By Ahtiya Liles
High school is always a hard transition. At least, that’s what every TV show and coming of age movie tells us. Basic changes happen for everyone during that transition from middle to high school: longer walks to different classes, you aren’t with the same people everyday, you may have a wider range of teachers, there’s more freedom when it comes to when you eat lunch, etc. I’m not going to talk about the general transition to high school. I’m going to talk about my transition to high school. More specifically, my (academic) transition to Rye Country Day School.
Here’s a little backstory: I went to a tiny, predominantly black private school in the Bronx called The Learning Tree for my Kindergarten through 8th grade years. For as long as I can remember, I had been within the top two or three people in my class when it came to academics. That’s how I had always functioned. My report cards were As, with maybe, maybe a few Bs sprinkled in there somewhere, but they were sparse. My mom is going to love that I’m finally admitting this, but studying was not a huge necessity, so I never gained the skill of truly studying. Most subjects came easy to me, and that is a privilege I am willing to admit. In the 7th grade, I was nominated for the Oliver Scholars Program. The Oliver Scholars Program takes black and latino middle schoolers from inner-city schools (usually public schools and maybe a few private schools that fit their criteria) and basically offers them the opportunity to step into the world of private (or rather, independent) schools for high school. I went through a rigorous application process to be admitted to Oliver, and then I basically went to summer school, but this type of summer school wasn’t because I was behind – it was to make sure I was even remotely ready to take on the independent school application process. After that summer, I was invited back to Oliver to undergo the application process to five high schools. I took the whole ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam), went to open houses, interviewed and toured each of the schools, and then I waited. And waited. And the first acceptance letter I received in the mail was from my first choice: Rye Country Day School. The summer after middle school, I went back to Oliver for another summer of SIP. (SIP = Summer Immersion Program). In September, I started my first year as a wildcat at RCDS.
It was a fairly lengthly backstory, but I’m sure you caught the part where I said academics came easy to me and I barely knew how to study properly. Some can consider that as having a big ego, but I look at it as being that I knew my strengths, and academics was one of those strengths. I didn’t need to study in middle school, so why would I develop the skill of studying? Middle school me couldn’t find a valid reason as to why I would actually sit down and study. The philosophy kicked my butt once I started at RCDS.
Oliver had prepared me, of course, for the culture shock I would feel upon entering an independent school. I went from seeing faces that looked like me for nine years to being around the most white people I had ever been around in my life. I was one of four black people in my grade. And then, of course, there was the financial aspect (which I will touch upon in a later article). It was an unspoken rule that people didn’t talk about money, but it was understood that wealth was abundant among my classmates. White people and rich people I adjusted to fairly quickly. The thing that really shook me was not being at the top of my class. I struggled from freshmen year through junior year, and it sucked. Not only did I have to adjust to being the only black person in a room and the social pressures that come with that, or suddenly wanting a car because all my classmates would soon get one, or not knowing how to function in a conversation about lavish vacations, I had to relearn how to retain information. Even in Oliver, I didn’t feel this way: I knew I was among super bright students, but there was a camaraderie there, an understanding that we were all in the same boat and all taking the same journey.
In high school, though, for the first time in my life, I felt stupid.
I always prided myself on the fact that I would never be that student that stressed out and drove themselves to madness because of grades. I was seeing it all around me in high school, and it freaked me out. And even though I came close to what I would consider failing two classes during my time at RCDS, I managed to retain that mentality…until junior year. During the beginning of junior year, I was fine. I would tell my sophomore friends that it wasn’t as bad as everyone made it seem, totally unaware that the pressure of college and Advanced Pre-Calculus were eating away at me. I barely remember 10th grade (mainly because of how much I struggled in regular Chemistry), but I remember 11th grade as being very, very gray. It was the darkest point in my academic career and, honestly, in my entire life. Even when I was struggling in 9th and 10th grade, I still had time to rebound. Once 11th grade hit, I could feel the impending doom of my high school time running out. College was nearing, and college is a big deal at RCDS. It’s a huge deal, and my façade of everything being alright was cracking, and a wave of societal pressures were spilling into me.
Junior year was a horrid time for me, and not many people knew that. While my classmates were admitting how much it sucked and how hard it was becoming, I was holding it all in, determined to not be the stupid black girl who didn’t belong. And don’t get me wrong, my classmates never made me feel like that, but when you’re one of four, you create these ideals that you must live up to. Reaching out for help was a weakness in my eyes, and, honestly, I still have that stigma when it comes to academics. I’d rather do it myself and tough it out. It’s still something I’m working on.
During my time in high school, I conditioned myself to overthink before answering a question, which usually meant very low class participation from me in comparison to my classmates. I wasn’t like this in middle school, but during my time at RCDS, I got into this habit of triple guessing myself. I’m a sophomore in college, and I realized a few days ago that I still have this habit. Raising my hand was something I always did in elementary and middle school, and now it’s something I barely do. I have to actually think about my class participation, and I spend more time thinking about it than actually participating.
I don’t know if my ego will ever bounce back to where it used to be, but the past year and a half at college has really helped. I’m studying a major that I’m genuinely interested in – I have some kind of knowledge and experience in theatre. I have always been good when it comes to theatre, but now it actually counts for something. In high school, while the arts were appreciated, I always felt as if it wasn’t enough. Sure, I could be in 16 productions (which was a record, I might add), but I wasn’t super good in Calculus and Biology. Being good in just theatre didn’t feel valid enough. Now that I’m studying it, I see being good at making and executing ideas in the theatre as a positive thing. It’s enough. I’m enough.
My ego and faith in myself is still on the mend, but I’m starting to realize that I do have something to offer the world. I’m also realizing that it’s okay for that something to be theatre, as long as I’m happy doing it.
I’m sure there are those who can relate to what I went through, so comment below and share how you’ve dealt (or are still dealing) with it!
– Ahtiya 🙂