A Sense of Acceptance

The culture of perfection in school has been the cause of a suffocating sense of anxiety for students.


illustration by Delaney Pater

The stress of trying to achieve it all hits hard and fast.

School has always felt like something out of my control. It has felt inevitable. It has felt bigger than me in a very terrifying, very tangible way.

And by that, I mean my grades have always been such. Education itself is somewhat predictable. The results? Not so much.

I could study and work hard, and that typically helped my scores. But no matter what, there was always a certain unknown element. I could spend hours on a subject, feel like I knew it inside and out, and still not do well on a test (or at least as well as I had hoped). While these instances tended to be rare, they hit hard. They shook my self-confidence. One bad test turned into a bad week. After all, I’m nothing if not a worrier and an over-thinker and a control-freak. 

That’s why ten years of this whole education system has trained me to be a jumble of questions and doubts. It’s something I can’t fully control. I don’t know how I’ll be feeling on test day or what questions I’ll be asked or how my nerve-ridden brain will respond.

It’s a hard feeling to explain, and it’s certainly something hard to sympathize with because I’ve rarely done poorly in school. In many ways, academia is my element.

However, no matter how well I did, there was always this accompanying sense of anxiety. It was an uneasiness that caused a vicious cycle. If I wasn’t really in charge of how things turned out, what could I do to assuage the knot of helplessness in my stomach? I blamed my failures on myself and attributed my triumphs to pure luck. That logic meant that all of my hard work amounted to nothing while the guilt built up.

For a long time, I thought that was really the only way school could be. I didn’t know exactly when this feeling started— just that it had been there for as long as I could remember. I thought that education was just naturally haunted by anxiety.

I blamed my failures on myself and attributed my triumphs to pure luck.”

Until I reached a breaking point and got fed up with it. I don’t know what caused it. I just suddenly realized that it was such a deranged mentality. It was fundamentally wrong. 

I needed to tell myself that. I needed to recognize the problem, and I needed to grant myself some kind of permission to stop being afraid. Because somewhere, deep down, I knew all of that anxiety was slowly suffocating me.

And, then, I came upon a very foreign, very anti-North-Allegheny-standards-of-excellence thought: If one B on a report card— if one test score— stops me from getting into my dream college in the future, then maybe that place isn’t right for me anyway.

Maybe, if I just try my best, the other pieces will fall into place. Maybe, whatever is meant for me will find me, even if I don’t do too great on a test or two. 

I know, it’s kind of groundbreaking, compared to what most of us have been raised to believe.

Relinquishing that control is difficult, and in a sense, it’s even more terrifying than stressing about every move I made. But, it’s freeing. It changes everything. It lifts the burdens off of my shoulders. Maybe it’s just an easy way out, but, regardless, it’s working. 

I have trouble letting go of those worries most of the time, but I’m trying. I’m trying to believe that doing my best will lead me to whatever is right for me. I’m trying to believe that I can be unapologetically myself and still accomplish the goals I’m meant to. I’m trying to believe that I am enough as I am. 

While all of those apprehensions can seem isolating, that couldn’t be further from the truth. ”

The nerves haven’t gone away. There is still a place inside my head for all those doubts and negativities. 

The sad part is, when I do feel like that, I know I’m not alone. While all of those apprehensions can seem isolating, that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

So many high schoolers feel insufficient, and so many of them suffer for it. You can hear it in the halls when a kid talks about all the pressure he or she is under. You can see it in a classroom where everyone is too afraid of answering a question because they’re too afraid of being wrong.

Constantly wondering if you’re good enough— constantly feeling this anxiety in your chest— feels like a horrible curse.

This isn’t just school stress. This isn’t something you can fix with a four-step plan. It’s a culture. It’s an epidemic.

Defying that culture is extremely difficult because you’re submerged in it all day long. It’s consuming. But it is possible. You just have to accept yourself as you are over everyone else’s expectations, which is easier said than done.

At some point, it comes down to self-confidence, too. In order to stop being so anxious, you have to trust that, wherever you go, it’ll be good.

I’m not arguing that we all have some predestined path or that we shouldn’t try our best. I’m simply saying that things have a weird tendency to work themselves out. We have a crazy way of ending up exactly where we need to be.

I hope that’s true— it’s been that way so far.

There’s no denying that we control our own futures. However, it’s comforting to know that, regardless of what happens, things will somehow turn out okay.

And accepting that was the first, and biggest step, to finally accepting myself. 

Or, at the very least, it made me stop wanting to cry over a test I had on Monday.