To Triumph Over Toxicity, Take a Timeout

Opinions writer Irene Hao discusses the types of mindset to have at Stuyvesant and in quarantine

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Eleanor Chin

“Stuy or Die.”

I first heard this notorious phrase in middle school. It was just a joke my classmates threw around the lunch table as the SHSAT approached. Though I knew it was little more than a lighthearted quip, I still chanted it like a mantra on the morning of the exam in a desperate attempt to calm my nerves. Months later, I received my results.

I didn’t make the mark.

“All or nothing.”

As students, we are constantly driven to be “more”—to be faster, smarter, stronger, bigger, better. And in this perpetual, futile yearning for more, we—consciously or unconsciously—compare ourselves to each other: “He got a full score on that final”; “she got an internship at this huge company”; or “they won first place at championships.” Their accomplishments compel us to achieve them too to receive the same recognition and admiration we had given them. What was once a healthy goal-setting attitude becomes an all-consuming competitive mindset. Whereas it may motivate some to improve as students and people, for me, continuously racing for that coveted first place is toxic and discouraging.

Unfortunately, society and media tend to fuel competition, commending only those at the very top. As we religiously watch reality TV shows, tune into sports games, and follow the ever-changing top music charts, we derive a strange sense of satisfaction from watching people crawl over each other to earn a trophy or title. There is a limited number of places, and we have a limited amount of stamina. In this way, society teaches us how to survive, not how to live. And to survive, we need to compete. To live, we need to know our limits. Thus, to combat the toxic stigma of being the “best or nothing” the media perpetuates, we as a collective need to realize our sense of accomplishment need only be validated by ourselves.

The notorious “Stuy or Die” mentality is taken lightly and treated as such: a mere joke. But it is very much real. It embodies the unspoken, unrealistic expectations students impose upon themselves and each other. And nowhere is this more clear than in The Spectator’s senior survey for the graduating class of 2020. When asked if they would choose Stuyvesant again, the 12 percent who answered “No” cited the suffocating, pressurizing atmosphere in the following comment section. “Missed out on the high school experience,” wrote one, and “Competition tainted my mental health,” lamented another. One even expressed that though they “did not choose ‘No,’ [they] wanted to [say their] ‘Yes’ was full of resentment and disdain even though it was a yes.” And a scroll through our “Dear Incoming Class…” Facebook advice groups reveals a disheartening preference for “light” classes with high grades over more challenging and interesting ones—it’s clear that in the perpetual Stuyvesant struggle to be in the top 10 percent, our competitive spirit has come at the cost of our intellectual growth.

When I finally made it to Stuyvesant a year later, when I finally made the mark and encountered both ends of my exam-day mantra, I entered with our school’s notorious reputation of sleepless nights, copious amounts of work, and little to no social life in mind. I felt I was starting the race late; everyone would surely have solidified their friend groups and extracurriculars at this point. So, to compensate for their head start, I pursued my grades and passions endlessly. During the first round of The Spectator recruitments, I applied for five departments and was accepted into three. I was taking one AP class, but I didn’t think that was enough. I constantly sought new ways to push myself further, to fulfill the prophecy of the “Stuy” end of “Stuy or Die” that I worked so hard to reach. But as I tried to actively participate and write, in addition to maintaining my grades, I found I pitched and signed up for much more than I could handle. I could not make deadlines, which discouraged me from participating frequently and only resulted in more late articles.

At the beginning of my junior year, I felt the pressure to become a leader in a major extracurricular activity. I applied to be editor of two departments (as well as the leadership position of other extracurriculars). But my lack of experience, short time in The Spectator, and record of not making deadlines discouraged me while applying and hindered me from receiving many of those positions.

Burnout—throughout the past two years, I have often felt there was no point in trying so hard in my classes and clubs if so many more of my classmates had the passionate drive, intelligence, and stamina to balance them. It left me with an overwhelmingly empty feeling, and I would constantly ask myself what the point was in giving it my all when there will always be someone better. Burnout was the steep dip in my motivation after a peak in ambition. It’s a negative cycle so many of us trap ourselves in by, again, habitually determining our worth through comparison of ourselves to others. But this defeatist mindset wasn’t the way to go.

Though these were heavy losses, I found the time to take a step back and realized that in my haste to reach the top, a part of me was not as passionate about journalism and writing as I once was. In order to better myself, I focused on writing articles only on topics I was passionate about. Once I knew my limits, I sought to face and push past them at my own pace, and I am slowly rediscovering my passion for composition.

I like to think of the race to the top as a marathon. To survive, we need to run; to live, we need to catch our breath. In a marathon, all that seems to matter is the fact that it’s completed—the roadblocks along the way or the differing paces of each participant hold little significance in our minds. Like a marathon, life is about personal achievement. It is a long distance run, so we need to pace ourselves in order to not expend all our energy in the beginning. We should learn that it is okay to take breaks in between; whether or not we finish first, last, or somewhere in between, crossing the finish line, completing a deadline, or getting to school on time are all accomplishments in and of themselves. In marathons, runners must recognize their limitations and know when to slow down or stop. Life—more specifically, life at Stuyvesant—should be no different. Instead of worrying about how quickly we finish the marathon or what place we finish in, we should focus on appreciating the experience itself, and all the people we love who cheer us on.

In these trying times, I find myself going through this cycle yet again: a sudden rush of motivation to help out front line workers as much as I can, inevitably followed by a period of dispiritedness when I realize as a high school student, there is not much I can do besides stay at home and cheer them on. But then, I feel at ease when I realize, in merely two years as a student at Stuyvesant High School, I found my way out of the toxic communal mindset by taking a much-needed breather and a step back. The famous "live in the moment" maxim should be the new Stuyvesant mindset.

As a transfer student here, I began my high school career a year later than most of my classmates, and yet I have discovered many I can proudly call friends, many who share my interests, and many more who come together to compose our wonderful, enriching community. I do not wish to tell you how to think and act at Stuyvesant or in quarantine, but what I am advising is this: in chasing after our dreams, we should recognize we are already living the dream.