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She lays a tattered planner page before me. I hunch over to see dozens of messages squashed together, bubbled, starred, and scratched out. In all the writing before me, it’s hard to see any substance or meaning behind the words. “Student Council Meeting” and “SAT Practice” fill the space as nothing but obligatory tasks. I see homework assignments and extracurricular meetings penciled in to the edges, but for the life of me I can’t find a single mention of free time.
Every task she deems essential seems a void to me, important to the present time but yielding nothing in the future. Every assignment, every project, and every activity exists only to grant her passage into the next step: law school, or medical school, or whichever school her parents can pressure her into attending.
They are hurdles that block the way to the finish line. Tennis until 6:00, debate until 8:00, homework for tomorrow’s four AP classes until 1:00 a.m., and five hours of sleep before waking up for a run, an hour of piano practice, and another day of the same routine.
I look up and notice the dark circles under her eyes showing more prominently than usual today, and I ask why she looks so tired. As she tells me how yet another all-nighter unfolded, I can imagine only the pained expression she wore and the deepening hue of the dark circles she wears as tattoos, lasting reminders of her choice to pursue an unattainable perfection.
Her bloodshot eyes snap open as she realizes she hasn’t studied for tomorrow’s chemistry test. With an exhausted grunt and a clumsy roll out of bed, she stands up to turn on the light. Digging deep for any unexpended energy she can muster, she heaves the thousand-page textbook onto the bed and attempts to rouse her fuzzy mind from its much-needed sleep. Although she sees little benefit in learning bonding theory and orbital hybridization, her body runs on autopilot, conditioned to complete every task laid before it.
I wonder if she likes art. I don’t ask. I’m sure she has used colored pencils for a marketing project or an anatomy study guide, but I wonder if she really, truly enjoys art. It’s not something the Ivy League schools look for, and it won’t boost a resume, so it gets pushed back to the “maybe if I find the time” category, like so many other neglected activities. I silently ponder what buried passions could lie just underneath the surface, hidden from view but so easily accessible if given a little time and patience. She could have fallen in love with poetry, or the ocean, or dancing, if only adolescence weren’t carrying her onward without giving her a chance to slow down. The avalanche keeps her moving forward, constantly progressing, but always forcing her to struggle to stay on top.
“Weekends are no better,” she tells me. The statement of heresy draws me back into the conversation and I gape dumbly at her. The teenage years are defined by Friday night bonfires, football games, and surprise parties, not the work that goes on between them. I don’t think she realizes that the moments the rest of us are experiencing now are what define us as adults in the future. Although it may not be noticeable for a few more years, she is skipping a step in maturation the way nature intended it. Many people have an innate fear of looking back on their pasts with feelings of regret. All the awards and scholarships and in the world can’t revive the chance to redo one’s youth, a fact too many people won’t acknowledge until their teenage years are behind them.
I smirk at the irony of our society’s degradation in the uninhibited pursuit of perfection. In a culture where every act is insufficient until substantiated by some trophy or title, we have lost sight of the value in doing things at our own pace and, most importantly, for ourselves.
We keep talking about her schedule and her expectations. It’s more of the same; tomorrow I need to do this, next week I’m going here to do this. She goes on until one point catches my attention:
“MIT wants me to retake the SAT Biology test before they’ll consider me,” she says. That can’t be right; I remember hearing about her perfect score a month ago and I ask about it. “Well, I got the highest score, but I missed two questions. MIT wants none wrong.” I feel my stomach sink as this new information pushes me over the edge. I stare at her, slack-jawed and sickened. My brain wanders to a scene of an avalanche sweeping down a precipitous slope, catching its victim, and drowning her under an impenetrable blanket. The weary, deep-set circles under her eyes stare back at me in silent agreement.
Works Cited and Consulted
Hu, Winnie. “School for the Gifted, and Only the Gifted.” New York Times. 18 Oct. 2009.
30 Oct. 2009. Web.
Pesca, Mike. “OMG! Expert Says Today’s Kids Are Stupid.” NPR. 23 May 2008. 30
Oct. 2009. Web.