GUEST BLOG – Under Pressure, by Abi Speers

Tragedy struck Langley High School last week. Two 17 year-olds, both male, took their lives, a day apart. The police have confirmed that neither drugs nor foul play played any part in their deaths. While the school mourns their losses, Abigail Speers, who graduated from Langley High School in 2013 and is now a freshman at the University of California, reflects on the pressure under which students at elite high schools find themselves.

I’m going to rant for a second. I’m not a big advocate of rants. In fact, I’m probably one of the last people you would imagine to deliver one. But I feel like this needs to be said, and if it helps anyone at Langley High School right now, it’ll be worth it.

If you have heard of Langley High School, I am sure that you have heard of its academic prowess. But you might also have heard disturbing things about its culture. I certainly don’t want to bash Langley or the admin. for the sake of it, nor in any way victimise the student body. But looking back, the truth is I could not be more grateful to be out of that environment. And I could not be more saddened and sickened by the thought of students who did not make it out to see the other side. I did not know the boys who took their lives. Nor do I know the circumstances surrounding their deaths. All I can say is that it is unbelievably tragic. And to other members of the student body who might be struggling, hear this: Langley is a bubble; a tiny, distorted bubble.

Langley is a hard place to navigate. Not just because it is extremely demanding academically. And not just because of stupid high school hierarchies. Those exist everywhere. Whatever. The Langley culture is not overtly oppressive. It’s often more insidious. At Langley, you are reduced to a letter on a piece of paper and your social persona, until you feel like you are a product that’s being mass-produced.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people in the school. But if you do not fit the ‘Langley mould’ you are very likely to have one hell of an experience. Because free-thinkers, free spirits, oddballs – all too often they get stamped out by a message that feels an awful lot like:

‘Sure, you can be different. But only on your own time! Get an ‘A’ our way or you don’t get out. Get an ‘A’ our way or watch your life chances get sucked down a drain. It’s your life, just don’t forget that we control it.’

That’s the message I got day after day. So I kept my head down, got the grades, tried not to step on too many toes, and escaped. But it was lonely. Do you really learn in that environment? Or do you learn to excel for the sake of exceling? I think that’s maybe why I love an outcast. I root for the underdog, and I’m unimpressed by false bravado. At Langley you live in such a bubble that you don’t feel how isolated that situation is. You just think that that’s life.

I feel conflicted. It’s a strange dichotomy, because I can’t say how many times I’ve been grateful for how well Langley set me up for college academics. I found my dream school and I am incredibly thankful for the people who helped me get here. I mean it. I was well prepared for college. But I walk around even now and I feel like I’ve been branded by Langley. It’s not something you easily shake off.

I’m re-reading The Catcher in the Rye at the moment. Holden Caulfield reminds me of how little qualified I am to judge my peers. I know everyone at Langley tells you that they are preparing you for the ‘real world’, like the life you’re leading is make-believe. But let me tell you: in terms of ‘real’ Langley misses the mark. Why? Because it’s an environment places all the emphasis on the ‘ends’, of achieving a great education, and very little on the ‘means’. Sometimes it feels purely a place to build a resume. Everyone there is so hyper-aware of how competitive college admittance is. The courses are streamlined, and the teachers and administration need only wave the old academic record in a misbehaving student’s face to get their message across (which they do.)

In high school, my passion for learning was utterly crushed by the sheer number of hoops I had to jump through to ‘get the grades’. Every class was about how it effected your GPA (grade point average). And even then, the top grades weren’t always enough. In my year-group a perfect score, a GPA of 4.0, was not enough to get a large number of my peers into their own state university. So, on top of the grades, you need to take every AP (advanced placement) you can; or work for a senator on Capitol Hill; or start up a non-profit; or log an absurd number of community service hours; or do anything else you could think of to make your application stand out.

Yet underlying it all is a massive irony: because Langley is one of the best high schools in the country, each of the top colleges can only accept a certain amount of us. So all our efforts may prove futile anyway due to a factor totally out of our control. How healthy is it, then, to spend four years as a kid in an environment where your self-worth is inextricably tied to which colleges accept you? The whole system is one which only leaves students feeling helpless. It’s just so hard to fight to be an individual within a system whose evaluation you are constantly being told will have an enormous impact on your future.

College, by contrast, has come as a breath of fresh air. For example, yesterday when I got off the phone with my mom, at the entrance to my college I was greeted by the usual hoards of student activists. They’re not out there to cushion their resumes. They’re there to fight for causes they really believe in. Whereas many students leave Langley with shining records and absolutely no idea what they are passionate about.

I graduated from Langley High School. I know the culture. I was there. I get it. But looking back, and thinking back about those two boys who died, the idea of kids giving up on themselves before they’ve even tried to discover what they’re about/ that life is more than a perfect GPA, it’s just too heartbreaking for words.

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