I’ve been thinking an awful lot about achievement, and the Race to Nowhere, and the ways we hide from our lives. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how complicated it gets when the ways you hide from your life are applauded by the world. For me this has mostly been true: whether it’s running or studying with a fierce concentration or following the tide of popular sentiment down a path that might have been the wrong one.
This is a kind of hiding in plain sight, right? None of your behaviors speak of anything being wrong. In fact, they are celebrated. For me, the pinnacle of this was at Exeter. I’ve been very frank that my two years at Exeter were difficult for me. I think late adolescence is an emotional and awkward time for most people, and some extenuating circumstances made mine especially challenging. My parents were across an ocean (and in this pre-cell day, we spoke once a week on the payphone in the basement of my dorm). My heart was broken at the very beginning of senior year when the first relationship of my life exploded in front of me (and in a hurtful, and public, way, no less).
What did I do? I ran and I studied. That is it. I ran for an hour every single day, mostly in the woods out behind the gymnasium (across the bridge that appears in A Separate Peace), but when it was really freezing I’d run laps around the track suspended above the cage. My senior year GPA was 10.8 (out of Exeter’s characteristically-unusual GPA scale of 11). I read and I wrote and I studied and I went to bed every single night well before 10. I didn’t have many close friends. I didn’t have another boyfriend. I didn’t ever break any rules, didn’t experiment with drinking or smoking, as so many boarding school denizens do.
It was a fraught time. I was a liminal creature (Peggy Orenstein ascended even further in my pantheon of favorites when she used this, one of my favorite words, in Cinderella Ate My Daughter). I was moving from girlhood to adulthood, and I was doing it mostly all by myself. In this dark time, one I remember as still and ever-moving at the same time, I had one firm guide: James Valhouli, my English teacher, the first person to believe I had something of value to say.
But all of my coping mechanisms, things that I understand now were ways of avoiding actually engaging with my life, looked like success from the outside. I was profoundly unhappy, but I don’t think anyone who didn’t know me well could tell. I don’t know what the conclusion of this is, necessarily, but I do know that it points to a truth I’ve often referred to here: outsides and insides are not always congruent, and we ought to be slower to judge others based on the external indicators they display. It also reminds me that there are many, many ways to hide from our lives, to numb ourselves to the things that hurt, and we would be well-served to approach all others with compassion. They, too, are likely grappling with demons, even if we cannot see the struggle.