The five of us sat in the corner of Molly’s. Marking the end of winter term, we celebrated our first, and most likely last, Thomas Jefferson High School Class of 2013 reunion at Dartmouth.
We attended a magnet school dedicated to science and technology. In eighth grade, we successfully negotiated both rounds of the application process: Our GPAs and scores on the entrance exam were high enough, and our personal essays and teacher recommendations reflected well on our character and drive.
I almost declined my offer of admission to TJ. I didn’t think I was intelligent enough, and I doubted my love for the sciences.
“Would you send your kids to our high school?” my friend asked.
I paused. Then, the floodgates opened.
“No, the environment was too competitive,” I responded. “It was unhealthy.”
I had no life during high school. All I did was study, day in and day out. My parents would yell at me to go to sleep when they found me in bed at 2 a.m., drawing notecards for a biology quiz the next day.
People cheated all the time. I felt like I was an anomaly because I didn’t cheat.
My best friend once broke down because he received an A- in summer chemistry. He’s at Princeton now.
My classmates felt like failures when they “only” got into state schools. They kept wondering what else they could have done, why they weren’t good enough.
Everyone wanted to be a doctor or a computer scientist. Those were our two options: medicine or Silicon Valley. This is partly because we had the resources to pursue science. We had a neuroscience senior laboratory. We dissected Aplysia and cockroaches. We moved a wheelchair using neural activity. We had a robotics lab and a biology lab. We had cutting edge technology.
But what if all those resources and all that technology weren’t enough to foster growth? The administration cut eighth period activities. We didn’t have the choice to relax or pursue arts after we finished our seven classes.
“I hear the environment is even more caustic now,” another friend added. “Did you see the post in the alumni Facebook page about sexual assault?”
I wished we’d had more resources. I wished our counselors were better trained.
My Dartmouth friends understand my decision to take two years off; they tell me I should relax and work first, experience complete financial independence. But I always have to explain myself to my high school friends. They ask, “Why are you taking two years off when you know you want to be a doctor? What if you change your mind about medicine?” I never really know how to respond. Who’s ever truly done exploring? When is learning about something new ever pointless? If I decide not to pursue medicine, then that means I have found a worthier pursuit.
The former pre-med major of the group spoke up.
“I was studying for the MCAT when I got my job offer in the fall,” she said. “And then I decided, ‘Screw it.’ I realized that I pursued medicine for so long because it was the easy thing to do. I was never actually passionate about it.”
“Good for you,” I said.
One of my friends warned her sister about Dartmouth before her freshman fall. She told her that she wouldn’t fall in love with Dartmouth immediately. She wouldn’t find an instant friend group. She’d have to game the system in terms of professors and grades, and she’d have to navigate social status and social pressures — just like in high school.
“That’s exactly what my older sister told me,” another friend said.
“My older brother gave me no warning at all,” said another.
We laughed, and then sobered up.
I am glad I came to Dartmouth. And I am glad that high school prepared me to succeed here. High school taught me discipline — to do what needs to be done, to survive in a cutthroat environment and to learn to be okay with my own definition of success.
“I guess maybe I would send my kid to our high school,” I finally said aloud.
“It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world,” my friend replied.
No, it wouldn’t. But would it be the best?