The Cult of Achievement: Why I Wouldn't Do High School Over Again

03/14/2014 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2014

"Wow, you must be smart."

Every Stuyvesant High School alum has had to deflect this cheeky accusation at least once. Likely more, but at least once during the casual exchange of almae matres that is customary between peers.

It comes to be expected. Attending Stuyvesant has notable stigma attached to it, only intensified in recent years by media sensationalism and innumerable headlines churned out on the scandals that take place there. But the myth of Stuy transcends media frenzy, dating back to its establishment at the turn of the twentieth century and trucking on in full fervor today, as thousands of eighth graders line up at testing sites annually for a chance to snag the most coveted seat in New York City public schooling.

For me, Stuy was a beacon of hope. I was an insecure tween hopelessly resigned to nerdom, and it seemed to me an academic haven, harboring bright youngsters out of the callous social orders of middle school. For one who had spent more time pouring over books than ever socializing with schoolmates, Stuy was a veritable mecca, and I wanted desperately to belong there.

Or so I thought. Part of the Stuyvesant legacy is the promise of distinction  --  or more aptly, bragging rights  --  for those shrewd enough to test in, or fortunate enough to afford the necessary prep courses to do so. I wouldn't be the first child of immigrants whose parents equated Stuyvesant admittance with Ivy League-level prestige, and I would be lying if I said that their well-meaning influence didn't contribute to the way I glorified it.

At the time, I reckoned the prestige of Stuy as exactly the sort of trump card missing from my growing arsenal of tweenage defense mechanisms; as if having the name on my transcript would somehow trigger a cascade of open doors in my subsequent academic and professional careers, or in the very least make me impervious to teasing. I so desperately wanted to command respect in ways that my outward appearance could not, so what did I do? I studied. I studied and studied and studied some more, until the edges of my Kaplan prep book were frayed from use and I was solving math problems in my sleep. And sure enough, I passed the entrance exam.

Once accepted, the subsequent four years were a whirlwind of grades, papers, Scantrons and tests. Stuy bred a cult of achievement that few were resilient to, and those who couldn't take the heat either stopped caring or burnt out altogether. It was impossible to realize, at the time, that the pressure we were subjected to was utterly abnormal, so we just went with it. Grades were calculated to the second decimal point. Cumulative homework hours staggered well beyond what was manageable or possible, and Ivy League acceptance quotas made it seem as if one missed test question could dash all hopes of securing a bright future. It wasn't uncommon to see students dwarfed by comically massive book bags, shuffling down the hall in impressive displays of resilience to both gravity and nerves. The high regard I once held for the school promptly deflated, replaced by a steady stream of stress-fueled neurosis that lasted well until senior year, when senioritis set in and all notions of academic achievement were tossed swiftly out the window. By the time college rolled around, I cruised through coursework that was laughable by comparison.

Ours was a school of characters. The eccentricities of the students were only matched by those of the teachers, and for every shining example of earnest pedagogy in the classroom, there was a teacher riding by on tenure whose passion for the craft had long since expired. The students were energetic for the most part; plagued by stress, sure, but also bright and talented beyond measure  --  some far too bright for their own good. Depression was rampant, as was drug use. But there were a handful of shining stars in every grade who juggled straight A's, lead drama roles, varsity sports positions, and school-wide popularity. They perplexed and enraged and charmed me all at once.

It's been almost five years since I graduated the esteemed high school by the Hudson, and I've spoken to many former classmates about it since. While some recall it with a fond nostalgia, others admit they were never more relieved than to escape its hive mentality. In an environment like Stuy's, students fall into three categories: those who thrive, those who collapse under the pressure, and those who don't care enough to be bothered either way. Those who don't fall into the former or latter categories really don't belong there. I couldn't hack it, and I don't know how I made it through those four years without giving up. I don't feel proud. I feel retroactively neurotic.

If I was to do high school over again, I would trade the unsustainable ambitiousness for a normal, happier experience. It's a shame that no one pulled me aside at the time to tell me that nothing, not even good grades, are more important than my well-being or sanity. And that's my biggest regret  --  not that I didn't work hard enough, but that I was too afraid not to.