I spent 13 years of my life in an all-girls college preparatory school. I graduated with 43 girls whose middle names I knew and whose life stories I could recite with greater ease than the alma mater. We wore kilts and spent Friday afternoons in detention for uniform violations like not wearing socks with our ballet flats. We also had snacktime. Yes, you read that correctly. Every morning at 9:45 A.M. we piled into the cafeteria (I’m sorry, “Alumnae Hall”) to gossip/study/cry as we ate our Baked Lays and Nutrigrain bars. We frequently hopped a fence during lunch period to go to the McDonald’s across the street–the cafeteria food was fine, I think we just got a rush out of the jailbreak. My best friend brought a mattress from home for the senior lounge so we could take naps in the middle of the day. Prom, you ask? Never went. The dances I did attend were desperate attempts by Student Council (of which I was the President, ironically enough) to recruit enough boys for the gender ratio to not be too embarrassing. The role of Homecoming game was usually played by the field hockey team. The strangest part of all these things is that they seemed completely normal to me. But I didn’t write this to expose all the obscure details of my high school–I would need to write a short novel to even scratch the surface. I wrote this because I was miserable for the better part of my final years there, and it’s taken me nearly two years of college to fully understand why.
One of the biggest challenges about all-girls school was the expectations. One can generally picture the types of parents who send their kids to private school–rich, snobby, “tiger moms,” as they’ve come to be known. Of course not every family represented this stereotype (my parents struggled financially to put me through the school), but the presence of the aggressive and wealthy parents was certainly felt. I was one of the students who gave tours of the school to prospective families and every now and then parents would me how many students would be attending Ivy League schools that year. I would respond quietly with “Penn State” after they asked me where I was planning to go. Some would congratulate me, but most would nod and give a fake, uncomfortable smile. It wasn’t good enough for them. I always knew I was smart — just as smart as some of my Ivy-bound classmates. I don’t say this to be conceited; I say this because there came a point in my high school career when I started to forget how smart I was.
I knew Penn State was the place for me from the beginning. There was something about the feeling of a big school that I loved. I was ready for all the football games I had missed out on in high school. I was ready to not know every person I saw walking to class. And the only time I ever questioned this love for my future college was at my high school. We took a class junior year that was solely dedicated to college applications, and in it our college counselor told us the “Top Reasons Not to Pick a College.” Sports teams and party scene were at the top of the list. My friends sitting around me slowly turned their heads towards me because I had essentially already chosen Penn State. I knew I could get in and I knew that was where I was going (and for reasons beyond partying, I might add — I wonder if any of them knew that Penn State has the largest alumni network in the world). So why did I feel embarrassed? Should I have been aiming higher? Did I actually, somewhere beneath my consciousness, want to attend a small liberal arts school in New England? Of course not. I would most likely be miserable at one of those schools. If that’s your thing, more power to you, but the college admissions process at my school instilled a sense of inferiority in me for being uninterested in the Ivy League/NESCAC admissions battlefield. By senior year I had given up, and my grades and mental health reflected this surrender. Why bother contributing to class discussions when there would always be rebuttals from Columbia and Cornell?
Like I said, my school expected its students to do it all. Our girls could score the winning soccer goal one day and build a robot the next — all while maintaining a chipper attitude and somewhat of a social life. There was a specific mold to fit, and those who fit it were decided early on. The number of mental breakdowns I witnessed as a result of these standards was heartbreaking. As I mentioned before, I was the President of Student Council, as well as Varsity Field Hockey Captain, photo editor of the yearbook, member of the Junior Classical League (that’s elitist speak for Latin Club). And I wasn’t particularly special–this kind of busy résumé was fairly typical among my classmates. My friends at college are consistently surprised when I tell them that I spoke at my high school graduation. I don’t come across to most people as the kind of overachiever who would be chosen to offer words of wisdom to a graduating class. And the reason for this is that when I came to college, I was allowed to be myself. I still work hard, but when I got here there wasn’t nearly as much pressure to maintain the “do it all” persona. I was entirely too susceptible to the quiet influence of my high school’s students and faculty to sustain a perfect image. And while the school played a huge role in it, I’m the first one to blame for conceding to the pressure of this competitive environment and allowing it to crush my self-esteem. Sure, I loved being involved in a lot of organizations. Did I overdo it? Probably. If I could go back, would I accept leadership positions to impress people, pad my résumé, or to fill the void left by my decision to choose my college independently of the reputation it would give the college counselor? Absolutely not. It doesn’t matter that Penn State wasn’t mentioned in my high school’s brochures boasting its college acceptances. What matters is the reality that I attend an incredible university that’s right for me, even if I was the first one from my high school to come here in three years. What matters is that despite my status as the girl who did it all in high school, I was severely unhappy. I’m a different person in college. I’m still involved in many organizations, but I joined them for myself–not to please others.
There will probably be alumnae who read this and disagree or become angry with me for painting a negative picture of our alma mater. Some students thrived in our school’s environment, and I imagine those will be the ones whom this article pisses off. But the truth is that this was my experience and I know for a fact that I was not alone. I learned invaluable lessons in my time at all-girls school and I am the person I am today largely because of my education there. I fully credit my ability to think critically and to engage in intelligent discussions to that school. I said in my graduation speech that our graduates “know what we want out of the world and how to get it,” and it took me getting to college to realize how true that statement really was. We don’t take shit from anyone in any facet of our lives, especially after years of essay prompts centered on the influence of female protagonists. I met people there who will be my friends for the rest of my life. But I think one of the most important lessons I learned there was the one that I learned the hard way–that our honest well being and positive self-concept should always come before competing with or impressing others. I was constantly comparing myself to the girls who were going to “better” colleges and allowing myself to feel inadequate because of it, despite the fact that I loved the place I had chosen. I did and said things because I wanted to uphold an image of having it all together, and when that image felt threatened, I started to fall apart.
This was not intended as a bashing of all-girls education (although now that I’ve read it over I can see why it would seem that way). Of course there are things about the school I would change if I could, but nothing about the world we live in is perfect, nor will it ever be. Pressure will always find a way to creep into our lives, whether it’s our parents pushing us towards a certain career path or your grandmother asking if you’ve found a husband yet. So without telling dear old mom and dad to go to hell or explaining hook-up culture to grandma, find a way to deal with the pressure by being honest with yourself and putting your basic needs and happiness first. You do not have to be defined by your education (or lack thereof), your résumé, or other people’s opinions. Define yourself unapologetically and in your own terms, because at the end of the day, you’re all you’ve got–so you had better get comfortable now.