The pressure builds and builds to an intolerable level. From age seven, being successful meant being the best, the little girl with the two braids down her back and hand perpetually raised in the air to ask and answer questions. It meant all 5s (when grades were a rubric broken down in brightly colored boxes), then 99th percentile, and later A-pluses (when the world turned to GPAs and statistics). It meant representing all Jews at my public elementary school and all non-affluent students upon attending a privileged Jewish day school. It meant hard work and little sleep and endless drive. It meant writing a letter to Mayor de Blasio in third grade begging to calm down standardized testing because over winter break I had to complete a 50-page packet, and I just couldn’t do it. Couldn’t after trying so hard. Couldn’t after crying for a week. It turned out that they never even checked the packet, but I still think about it eight years later. It meant overidentifying with the pent-up anxiety while trying to outrun my depression, terrified of being vulnerable and thus not perfect.
Today, it means that I am still learning to navigate “failure,” or my warped sense of what failing is. I taught myself precalculus last spring so that I could skip to AP Calculus BC because I thought it would make me stand out and that not doing so would make me fall behind. Because, of course, not being behind means jumping two levels of math in one semester. I then arrived at BC Calculus and understood nothing. I would spend two to three hours a night on calculus homework alone before getting four hours of sleep and doing it all over again. I am someone who sleeps 13 hours per night on weekends, so this was unmanageable. I studied at debate tournaments and at sleepovers. I spent my time after school attending office hours. I felt utterly and wholly overwhelmed. I even spent Shabbat—once a time of reflection, rest, and curling up with several novels—now rewriting problems about derivatives and creating 13-page study guides. My parents would light candles and sit down for Friday night dinner, and I would be holed up in my room staring blankly at Google Classroom, face breaking out and shivering in anxiety.
Still, I was convinced I could handle the class. I had to handle it. After all, who was I if not a good student? I maintained an A-minus in the class while most students were failing and did not, under any circumstances, want to appear weak. The anxiety attacks continued, and I withdrew from my friends and drank an obscene amount of coffee just to finish homework. I spent my lunch in the guidance office bartering and begging not to be moved to an easier class. The stress of making a conclusive decision pervaded the High Holidays, distracting from any meaningful spiritual experience as the fear of failure loomed large. My parents eventually gave an ultimatum—drop Calculus or unenroll from every extracurricular activity—and I switched classes. This felt like the epitome of giving up. I could not manage everything. I felt certain this was a sign of my future—that I was crumbling and would never succeed. Of course, this could not have been further from the truth, but intrusive thoughts invade. That is their nature, and I am nothing if not susceptible to criticism.
Looking back at the two weeks since I transferred—still into an honors class, still into a rigorous environment—I am only beginning to comprehend the importance of my choice and unlearning the achievement culture in which I have grown up. I see my friends still in that class studying concepts I know I could learn, and I have to remind myself that being the “smartest” does not guarantee well-being. I see the monstrosity that is junior year piling up and know I could not navigate that class nor did I need it since none of the career paths I am looking into include math. Instead of spending hours on Calculus, I participate in fellowships that prioritize Jewish teen mental health and activism—passions of mine in which I can make a difference.
A part of me may always regret the choice I made, and I think I will perpetually compare myself to others. And, I also know I made this decision out of self-love, even if it was prompted by mild parental manipulation. Today, I forgive myself for being human. Perhaps, someday I will even celebrate it.
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