And so I was left with this paralyzing sense of fear, of uncertainty. Like, did I really belong? Was I capable of actually becoming one of these people?

This leads me to my second piece of advice: Embrace the fear. Embrace that uncertainty, in my case, embrace that awkwardness. You know how people enjoy riding roller coasters because of the fear? I began treating that sense of nervousness like riding a roller coaster.

If you’re ever debating whether to talk to someone or whether not to talk to someone, talk to them. Obviously, this applies right now, when you’re about to meet the 102 student organizations at Bellaire, but it’s pretty universal. Say hi to people in the halls. Ask your teacher the tiny question. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to someone. Personally, I never liked reaching out to adults. I’ve always talked to friends more. On the other side, if someone talks to you, listen to them. Be a good person.

Tonight, you’ll see the loudest and the proudest of Bellaire, but I think there’s something to be said for the smaller day to day things. I’m currently the speaker of the HISD Student Congress, which advocates for students having more of a say in their education since we spend over 16,000 hours in the classroom. Anyways, I hear a lot of complaints from students, from schools all over the city, good schools and not so good schools, diverse schools and not so diverse school. And what really stuck with me was “I wish adults at my school trusted the students”.

And this is something that’s intangible, but at the same time, it’s also very, very real. You can see it in: 

  • The fact that Bellaire lets 100 student organizations run around
  • The freedom we get in choosing our classes
  • The conversations between administrators and students in the halls
  • The teachers who leave their rooms open during lunch for tutorials, or just for a place to eat.

[Yes, I left this as a list, because this was the only list I thought that I’d have to reference]

I’d like to end with a piece of advice I heard once in a podcast, which is to “Pick the life path that leads to the most interesting stories.” The best stories don’t involve doing everything right the first time. They don’t involve not doing anything at all. The best stories leave something with the reader. They change the main character. They’re different and special and unique. And from my story at Bellaire, I can confidently tell you that Bellaire will give you all the resources to create an interesting story of your own.

Again, welcome to Bellaire, and now, I’d like to introduce you to our principal. Thank you.

Side thoughts/notes:

  1. 15 minutes before my speech, someone pointed out that my shirt was on backwards. Good thing they caught it before and not after.
  2. A good number of people told me that I did well afterwards, but I don’t know if they were doing it to be nice, or if they actually meant it. Before, I would obsess over this (a lot), but now, I don’t even care. If I’m getting undeserved praise, then so be it.
  3. I used to not put much preparation in a speech and then obsess for days after I finished talking, regretting that I wasn’t more prepared. Now, I realized that not that many people will remember what I say, and that unless I do really well or I do really poorly, no one’s going to care.
  4. I was totally planning on writing a 100% scripted speech, but I ended up not really following said script much. Writing everyone out was important though.
  5. Having those 15 minutes before the event started to give my speech to an empty auditorium really, really helped. I could get used to the sound of my voice. Speaking into that microphone the first time to an empty audience was scarier than delivering the actual speech to all 700 people.
  6. About the performances after my speech that generated much more energy and applause: Performance artists all have this need to be seen, this love of performing that radiates through. And it’s attractive. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: When I like a school, it’s usually because I admire the confidence and ease in which the people there carry themselves. It’s not really about the school itself. (I first noticed this while on college tours.)