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.

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.

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. 

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.

 

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

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. 

Rhymes with “Fuck it List”: Paperback Exchanges + The Sugar Shop

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I doubted there was much of a small town feel to Houston.

The two most popular hangout spots for my peers are Starbucks and Chick-fil a, both walking distance from my school. The rest of that shopping complex is filled with chain retail stores. During lunch, flocks of people head off campus to grab lunch, returning with food from Chipotle, La Madeleine, Whataburger. The lines for the outside vendors are always longer than the ones in the cafeteria. There are a disproportionate number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals who live in the neighborhood and whose students walk the halls. Despite the 60 year old school building and the few remaining pastel-colored wooden houses from the 50s, I feel like I live in a suburban neighborhood sometimes.

That’s why I was surprised to learn that there was a used book store, Paperback Exchanges, less than a 5 minute drive away from my school, at a strip mall along a confusing three-way intersection, receded from the curb and obscured by trees. The Yelp reviews mentioned the store owner by name. Puffy yellow graffiti on the window storefront advertises the used books.

But when I went to visit with a friend Friday after school, the door was locked. The sign at the front was flipped to “open”. Store hours on the door said that the store would be open until 5.

I asked an elderly lady who was peering inside.

I don’t know why the store is closed, she said. Missi never stepped out without leaving a note. Maybe she had gone to grab a sandwich since she didn’t take a lunch break. Her car wasn’t in the parking lot. She must have left in a hurry.

We nod. How long had the store been around?

At least 20 years, and Missi had been there since forever.

We introduce ourselves as high school seniors from the local public school. She immediately names her grandchildren, nieces, and in-laws who graduated there.

Finally, a tan sedan pulls up. That’s Missi’s car.

The elderly lady introduces as “potential customers” as Missi gets out of the car and unlocks the door.

You know when banks tell you that someone’s gotten into your account and they send you in a hurry? Missy says. I had to rush over to the nearest bank and check to make sure everything was alright. Oh, you kids are so lucky.

We smile at our own naivite. After some discussions about college, they let us browse the store, as they keep talking. The front of the school contains the popular releases, the newer hardcover books. I recognize titles from the Amazon bestseller list. But they seem out of place, too shiny, too new, for this bookstore.

The store itself is only three shelves wide, but very deep. Quickly, I realize that half the store is romance and…more than romantic novels, a reflection of the people who visit. There’s a small YA section in the back corner, a scattering of recent popular novels (Twilight, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alex Rider), right next to a section with classics. In the biography section, I find a signed copy of a memoir by a local politician.

As we buy a few books, I notice the business card for a nearby bakery on the counter. They used to be neighbors until the baker moved a few blocks away. We should go to the bakery and say that we sent them. We take the card, thank them, and leave.

With only an address and a map sans GPS, we drive past it the first time. It’s a standalone place behind a strip mall. A splash of new red metal furniture decorates the front.

When we walk in, Michael, the owner and baker, instantly greets us. After taking a glance at the pastries, we shuffle to the back, looking at the gifts. There are homemade fruit preserves, cigar boxes, assorted decorations, and …a basket full of stones glued to pill bottles.

They’re used for burying spare keys in the yard, Michael says. Put the key in the pill bottle, and bury the stone in the yard. No, there aren’t any stones buried in front of the store. The key is right here, you see, hanging right beside the door frame, and the owners of Paperback Exchanges and another children’s store each have a copy. If anyone ever gets locked in, we ask each other for the key. I’m usually the first the one here in the morning though.

How long has the bakery been around? I ask.

A long time, but I only recently moved in to this location. Do we see the fridge there? When I first moved in, I didn’t know how to adjust the temperature. Once, I heard a loud BANG in this building. Turns out a can of coke exploded all over the fridge. But now the temperature is under control.

And did we see these decorated sugar cookies? I always make a few extras because some of them always don’t turn out well, and I display them here. These were for twins, but they didn’t have names yet, so I just put “Baby A” and “Baby B”. There were so many more cookies earlier today, but they all sold out. There’s still a few sugar cookies, lemon bars, biscotti, oatmeal raisin cookies, pies, scones, and other desserts left.

I buy a dessert, and Lucian buys a slice of pecan pie.

Oh there’s an oddly shaped slice of the pecan pie left. I had a slice myself for breakfast, and there’s a weirdly shaped slice left, he says as he places an entire quarter of the pie into the box. I try to hide my surprise.

As he rings up our order, I scramble for leftover change, trying to determine the exact amount for tax.

“$3.50”

I could add tax, he said, but it’s easier to assume that tax is included. Plus, I’m not sure how the machine works.

Another pleasant surprise. We grab napkins (bright red ones, like the tables and chairs) and forks. As we step out, Michael tells us that he sells cakes as well, if we ever need them. And please, we should take a business card.

We smile, say we already got them from the bookstore, and walk out. I’m still in marvel at the huge slice of pie.

Next, we head to the nearby park across from the neighborhood library, eat our freshly-bought pastries, and read our books until the sun shines through the trees into our faces as it sets.

A true account, though there were many liberties taken with speech, hence the lack of quotation marks. For more information about the bakery and the used bookstore, check out The Sugar Shop’s website and Paperback Exchanges on Yelp

List of Lists: Effective Time Management

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What I used to think effective time management was:

  1. Making a list of everything that one was supposed to do
  2. Blasting through every task with no breaks, in no particular order. Finishing one task meant starting the next
  3. After finishing it all, starting ahead on something else.

Things I did in pursuit of good time management:

  1. Making to do lists.
  2. Crossing off things I finished.
  3. Transferred things that I hadn’t done to the next day.
  4. Starting using a Bullet Journal.

What started happening:

  1. Since I’d rely on my list to figure out what needed to be done, everything that didn’t get put down was not done
  2. Sometimes I’d forget to transfer a task over, and it’d just never get done.
  3. If there were a bunch of small tasks (And I mean tiny– “get form signed”, “tell ____ about ____”), I’d get those done first. By getting those done first, I mean only get those done.
  4. There were tasks I’d write every day for months (literally MONTHS) that would just never get done
  5. Longer tasks would always get pushed to the end of the day – “when I could get them done faster anyways”
  6. I wouldn’t get enough sleep in pursuit of finishing more things
  7. Self perpetuating cycle

What I tried instead that worked better:

  1. Scheduling time- literally making a hour to hour schedule of what I was going to spend each hour of my day doing.
  2. Using multiple to-do lists for extracurriculars, school, personal life, and college. Transfer a few tasks into each day.
  3. (Trying to) sleep and wake up at the same time every day
  4. Setting timers for everything
  5. Making routines for: a) waking up b) after school c) before bed
  6. Google Calendaring stuff in the future (no matter how petty)
  7. Acknowledge that the environment in which you work DOES matter and that turning off WiFi DOES keep you on task

The two things that distracted me the most:

  1. Twitter/social media (That includes reading blogs on WordPress)
  2. Talking to people online.

More personal observations:

  1. Winter break is a fantastic time to try out these things. Not so much once school starts. (Morning plans currently take up an hour of my morning- am I willing to wake up an hour earlier during the school year?)
  2. Paper or digital???
  3. Before, I would generally only get the tiny things done. Now, I tend to get more big things done while leaving the smaller tasks unfinished.
  4. I need to find a better way to handle more flexibility + unexpected things
  5. How much is me actually scheduling stuff badly (aka 5 straight hours on the computer with no breaks) and how much is just me being lazy?
  6. If I stick to a schedule, it generally works…until it gets to the last 2 items– usually slow, long term stuff (COUGH COLLEGE APPS)
  7. The biggest thing that determines whether I stick to my schedule or not– whether my notebook is 1) on my desk and 2) whether it’s open to today’s schedule. Literally. The tiniest things prevent me from getting stuff done sometimes.
  8. LEARNING THIS EARLIER WOULD HAVE LITERALLY HELPED ME IN EVERY CLASS EVER.

“Bibliography”

Readings:

  • The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
  • How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

Blogs:

  • ZenHabits
  • Essena O’Neil’s daily plans
  • Cal Newport’s blog
  • The Prospect

Other stuff:

  • Shia LaBoeuf
  • Nike
  • Stories of people constantly talking about managing their time well. And then realizing that I had 0 idea what managing my time well ACTUALLY meant.