When my freshman year first began, there was nothing wrong with my classmates. They were a populace of responsible yet excitable teenagers; they eagerly absorbed new information, produced work they were immensely proud of and pursued projects that inspired and satisfied them. Three years later as juniors, however, that lively vibe has long gone, replaced with a colder, depressed heaviness.
I could peer around at my classmates, at the soldiers in training, and see this dense cloud. It loomed over the girls at another table who ran on three hours of sleep each, only awake now because they had consumed their rations of coffee. The cloud was over the boy in front of me, too. He scribbles down the last two paragraphs of an essay due next hour as if it were life or death since he’d been too busy battling math equations all night to finish the paper. I was even under it, lost in the hazy gloom that threatened to overwhelm my rational thoughts and dampen my motivation. We were all trapped in the cloud, as we had learned long ago what our future in the army entailed.
In the front of the room, our teacher marched on with the lesson, drilling us on the perpetual list of vocabulary words she ordered us to memorize. Where our teacher once looked at us as wet clay, full of potential to be molded into any shape, she now glowered at us like a real sergeant, hands clasped behind her back and an unmoving scowl engraved in her expression. At one point, her job was to inspire us to turn dreams to reality, but, when we became of age, she unveiled the bitter brutality of the war in which we were to enter, and it crushed any glistening aspiration. She now taught us the importance of standardized testing, receiving a high Grade Point Average (GPA) and devising a spotless, pristine resume. Perfecting those three things in our training years, she said, would get us higher —and therefore better— positions in the army. Though, to me, the tasks seemed only beneficial and worthwhile on the surface.
I knew that underneath the uniforms and war talk, my classmates were overwhelmed and agitated. The army prohibited them from entering by using their passions, as the recruiters only cared about specific statistics and rankings; a trainee with a high American College Testing (ACT) score or one who is more involved in extracurriculars will get a better position than a poignant, anti-club artist or a dedicated engineer who’s a bad test taker. In that limited system, studying for the uniform exams and creating a well-rounded portfolio was the key to success, though it frustrated those who performed poorly on assessments and those who wished to pursue other interests besides the core subjects.
I was not free of this system, either. Every year when we have returned from summer break to training, I had set out specific things I needed to accomplish that year to present myself as an organized, well-rounded and outperforming trainee. I joined as many clubs as possible, even if the club didn’t pertain to my interests, I took most honors classes and I spent many hours studying for the standardized exams, all to show the “army” how great of a trainee I was. If it were really up to me and not the army structure, however, I wouldn’t have involved myself in random clubs so I could create time for more challenging and thought-provoking classes. But, since the “army” wanted trainees to be versatile and adept, I couldn’t do that.
Even this year, I chose to participate in even more random clubs and activities because I was worried I wasn’t living up to the standard. I even let the “army’s” system influence my decisions on choosing next year’s classes. I’ve found that it’s stressful to go against the mindset of pleasing or showing off to the “army” when it feels like Uncle Sam watches your every move. Yet, it’s even more stressful to stay within the system and try to become someone you’re not while everything sucks the passion and youth right out of you.
So, to my fellow “trainees” and to myself, I’d like to say: forget the system.
I see my classmates every day, and there’s never a day when there isn’t some part of the “army’s” procedure that causes them stress and misery. Though the “war” is a crucial matter to be a succeeding “soldier” in, that success should not be at the cost of happiness, mental well-being and serenity. I know that I’ve suffered through sleepless nights and days of staring at a computer screen without break from trying appease the “army.” This campaign we go through to become a soldier in the army —or a student in college-—does not give us the life we deserve, including the ability to pursue paths that make us excited and satisfied, to have little to no stress and encourage us for actively shaping our own means of making it into the war that is life.
Colleges only want “trainees” who fit specific needs and requirements of that school, such as high examination scores and excessive extracurricular involvement, disregarding the individual characteristics that makes a person whole and content, such as their qualities as a reliable friend, their empathetic nature and their golden inner moral compass.
For this reason, my classmates, whom I now always hear talk about perfecting their resumes and participating in tasks they do not enjoy in order to look better for colleges, should stop succumbing to this demanding and exhausting game colleges play and just be themselves. I should stop choosing classes and committing to extracurriculars that do not bring me joy. Teenage life should not have to be about constructing the flawless resume but about finding out about yourself and finding happiness.