Stress Culture

Each day as November 1st gets closer and closer, I hear more and more of the same things: “Where are you applying early?” “Which colleges have you visited?” “What’s your essay about?” “Where is so-and-so applying?”

The dreaded application process looms over the entire senior class. The nearer it gets, the more it becomes apparent that here at Westminster, we have a ubiquitous obsession with college among the senior class. Almost everybody is aware of it, for it has come to define the academic climate of our school. One of Westminster’s biggest goals is to prepare it’s graduating class for college and beyond. It’s the reason our classes are so difficult. It’s the reason our class body is so incredibly diverse and unique. It’s the reason we have such a phenomenal college counseling system. And it’s the reason my peers and I work so hard day in and day out, just to see that ever-elusive ‘A’ when it comes the time to finalize grading.

One can easily argue that the obsession with college here at our school borders on delusion. I often hear my friends from other schools—be it Lovett, Marist, or, more realistically, the countless OTP publics—tell me that their schools are the same. Well, in this scenario I believe I possess the right to exercise close-mindedness and a total lack of empathy: they are wrong. Indeed, I do not believe there is a single school in our state that places such a heavy emphasis on collegiate-level education, from fit to prestige to academics to athletics. Westminster students take it all into consideration on a daily basis.

But I do not believe that this obsession is a problem. Not because I, too, am guilty of allowing college to plague my thoughts nearly all the time, but because I believe it defines our culture here at Westminster. The high-achieving, competitive culture which has come to bring out the best in all of us, albeit only on an academic level. Nay, obsession with college isn’t the problem. I believe that the true problem lies with the byproduct of such obsession, the admissions process’s ugly child, and every senior’s kryptonite: the stress culture.

The unanimous agreement among mental health specialists and educated professionals is that nobody should buy into the stress culture. And I strongly agree with them. I think a lot of people probably do. But I also think there’s a key oversight in preaching such advice to high school seniors, especially at an institution like our own. The stress culture is inescapable. No matter how much we long to catch a nice 8 hours of sleep a night, go out with friends on a Tuesday evening, or not have to study for any assessment ever again, the stress culture will always grab us and drag us down into its vulgar depths, where we will wallow in our sorrows until summer vacation decides to extend its heavenly hands to save us.

I am by no means a philosopher of any sorts, but I have still contemplated a solution to the unhealthiness of the situation on numerous occasions. I have discussed it with friends, with teachers, and with my parents, most of whom are far wiser than I am (except my friends. My friends are all bone heads). What I’ve come to learn is that yes, stress culture is impossible to avoid entirely. However, what every single high school student must attain in order to cope with it is balance. A balance of hobbies, academics, extracurriculars, etc. I believe that everybody has their own perfect ratio in his or her life and the difficult part is discovering it. Because in the end, no matter who you are, nobody can truly be happy or even successful in life if they are so hell-bent on studying day in and day out that they forget to pursue other things in life.

I once read a blog post from a professor by the name of Jean Yang at Carnegie Mellon University. She wrote that “stress culture is something to be eschewed rather than embraced” and that when it comes to finding space and balance in life, “[working] in the complete absence of pressure is the most productive.” Although this may not be true for everybody, it is certainly something worth trying, if only for the sake of being healthy. She ends the blog post by saying, “So though I could be doing more work, right now I’m going to go read a book. Good night.” I’m not saying you have to read a book, as I know full well there are plenty of people who would not do so out of self-indulgence in a million years. But to a lesser extent, I believe that everybody is entitled to some time off every now and then. Perhaps choose a Saturday from every other week and designate it as a full day of stress-free relaxation. Or perhaps our school could make a “homework-free” day (looking at you, Mr. Evans) once a month, although in all likelihood Westminster students would probably just use the free time to catch up on more homework and studying…

In the end, however, by simply attending such an academically prestigious high school in Westminster, we subject ourselves to endless hours of worrying and stressing over schoolwork. No matter how much we seek out solutions to combat it, we will never truly be able to rid ourselves of stress completely. It would take someone truly revolutionary to just drop everything and let their spirit run free, and I don’t see that happening in the near future. So at this very moment in our busy high school lives, especially for all the anxious seniors, the best we can do is to cut ourselves some slack. Some students may have more time than others, and some students may be less stressed than others. But I don’t believe that there is a single student that attends this school who does not have a single day in the next month where he or she can simply cut loose and relax. A single day to escape the never-ending stress culture.