This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.
By Margaret Rose Heftler
One night, I was on the blogging website Tumblr, procrastinating about studying for a physics test, and feeling more and more anxious about the fact that I wasn’t studying and that I would fail. Suddenly I came across a quote that struck a chord with me. It read, “Get a job. Go to work. Get married. Have children. Follow fashion. Act normal. Walk on the pavement. Watch TV. Obey the law. Save for your old age. Now repeat after me: I am free.”
I am generally not a rebellious person. Most of the time I do what my parents—and society in general—expect of me: I work hard in school so I can get into a good college and create a life that others want for me, and that I think I want. It looks something like becoming a doctor, or a lawyer. Getting married, having some kids, moving into a nice apartment in the city or a house in the suburbs, preparing my kids to do it all over again.
Lately, though, I’m not sure if this is the life I actually want, or if it’s the life I’ve been told to want. I know that I want to be happy, that I want to leave the world better than how I found it in whatever small way that I can, that I want to feel what I am doing has meaning. But I don’t know if this path will get me there.
This is making me doubt the way I act, and have always acted, always following the rules. I genuinely do like school; I enjoy learning about the way the world works and I’ve always had an intense intellectual curiosity. Learning about history makes me understand the way the world got to be the way it is today, the way power dynamics have been shaped and precedents created. Reading literature helps me understand the human condition, myself, and my own emotions. But lately, my experience at school has felt cheapened.
Striving Without Contentment
It seems that all of the work I put into my classes and studying for the SAT just winds up as letters and numbers which will determine what college I go to. The experience of learning the material doesn’t matter so much in this process. It makes my schoolwork seem flatter, even when the material we are reading and the discussions we are having are interesting and rich.
The emphasis on grades over learning makes it seem like my education is preparing me to go to college, get some normal, socially acceptable job, and live an average life. I’m not sure where the meaning comes into that equation. It seems more like treading water, focusing on earning enough money to stay afloat but never really stepping back and wondering why I’m doing what I’m doing.
I think of all the hours I spend doing pre-calculus problems, and wonder if I’m wasting my time. Maybe I should’ve been outside instead, or working on something I do enjoy, like writing a poem or reading a good book. I tell myself that I am working now in order to enjoy my life later, but what if “later” never comes? Reading about how recent college graduates, regardless of what college they attended, are having difficulty finding jobs and moving back in with their parents causes me to doubt my single-minded drive toward getting accepted at a good college.
Even the idea of getting a job and becoming a full adult freaks me out. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, and the prospect of becoming just another person trying to get by in the world, as opposed to achieving something exceptional, scares me. I don’t want to spend my whole life running, never knowing towards what.
When does it end? First it’s towards the best grades and test scores, then the best college, then graduate school. Even when I’m done with schooling, it’s striving towards the most impressive job, the best salary, the next promotion, never being content with what I have already earned.
Recently I was watching the movie "Glengarry Glen Ross." There’s a scene where the boss of a real estate company is motivating his workers to sell more real estate. He says that he doesn’t really care about his workers as people, that all he wants them to do is “close”—sell more real estate. That was their value. This made me wonder about my place in the world, too. Am I only valued by society for what I produce, rather than for who I am?
What Defines Me?
In English class, we are reading the book "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison. One aspect of the book is the way the young narrator’s dreams for the future are based on positive reinforcement from the college he is attending. He gets his entire identity from the prestige of his education and from what other people think of him, but he is invisible, nobody really “sees” him as a full human being. Reading the book has made it clear to me that I don’t want to rely on grades or other people’s assessments to tell me I’m intelligent, to define who I am and whether I’m worthy.
Even though I doubt the path I appear to be going down, I’m also filled with anxiety about not getting into a good school. I don’t want to let down my grandma, my parents or myself. I want to go to a place where I can really grow as a person and study what interests me with other people who have a true thirst to learn. These contradictory desires can be paralyzing.
Most of all, I’m scared I may not be able to achieve my dreams of changing the world in some significant way. I look at the world today, and especially at American society, and see a lot of injustice and oppression that seems to never get better. Racism and sexism still hold many people back, income inequality is greater than it has been for a while, and the American dream is becoming harder to achieve.
Reprinted with permission from Youth Communication.