Where the Piece Fits

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I remember picking up a level-X book for the first time in fourth grade and learning about the dangers of high school. That year seemed like the pinnacle of change in my school—Dork Diaries was a bible documenting the changes that my best friends, who had been so innocent just months ago, were going through. I watched my friends get cell phones, make out in the playground and get boyfriends behind their parents’ backs, talk back to teachers and parents, and sneakily text away after dark. The drama, the mean girls, the bullying—it was the type of stuff that made nine-year-old me dread the teenage life that so many of my classmates and best friends were already trying to achieve. Because I, for one, wasn’t ready.

But middle school was what really began to scare me about high school’s ever-nearing arrival. There were people who wanted to be a member of the stereotypical group of mean girls or popular jocks so badly that they would smoke weed in the holes behind the school where they never got caught, host the kinds of parties where the main characters in TV shows would get blackout drunk, and cut class to sneak out to the local plaza just like all the cool kids in the movies would do. They were the first taste of those stereotypes for me, my first indication that the kids that with whom I once drew houses and made paper-maché sculptures in art class could change so much from the simple pressure of being popular. They had abandoned the childish mindset that I, a sixth-grader, was still stuck in, and they had done it so easily and quickly that it seemed like they were meant for that clique. Because to me, cliques were something natural and real; they were something that one was born into. Growing up sheltered as a child in a conservative boarding school in Taiwan where cultures were very much different, I felt intimidated suddenly learning about these clichés through just what Hollywood enforced—and that they were so real that they could take away some of my closest friends. It was all I knew, and it was going to happen to me next.

It terrified me—still does, actually—that people can be identified by a simple title such as “jock,” “nerd,” or “goth.” To my mind, the puzzle pieces had yet to fit together: how could thousands upon thousands of people with unique individual pieces all adhere to the massive, general image of a one-word title like that? But I realized watching my classmates that they were editing their pieces, forcing the edges to fit in the crammed cookie cutter shapes of the oversimplification they wanted to be, that they were losing themselves to this toxic influence that popular media forced upon them. I feared that high school would force the same influence onto me, that I would be forced to shed parts of myself to fit into the cliché I would become, that I would lose some of my closest friends to the umbrella of generality because they were meant to be another stereotype. It began to haunt me, from the moments I became titled as “emo” for my dark clothes and snappy attitude while my best friends became “nerds” and “theater kids” to the second we got our high school acceptance forms.

So when I found out I—and three out of my four closest friends—would all be going to Stuyvesant in the fall of 2019, I began to panic. I presumed immediately stereotypes were sure to prevail, just as it did anywhere else, and my fear began to grow, a swathing inescapable swarm that was consistently fueled as my friends spoke of excitement about heading off. It was too close—too soon for me—for us to be forced to adhere to the simplistic titles that high school was sure to bring. In the months following March 18, I read and reread the countless teen fiction novels that had shaped my long-standing perspective of the battlezone called high school. I spent the summer before freshman year distracting myself with the contrasts of Asia. In a place among my childhood friends, who hadn’t changed much from what I could remember, I hid and pretended the fears I were so panicked about were merely imaginary. I let myself begin to panic only when my date to return home dawned nearer and I began to watch movies like “The DUFF” and “Mean Girls,” filling my mind with scenes of Bianca getting shunned for her differences and Cady completely abandoning herself to be “popular.” By the time the first day of school came, these movies had taught me much about what high school was guaranteed to be like in my efforts to “prepare.”

These movies and books had taught me that cheerleaders and football players were the evil ones, the bullies who ruled the school with an iron fist. But the reality at Stuyvesant taught me that they were just like anyone else, as evident from the numerous football players in my Algebra 2 class, some of whom kindly helped me when I was struggling with complex numbers. These movies and books had told me that cliques were forbidden from interacting and that they hated each other with a deep passion, that clichés were not to be messed with and were simply law. Reality at Stuyvesant taught me that this was limited to the screen, from the varsity jacket-wearing blond I saw sharing a Ferry's sandwich with the dark-haired, glasses-wearing girl on the third floor to the boy with chains and band tees walking side-by-side with the stereotypical hippie in floor-length skirts and a flower crown.

I had been so lost in my assumptions that Stuy was going to be just like any other school, that it simply couldn’t just escape clichés and that stereotypes were something so natural in life, that I had forgotten the uniqueness of Stuyvesant’s situation. We’re at a school where stereotypes are crossbreeded, where the specific titles that I had been so terrified for have become shed for broadened, wider scopes that fit to the same wide spectrum of Stuy students.

Maybe it was a shock, so strong that it has changed my perspective of the media I used to once absorb. Maybe it was a pleasantry that’s clung to me, exposing the crooks and crannies that had taken some of my closest elementary friends and turned them into the people I now knew. No matter what it was, Stuyvesant has changed the way I see popularized culture, because in real high school, the cheerleaders aren’t always mean girls with pompoms, the sports teams don’t go abusing the nerds, and the goths don’t hate everyone and everything. In Stuy, stereotypes aren’t a necessity—moreover, it’s a place of development, where clichés exist but are not enforced, and that leads to interesting developments of students within these walls. As students graduate, I personally hope they will move on to challenge the stereotypes that shaped our generation’s beliefs in stereotypes, popularity, and the necessities of such.

The younger me that dreaded high school was immediately hit with a wave of relief upon entering, something that many students take for granted upon coming in. Stuyvesant has been dubbed the best high school in New York for countless years, but it extends past grades: it moves into simply the mindset that Stuy students encourage, that the openness and welcoming of unique puzzle pieces creates. We’re extremely lucky to have such an experience—after all, it’s not every day that life is allowed to be free. And in the end, the puzzle pieces still fit.