Looking Back on My High-Pressure High School

To my hometown, Arcadia High School, and to all the expectations I had for myself:

I’m trying to find a good message from my time in high school, but every time I try I run myself in circles. I’m a long way out, but when I stumbled upon Terence Zhao’s “A letter to my community” in The Stanford Daily, I was so unbelievably intrigued. Zhao’s honest articulation of the expectations set up around the college admission process struck home for me. The piece very explicitly illustrates the pervasive prioritization of prestigious college admission and the ways that it shaped students’ experiences and mentalities.

I don’t remember Terence. Realistically, he was probably one of the 7,000 students who cycled through Arcadia High that I never met, a common occurrence then but one starkly different than what I have become accustomed to at the Claremont Colleges. Reading his words were comforting. For the first time, I was seeing a critical analysis of the Arcadia High experience that mirrored my internal balance of appreciation and disdain.

For some context, Arcadia High School, the only public high school in the city, sits in the center of Arcadia, California. The town and the high school alike are home to a primarily affluent East Asian population and host various amenities that support this population. While I don’t identify with the Asian aspects of my hometown, I am familiar with the affluence. Because I never had to worry about what I could and couldn’t afford, from SAT classes to extracurriculars, it made participating in the college readiness process that much easier.

Arcadia High is also home to the most competitive college admission culture I have ever experienced or heard of. As soon as elementary school had ended, students were conditioned to compete for acceptance into institutions of higher education. I have distinct 5th grade memories of deciding which spelling words I would use in my college applications, words so advanced I avoid them in casual conversation even today.  

In my first high school English class, we were asked to write an essay about where we wanted to be in the future. The exercise was supposed to help shape the rest of our high school experience. I wrote about happiness, having a home and a family and a career, but primarily about being satisfied.

It seemed apt as I was entering the part of my life that was supposed to be the turning point for everything else to come. It was the beginning of the real hard work that would eventually launch me into the workforce. The profession I would choose would have to fund my lavish lifestyle and eventually my children’s similar pursuit of education. So when I thought about the future, I thought about happiness, because it wasn’t something I had then and I wouldn’t have it until I had reached these arbitrary milestones of graduations and marriages.

I had that same English teacher again in my senior year. He gave us a similar assignment. This time it was supposed to put in context the decisions we would make in college and how they may or may not be what we had always imagined. Writing the assignment I realized that I hadn’t used a single spelling word from the 5th grade in my college applications. I hadn’t enjoyed a minute of the AP test studying or the mindless, useless volunteering. I hadn’t actually known what self-made happiness looked like. And waiting until I was satisfied and achieved and “done” meant that I might actually never know what self-made happiness looked like. I wasn’t going to find happiness in the career or the profession or the graduations or the marriages. I wasn’t going to find much of anything until I decided to start creating it.

It’s hard for me to think about high school and not compare it to college. Pitzer is so different from Arcadia High, yet so similar. I am still very different from my peers, in identity and experience. I still find myself waiting and planning for the next moment causing myself to completely miss the current one, and I catch myself doing a lot of things I don’t enjoy for goals that I never chose myself. But I’ve changed and my interests have changed and I’m someone at Pitzer I could not have been at Arcadia High.

Putting high school in perspective causes me to consider how college will fit in. At 21 years old, the decisions I make are probably more relevant in the long run than the decisions I made at 15 years old, but do they carry the weight that I put on them? Do the things that I break my back over week after week really make the difference at the end of the day? My guess is that I won’t remember the one Senate bill that I blocked or the three that I couldn’t. But I will remember what it felt like to develop an argument and discuss my position and I guess that’s what all of this is about.

I would never go back to high school, but I’m forever grateful for what I learned. I suspect my feelings about college may be similar.

Simone Bishara is a third-year at Pitzer College studying Sociology. She hopes to one day pursue a career in juvenile justice.