Illustration by Jao San Pedro
Extreme expectations mean extreme stress for the teenagers trying to graduate from California’s elite schools. What’s life like inside a pressure cooker? Just ask the kids who are living it.
Adults have many opinions about teenagers, and for the most part they’re negative. Teenagers are unpredictable and mean, we say, or they’re lazy and entitled, or they’re self-involved, selfie-taking, Snapchat-addicted narcissists who don’t understand how easy they have it.
It’s easy to forget how challenging being a teenager can be, how the world seems ready to foist adult responsibilities onto you without offering any adult freedom in return. And our clichéd view of teenage angst makes it easy to dismiss the struggles that people go through as they move from youth to adulthood, easy to make the assumption that every feeling of stress or strain is merely the result of an unfortunate combination of hormones and melodrama.
But in the affluent, high-achieving communities crowded around Silicon Valley, there is one aspect of teenagers’ lives that parents treat with the utmost seriousness: their child’s acceptance to an elite (preferably Ivy League) university.
When you’re a teenager in these environments, with a family full of brilliant minds who worked their way through Stanford or MIT or Harvard, the pressure to succeed can become a driving force and a source of anxiety. The sense of competition and a desire to excel is often paired with the crushing fear that one mistake will ruin their chances irreparably.
We often think of work — and workaholism — as a problem of the adult world, and yet young people in these situations are driven so hard to achieve that they often crack. The evidence? Recurring clusters of suicides at these schools, some of which have rates five times the national average. But while each of these tragedies brings extensive media scrutiny, they also generate many more bad opinions based on clickbait headlines and deep presumptions about the motives of the kids who struggle to cope.
High school students in 2017 exist in a different environment than that of their parents and, in some cases, even their older siblings. Teenagers in the U.S., for example, grew up in the shadow of 9/11, and have never known life without the ubiquity of the internet and smartphones. They are growing up in a fundamentally different world from the one most 20-and 30-somethings did. If we want to understand what it’s like to be a teenager in a high-pressure academic environment in 2017, we must listen to the teens who are living that reality.
So that’s what we decided to do. We asked students what they really felt and to put their thoughts down and share them. So here are high school students and recent graduates from some of California’s most stressful schools, giving us their views. Some writers asked for their names to be changed, but others did not. And while we have excerpted some text from longer essays, these stories are otherwise unedited, unchanged and unvarnished. They give us all a glimpse of what it feels like to be on the inside of such a demanding, confusing environment at such a young age. Read their stories/continued here.