Letter to WW-P

I wrote this (with a fire) in response to recent changes within my hometown school district; changes that I consider to be for the greater good. Unfortunately, the administration’s moves are being met with severe opposition from a small minority of (mostly Asian) parents and students, and I think it’s so unfortunate that the issue’s been divided by racial lines. Anyway, read on to get the full story!

To my WW-P community,

I am an Indian American female and young alumna of WW-P HS North. Having also attended Community Middle School, I spent a good chunk of my formative years in WW-P, and to this day, I continue to reflect back on my life as a student in these schools.

In high school, I was your stereotypical high-achiever; I played viola in the MS and HS orchestras, and I was 1 out of 5 seniors selected to perform a piano concerto during my final year at North. I was a varsity athlete who put North on the charts for the first time in my sport after winning the Individual State Championships in 2009. I graduated within the top 5% of my class with a 4.6 weighted GPA. I had a lot of friends in high school, who mostly shared my Asian heritage, some of whom I keep in touch with to this day.

In WW-P, I had so many opportunities to push my own boundaries and explore my passions. I fully recognize the privileges that the school district afforded me, from having a variety of challenging AP and honors classes, to dedicated and driven fellow students, to opportunities to travel internationally with the orchestra; all made possible by of the support of parents, teachers, and school staff. Our district is financially privileged, and our parents and teachers are themselves highly educated; both of which set us—their children—up for success, and for that, I am grateful.

However, there are severe problems going on within our school district that also need to be addressed. Despite the opportunities afforded to me, I was miserable throughout high school. I hid this misery behind my achievements because the overwhelming message I received from my peers and my community was that my achievements were all that mattered. The message was clear when I caught a friend glancing at the test I was just handed back. The message was clear when I would see people copying homework or divulging test questions to classmates who hadn’t taken the test yet, because they were only interested in the grade, instead of learning. Wails of “I’m never getting into college” from students who worked hard to earn Bs or Cs on their tests, words like “retarded”, and “stupid” exchanged between “friends”, and questions that essentially boiled down to “Whadya get?” were commonplace in high school; so much so that they became normal.

What I can tell you, after graduating from a college with a very different ethos, is that the ethos at North was not normal. It was not normal to know so many people who participated in self-mutilation because they could hide that from their parents better than they could hide drugs or alcohol. It was not normal to entertain, and listen to others entertain, suicidal thoughts in the privacy of an AIM chat on many late nights. I have a close friend who was hospitalized for attempting suicide during my senior year, and she showed all the signs of struggling that led up to the episode, but no one gave it a second thought. We—students, parents, and teachers—were all under the delusion of what constituted “normal levels of stress” to the point where we began to tolerate and accept apathy and even outright depression. Upon reflection, I can see how equating my sense of self-worth with my achievements encouraged unhealthy habits instead of developing my resilience to failure and willingness to take risks.

In a recent interview with a student at HS South, the ways in which our schools are lacking were made clear. He said, “I feel that at West Windsor, I am treated as a name and a GPA. From a young age we are crafted to put grades above mental health and sleep. In West Windsor, we learn for tests, not for life.” His words remind me of my own experiences of being stuck in a system where my success was always relative to the success of others; in a system where I felt reduced to the sum of my grades and standardized tests. In that intensely competitive climate, I did not learn to value the learning process or honor my own and others’ unique talents; I learned to jump through the same hoops as everyone else as we all clamored to measure ourselves against the same, narrow standards of success.

I realized in college that it’s possible to achieve academic rigor without fostering toxic competition. My friends in college were happier, more empathetic, more self-aware, more aware of a world beyond them, and fully invested in their learning—with out destroying their peace of mind. It’s no wonder to me that my college is ranked within the top 20 in the nation—it is amongst schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, MIT and Stanford—and hasn’t had a single suicide since its inception in the 1830s.

The difference between my high school and college education was the concept of community. I was lucky to have peers in college who emulated what this meant; working hard at one’s personal goals without comparison to others, learning for learning’s sake as opposed to for a grade, allowing space for each other’s talents and faults without judgment, and keeping a watchful eye out for those who were showing signs of struggle at any stage of the game. I did not lose anything from including others in my thoughts because I knew that they, too, had my best interests at heart, and it was crucial for me to feel like a valued member of a community that, like North, was demanding so much of me academically at that time in my life. My college years became a process of unlearning my beliefs in competition and exclusivity and making way for inclusion and empathy, which has brought me lasting emotional and intellectual returns.

I urge you to consider Dr. Aderhold’s suggestions, not as an attempt to downgrade our schools, but as a step towards building this sense of community amongst students, parents, teachers, and administrators in WW-P. We can only succeed in transforming the culture with collective effort, and for this, I encourage you to get involved by engaging with the Board in respectful questioning and open communication about the issues at hand. Together, we are faced with the task of simultaneously maintaining our academically rigorous education and reducing the intense competition and constant comparison that leaves a lasting, painful mark on many of our students.

If we can come together to transform our schools, all of us will benefit from preparing our kids to be lifelong learners and self-aware, compassionate, and conscientious citizens of a democratic society; two of the highest purposes of a good education. I hope you will embrace the changes to come as opportunities to strengthen our schools and our community.