House of Cards

I’m just a house of cards—fragile and delicate. One extra card and it could all come falling down.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

My middle school experience was careless and easy. It was frivolous middle school drama—my friends and I whispering and gossiping at 3:00 a.m., wrapped in sleeping bags on the floor of my best friend’s basement. It was playful comparisons between a 99 average and a 98.7, teasingly and enviously saying: “Oh, of course you’ll be the valedictorian.” It was easily agreeing to get Chipotle after school or to go play badminton in the park without a care in the world, because only the same two teachers would give homework anyway. It was the unspoken trust we had in life—trust that we would always be able to live in the moment.

At my tiny middle school in the middle of nowhere, it felt like I knew so much. I had all the time in the world; every day seemed to move as if life would freeze for me if I just asked nicely. With this security and faith in my own self-importance, I had all the time to explore myself: to draw what I wanted to, to watch whatever shows I pleased, and to have the freedom I craved. I could lie down and just think without having a budget for time. I knew the parts of myself that I didn’t have to show anyone else. I knew myself—my rawest parts and who I was—and that was enough.

But Stuyvesant—in all its competitive, impossible glory—is different from my middle school. Amid struggling to keep my average afloat, adapting to the concept of possibly losing friends because of horribly lined up schedules, and trying to manage with four hours of sleep at night, it slowly became more and more apparent how quickly life was leaving me behind. The time I once spent sketching—because wow, frogs are really cool—became time spent making study guides because I have an AP Environmental Science test tomorrow (and I barely understand this chapter). The time I used to watch the anime I saw on my Instagram feed became time used to frantically text my friends, asking if they wanted to hang out since we were finally all free. The me that was once able to think for myself, recap my life, and keep myself calm and up-to-speed became the me trying to sleep as soon as I finished my work for the day because the train leaves at 6:40 a.m., and I can’t miss it again. All of a sudden, time was moving too fast. It wasn’t waiting for me—not anymore.

There were more students in my grade than in my entire middle school—all of them a million times smarter, a million times more talented, a million times better than I was. In my effort to compete with them, I lost touch with the things that once kept me alive. These were the same things that made me unique, and the slower and further back I fell, the more I realized how much of myself I was losing. This fast-paced, we-can’t-and-won’t-wait-for-you environment meant there were no longer enough hours in the day for myself. The balance between getting enough sleep at night, managing my grades to ensure a good future, and maintaining a social life could topple over at the slightest touch. Like a house of cards, the balance was fragile. Like a forgotten card, the time that I once spent on myself disappeared.

Knowing yourself is a privilege, something that I had mistakenly taken for granted. The entirety of freshman year, I found myself empty and tired. Exhaustion and fatigue took over as soon as I got home, and I was forced to face the mountain of work left to do. I tried to catch my breath in the tiny intervals between classes, as if they were the only moments I had to myself. It’s because of this exhaustion and the resulting time shortage that when people ask me what I like to do for fun, I no longer have a clear answer. It’s because of this tiredness that at night, I often dread waking up, haunted by the idea of experiencing another boring and empty day.

With sophomore year rapidly approaching and without me having understood my freshman year, I’m not so sure what it means to really be a student, to be human, anymore. I’m stuck attempting to redefine who I am as a person, facing the cruel realization that what matters most is how we present ourselves, instead of who we are. After all, I spent all of freshman year holding my house of cards together, sacrificing the parts of me that I had reserved for myself in an effort to maintain that balance. My conversations with the people around me aren’t about what I like to do on a Thursday night anymore—they’re about grades and school and when we might have free time. For better or worse, prioritizing these things, the surface that now defines who I am, has become more important than my own perception and understanding of myself.

Seeing myself from middle school compared to myself now pains me. It’s strange seeing myself with eyes so bright and excited only a year and a half ago, when I now can barely find it in me to pick up a pencil and sketch something. As I keep chasing after that feeling of aliveness while trying to balance my house of cards, the path to finding that aliveness grows longer and more impossible, as if it winds and extends further each time I take a step. It’s an endless journey, one that I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to see the end of. It’s a forever I’m not sure I can dedicate myself to. It’s an ending I can’t seem to find. My arms, the ones that I had once used to try and hold my life together, are giving out. Just like that, the house of cards falls.