By Sarah Dahl,
Hercules (my cat) often rudely awakens me in the wee hours of the morning, meowing for food. I tune him out. Sometimes I shove him off my bed (he always lands on his feet). Then I go back to sleep.
Am I being selfish? Hercules needs food, and I shouldn’t deprive him. But he’s also interrupting my precious seven hours of repose.
Situations like this play out for me all the time—my inaction, ensuing guilt, and final self-justification. I’m prone to second-guessing; I have too deep a conscience. I’m really busy. I’m emotional. I’m a teenager. I have angst. It’s natural for me to ignore others’ feelings and needs for my own. If I’m late to school, it’s okay to honk. If I’m hungry, it’s fine to cut the lunch line. Right? I’m being obnoxious, but at least I’m not directly harming anyone.
What worries me is that this self-involvement, this dedication to myself and my own needs, is slowly leaching into my soul in nefarious ways. What if, subconsciously, I’m becoming immune to everyone and everything around me?
The possibility scares me. Without realizing it, I’ve come to feel more of a dopamine rush after receiving a good grade or an award than I feel after I’ve had dinner or a nice chat with friends. Things that don’t improve my GPA no longer delight me. And when I get a bad grade, no matter how much I tell myself this does not matter, my tiny failure finds a way to bring my whole mood down.
I feel gross, unclean, and fake in my fixation with numbers and scores. I fear that it’s consuming everything I do. So many in-school friendships are predicated on a mutual need to study, plan a club event, work out, even eat. They’re less about being buddies and more about functioning symbiotically: we are compatible in some way because we are in the same History class, because we both play tennis, because we need math help.
Summertime has always been different. I hang for the sake of hanging, play badminton, go biking, throw crazy dance parties, watch horror movies. At our family’s house in Maine, plans come together instantaneously, haphazardly. My friends and I are happy to walk into each other’s kitchens, to cook and eat together, to invite ourselves into each other’s garages for impromptu games of ping pong.
But with the common application essay prompts already released, I’m scared that instead of enjoying this summer for its own sake, I’ll be obsessing over how the experiences I have can translate into good writing. (And between bouts of relaxation, I’ll also be taking a four-week Chemistry course that I’m excited to add to my transcript!).
I believe there is still hope. I’ve not totally succumbed to fanaticism. Not yet, at least. I’m done with junior year, and I’m alive and functional. I’m oftentimes a self-interested, exhausted teenager with swinging moods, but I’m also human. I crave connection and am still capable of empathy.
I’m connecting with Twitter, of all things, expressing my feelings in 140 characters and finding comfort by the favorites and re-tweets and sad-faced emojis they elicit from fellow strugglers. In school, when I’ve ignored work hanging over me and taken a break, I’ve found time for talk, laughter, and music-video watching. Two days before my English AP, I went to a concert with pals at the House of Blues, and I’m glad about that.
Despite all the pressure I’ve felt this year, I realize that I’ve also grown exponentially closer to several friends—the ones who understand when I am frustrated and consumed with work, who bring me chai lattés and bright smiles. And when they are upset or exhausted, I stroke their hair and feed them chocolate. These are friends who’ve helped me realize that prioritizing work over relationships is often extremely detrimental.
This summer, I’m hoping to regain some of the parts of myself I’ve had to stifle during the school year. I want to write more, listen to music, bake cookies, go to dance classes. I want to read lots of books. I want to enjoy my friends to the utmost—especially the seniors I love, who will be off to college in the fall.
When senior year comes for me, I hope I’ll maintain my sense of self even as I extol my virtues to college admissions officers. I hope I’ll fall in love with a university for its personality as opposed to its Ivy. And by this day next year—graduation, with college acceptance squared away—I want to feel proud. And happy. And I want to respect myself as much as I know I’ll respect the hilarious, intelligent, beautiful friends standing next to me.