I went into my senior year of high school with these objectives: take on as much as possible, have an A in every class, and be perfect at everything I did. Coming out of senior year, I have finally realized these expectations are unrealistic and ultimately freed myself from the box of perfectionism that clouded the way I saw myself.
When I first told people that I signed up for four classes at Georgia State University (which became five in second semester), along with the three classes required by my high school, they normally reacted with “whoa there.” I took it as a compliment to my work ethic, oblivious to the difficult year I was soon to have.
My experience of dual enrollment in college was worlds apart from my experience with a traditional high school workload. In high school, all I needed to do to ace a test was pay attention in class and (maybe) read the chapter. In college, each class teetered on the edge of the oblivion of grades below A. One test score could propel my GPA safely away from that edge or straight into the depths.
This is the story of my year of sprinting across downtown Atlanta to get from class to class, spirals of anxiety, four-hour study sessions, loneliness and a few blissful weeks before graduation in which I simply no longer cared.
I would walk outside sometimes to clear my mind and enjoy the changing seasons, but as I walked, I felt this wave of raw guilt pass through me. I was being lazy. I would never get my work done. I was going off the routine. And the moment I no longer enjoyed learning because I began to associate it only with stress was the moment things needed to change.
A Semester of Self Care
Second semester of the same year, VOX kicked off its semester-long investigation into mental health. After the kick-off, I remember standing with the teen editor, Thalia Butts, waiting on a train. Crowds congregated at Five Points MARTA station, recovering from the excitement of Saturday afternoon. Only wanting to make small talk, I asked her something about our coming edition.
Thus ensued a rant from Thalia about people who stay up all night working on assignments, who sign up for more AP classes than they can humanly handle, who lose focus on the big picture of “livin’ your life,” and who will ultimately face problems like anxiety, depression and disease somewhere in their 20s. Thalia was talking about people like me, and she challenged my long-held belief that education and success should always come first, no matter what. From elementary school to high school, an A was rewarded with money and eyebrows raised in happy surprise, and I became greedy, sacrificing peace of mind for positive reinforcement first from others and later from myself.
From this, I was inspired to write an article and video (below) about taking care of oneself while making transitions, particularly the transition from high school to college. For this article, I interviewed several college students and counselors about what helped them through bumpy transitions to a world potentially defined by stress.
In my head, every morning, I started out with a clean slate and one awkward moment or time management mistake soon destroyed that. I had spent too many days putting myself down for not living up to that perfect ideal. Throughout the semester, vulnerability, the occasional weekend of binging on Netflix, and community became the tools with which I could build myself back up. Other people’s stories and poetry gave me permission to feel, which had scared me the most. I realized I was not the only one who felt these things.
Did I follow the advice of my peers in the article? Maybe not as closely as I could have. Especially in those last weeks of school, I struggled with finding a balance between going home and napping the afternoon away, and spending entire Sundays writing and rewriting about MRSA and rhinovirus.
A part of me — the part that aspired to be the Perfect Sophomore, the Perfect Junior, the Perfect Senior — wants to spend the summer working toward becoming the Perfect College Freshman or the Perfect Adult.
The Perfect College Freshman makes friends in a heartbeat. She never cries or forgets deadlines. She is loud and charismatic. She is summa cum laude. She knows exactly what she wants in life. In her first week at college, the Perfect College Freshman starts up this club that will make all the difference in the world and will be covered by CNN, NPR and even the New York Times.
With some self-reflection, I have realized that I will never be the Perfect College Freshman. She does not even have the same personality as me. In fact, she does not even exist.
I have abandoned the Perfect College Freshman ideal and embraced healthier goals— to become a journalist skilled and intentional in my writing, and understanding of different cultures and people. I will meet these goals one step at a time and without ever sacrificing that true personality.
Standing in a line with my class preparing to walk out to the senior farewell with the music of the senior class’ favorite songs blasting from the gym, my friend walked up and down the line asking everyone what they would be like in college. When she came to me, I thought of the Perfect College Freshman. Would this year be different? Could I really change personalities overnight this time?
Before Thalia’s rant and a semester of self care, I would have described the ideal, but I decided instead to accept and validate who I am at the core — determined, a quick learner and someone who can own up to her mistakes and meet her more realistic goals. So, I replied with, “I’ll be the same,” with a smile, because it is true.
Maya, 16, is a rising freshman at Agnes Scott College. She also created the collage for this story — and accompanying video.