Tag Archives: mental health

High School, Again

It’s 6:45 am but it might as well by 1:45 am. Or 2:45. It’s dark as night out and i have to go to work.

I started a new job in January. I am a teaching fellow in a highly academic, STEM-focused school, training to become a Biology teacher. I’ve spent the last 5 years teaching science part-time with a small educational non-profit. While this was good for my family life and my music-making, it was time to go back to work full-time again. My daughter is in college and my son is in high school. They are both pretty self-sufficient now.

As I walk through the noisy hallways of the school, which is located in a converted office building, I am surprised and a little dismayed by a feeling of deja vu. This is a private independent school (which means I can teach here without a teaching credential) whereas I went to a public school in a more typical public school building. But it’s no secret that I didn’t enjoy high school very much the first time around. I was 2 years younger than my peers and a social late bloomer. I have realized in retrospect that I was suffering from at least social anxiety, math anxiety, and their granddaddy, performance anxiety. Awareness of all of these, as with many mental health issues, is much better nowadays, as is treatment. But this time of life can still be fraught for many teens, especially here in hyper-achievement-oriented Silicon Valley.

Some folks have even asked me, why do this at all? I have a PhD, so perhaps I could get another biotech or project management job. Perhaps. But when I did work in those fields I felt like there was something missing: a human connection, a child-like joy in learning new things. I felt that joy intermittently in music, and with my kids, but rarely at work. I was stuck forever looking for my “passion” in all the wrong places.

Teaching, though, makes sense. In a weird way, it’s like coming home. There is something very primal, and comforting about having a bell schedule and class periods that are the same every day. The subjects are familiar too. While cutting-edge science has marched ahead, high school physics and math remain much the same. They are learned at younger and younger ages though; the AP Calculus I learned as a senior is taken here by sophomores and juniors. And, as Christa McAuliffe said, it touches the future. I’m here now as a teacher in midlife because I wasn’t ready before. I only came to like teaching after I became a parent and taught in a number of informal, non-school settings like church and Girl Scouts. It’s time, after all those years, to face down that anxiety and defang it.

Tomorrow is another day. The alarm rings at 5:45.

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It’s that time of year again, for graduations and award ceremonies. These are generally happy occasions, but I personally find the experience a bit mixed. You see, I am not an award winner, not the one up on stage giving a speech. I am introverted, and, truth be told, not that accomplished.

More than that, though, I can’t go to an awards ceremony without hearing about the awardee’s positive attitude, the smile on the face, the spring in the step, the can-do spirit. The awardee is invariably “more” than their grades, or their work achievements, or their sports skills, and that something extra is what “really” earned them the award. It is not, we are told, the specific accomplishment that award has engraved on it or sculpted into it—not even they are handed a tiny golden man with an even tinier ball stuck to his foot.

This is all well and good–I mean, I wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days when the only award given out went to the worst insufferable know-it-all in the class. I like that there are more awardees these days, recognizing a diversity of contributors and achievements.

But I still can’t help wondering about the other kids, the other non-award-winners. The ones who, despite a modicum of achievement, can’t summon a positive attitude; the ones whose support systems are fraying, whose grip on mental or physical health may be precarious, or who just aren’t that into it, but who still put in the effort, come to school every day, and do the work. It’s damn hard to excel at something you dislike. But these kids do it.

I think most well-meaning adults would argue that attitude is a “choice” and if you’re not feeling it, you should just fake it until you make it. After all, it’s true that you don’t have to feel like doing something in order to get it done. And from an adult’s point of view, it’s certainly a lot easier to like and bestow favors upon a smiling kid than one who is angry, frustrated or withdrawn.

But faking it emotionally comes at a cost. Student stress, anxiety, and depression have reached alarming levels, even among those who appear to be comfortable, safe, and financially solvent. Students talk about the burden of “effortless perfection” that they feel is expected of them, especially at so-called top schools.

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. Students make these expectations of each other, and of themselves too. But I think that adults contribute to the problem when we make recognition all about the smile. I’d like to see, maybe just once during a 90-minute ceremony, a kid getting an award for completing something difficult and unpleasant, for dragging themselves out of bed and facing the inner demons for the 90th time that year, and not having fun doing it.

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