A Case of Self-Imposed Superiority

NASH’s toxic culture is encouraged by students and staff members alike.

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illustration by Kristen Kinzler

The race to be the best at North Allegheny usually just results in false superiority complexes and increased competition among peers.

I was naive to think that, somehow, my senior year at North Allegheny would be different. For some odd reason, a part of me thought it would be a year full of celebrating my peers’ accomplishments, being proud of how far I’d come, and finishing my first round of education with my head held high, full of camaraderie among my fellow classmates.

But this is North Allegheny– I should have known that’s not how it works.

We are all painfully aware that our school has a reputation for being competitive, and I’m fairly confident that most of us have experienced firsthand the disadvantages of being in an environment that could easily be considered elitist and toxic. There’s a lot of comparing yourself to others, and it usually results in feelings of inadequacy.

So, I should have known that, even though we should be celebrating the end of our high school careers, as soon as the college acceptance letters started rolling in, the same toxic attitudes that have always inhabited this building would take over.

Gossip spread about who got accepted or rejected into certain schools, and the comments always sounded judgmental. Students who chose to attend schools with high acceptance rates and low tuition were asked why they would ever want to go to that school.

Not to mention, the same kind of competition persisted in non-collegiate endeavors. Students still compared themselves to others, especially when it came to grades. After a big test, there were still whispers about what everyone got. Kids who did well still bragged that they barely even studied or claimed it was the easiest test ever. They still implied that everyone who didn’t get a good score was either stupid or didn’t belong.

Even in a pandemic, the competition, the pretentiousness, and the judgement persisted.

I guess in a way, it’s hypocritical of me to complain about such a culture. Over the past few years, I’ve likely participated in it, and, at the end of the day, it got me where I wanted to be. All the classes I’ve taken and all the pressure I’ve been put under have seemingly paid off.

But I refuse to believe that academic success has to be accompanied by a toxic environment. They do not have to go hand and hand.

And so, even though I would consider my education here largely beneficial, that doesn’t mean I don’t have regrets or that the culture is okay. The ends don’t always justify the means.

I really can’t describe the extent that this school’s culture has pushed me to my breaking point. I have spent the last four years constantly paranoid that I was falling behind.”

I’m disappointed in the way that my classmates and I have viewed each other when we were consumed by such an environment, and I’m even more disappointed by how, over the years, some adults at NASH have encouraged or even caused competition among peers. 

For example, after taking an AP class on a subject I didn’t particularly care for, I decided that the next year, I wanted to take the Honors course. I did well in the AP class, but I just didn’t enjoy the topic. My teacher, however, insisted that I was just “intimidated” by their course and that an Honors class was “beneath” me. They said that no matter what, they were going to recommend me for the AP course, and if I wanted to change it, I would have to go tell my counselor.

While this may appear to be a teacher believing I wasn’t living up to my potential, it was really a slight on any lower level courses. They essentially said that Honors wasn’t good enough, which is insane. Unfortunately, at North Allegheny, that may not be an all too unpopular opinion.

That same teacher continuously made jokes about students who took Honors and Academic level classes throughout the school year. They would just casually drop insults about other course levels, much to the amusement of my peers. It was like they were all feeding off of some kind of self-imposed superiority. They enjoyed it.

I’ve heard other teachers insult lower course levels, too. An Honors science teacher made jokes about how the Academic students working in the lab might burn down something. An AP science teacher told the same joke about Honors students.

The comments may not even be intentionally degrading or hurtful. Sometimes, a teacher may just casually mention to his or her AP class how exhausting it can be to grade their Academic classes’ assignments. Even when it is presented as an innocent remark, it establishes a kind of standard for certain courses.

Of course, it’s easy to go along with a joke when you’re on the beneficial end of it, which is probably why teachers get away with those kinds of attitudes. They’re not insulting the kids in front of them. In a way, they’re placing them on a pedestal.

By doing so, teachers are implying that their students’ peers in other course levels aren’t as good. They’re making kids feel like taking Academic or even Honors courses isn’t good enough. It’s incredibly damaging.

To be clear, not all my teachers have displayed this kind of attitude. Most of my teachers have been supportive and kind towards all their students. They believe in the power of hard work and dedication, and they actively fight against the competitive nature at our school. They’re the teachers who have taught me how wrong academic gatekeeping is, and I appreciate them more than I’ll ever be able to articulate.

However, the few teachers who do buy into a sense of artificial superiority are enough to encourage NASH’s toxic environment.

The second we all stop classifying our own friends and peers based on their course levels and academic achievements is the second we can actually start to mend whatever is fundamentally wrong with our school.”

In all honesty, as I look back on my time at North Allegheny, I feel failed by that small subset of teachers, a larger group of aggressively competitive parents, and our education system as a whole.

I really can’t describe the extent that this school’s culture has pushed me to my breaking point. I have spent the last four years constantly paranoid that I was falling behind. The few moments I have ever felt good enough have been few and far between. No matter what I achieved, it never felt comparable to what everyone else was doing. Kids compare grades and college acceptances. Teachers compare kids. It destroys you.

I know that I’m not alone in those feelings, as my friends and peers have had similar experiences. We all have had different upbringings and different levels of external pressure. I have an incredibly supportive family who has never once made me feel like my best effort was anything less than perfect. But after years of being in a classroom with kids who have a lot more parental pressure than me and teachers who perpetuate the same competitive cycle, my individual upbringing didn’t matter. It all got to me anyway.

NASH is the common factor. At some point, our school needs to realize that it has become the problem. Our administrators and teachers need to do a better job of ensuring that students of all academic levels feel valued and important.

It also falls on the students. The second we all stop classifying our own friends and peers based on their course levels and academic achievements is the second we can actually start to mend whatever is fundamentally wrong with our school.

I truly don’t want to graduate from North Allegheny and know that things will always be the same. I don’t want future students to feel the same pressure and competition my peers and I did. I want to believe that, in some small way, we will have left the school better than we found it.

So, I can accept that a high-achieving school with talented kids is always going to be toxic, or I can choose to believe that there’s still some hope. It’s futile, but for my own sanity, I have to think that at some point, compassion and empathy will win out, even in a school that can feel as elitist as NASH.

It all starts with calling the school’s environment what it is– competitive, ugly, and pretentious– and recognizing that there is a kind of solidarity in feeling inadequate here. It’s not an individual issue but rather a sensation that most of us are familiar with.

That means that it’s systematic, but it also means that, on some level, we have the capacity to change it. If we could just put aside our own egos and insecurities for five seconds, we’d probably see that we’re all trying our best, regardless of transcripts or GPAs or awards. 

And that’s good enough. It’s always been good enough.