My triumph was on December 16, 2011. Crimson was my purple, the college game my Gaul, the senior bar my Forum. The accolades for my Harvard acceptance were flattering, and some of the congratulations made me blush. After the close of a three-and-a-half year campaign, however, I suffered the soldier’s affliction, coming back to a place that I could never see as the same one I left.
As I went about my day, I saw things that I had previously failed to notice: freshmen scarfing down bagels Joey Chestnut style, sophomores sprinting down the hallway at speeds that would scare Usain Bolt, and juniors long-jumping banisters, pre-calculus notes sticking out of their bulging book-bags.
It looked pointless, and I was overcome by the type of mirth that can only accompany derision. And then the memories overwhelmed me. I had been that person, in those dark days of junior year, who had thought getting an 80 on one math test was going to wreck my average, which was going to ruin my chances of making the Ivies, and thus destroy my life. A perfect logical progression, thought I, as senior Danny had a chuckle at the expense of his former self.
Junior Danny’s psychosis wasn’t self-induced. It was fed to him; it was and is part of the culture of Stuyvesant. This realization made me angrier as I mulled it over in my head, but when I finally gave it voice, my sentiments were repeatedly denounced. My perplexed father told me, “Why do you care? Stuy got you into Harvard, didn’t it? You should be grateful.”
I can’t help but care. Though Stuy got me where I wanted, I am still nagged by the feeling that my triumph came at too high a price. The Stuyvesant experience, for me, was arduous and all-consuming, in a way that only those who shared it can understand. Friendships I had had since the sandbox were shed for lack of spare time. My waistline exploded as stress left its telltale signs on my body. Every moment’s academic or collegiate value was maximized; happiness was minimized.
When I think back to junior year, it was not the concepts we were learning in class that kept me up past the witching hour or forced me to squeeze in breakfast on the escalators, but the policies of teachers who were inconsiderate of their students’ time and mental well-being and unwilling to understand us. I remember having to do piles of busywork that had no pedagogical value. Still seared into mind are the ridiculous penalties one incurred for coming to class even a second late or for handing in a tardy assignment.
At Stuyvesant, the conversation forever en vogue is the reduction of student stress, a topic brought up in meetings of the Parents’ Association and Student Leadership Team, but never truly addressed. The reason for inaction is that a true solution requires a cultural shift, from a pedagogical model that emphasizes the individual student, rote memorization, structure, and deadlines to one focused on analytical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and open-ended due dates.
Change is slow to come to Stuyvesant. The English and Social Studies Departments, however, have already made the transition, which may be why less tribulation is associated with classes in those subject areas. Honestly, I don’t expect similarly forward-looking behavior to emerge any time soon from the Mathematics and Physics Departments.
Nonetheless, there are three basic steps I believe the administration should take to alleviate student stress: crack down on busywork, establish a one-minute grace period for getting one class to another, and mandate that every teacher allow a certain number of assignments to be handed in late by each student.
As I have previously written, Stuyvesant could use a touch of humanism. It’s not about the triumph. It’s about everything that comes before.