By Alana Folsom, 16, Marshall HS
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Alana says that although the future scares her, she knows she’ll be ready to face it head on.

I am a fake. A high school senior brainwashed to use words like “effervescent” instead of “fizzy;” a high school senior on the honor roll; a high school senior who has been taught to have the glimmer of a four-year college shining in her eye. And yet, I appreciate and want none of it. I still want to be back in preschool, I still want nap time and recess, I still want to be a kid. I never asked to be labeled as one of the kids with “potential.”

As an elementary and even middle school student, I was always asked, “Where are you going to college?” I would respond with a brand-name university my parents had mentioned, like Harvard or Yale, knowing only that these colleges are where the smart kids went. However, entering high school, the question changed. One day in my health class, the girl sitting next to me asked me if I was going to college. At the time, I thought, “Why wouldn’t I?” but the question stayed with me. I never knew that people didn’t go to college. My entire life I have been told the stages of education are elementary school, middle school, high school, then college; removing it from this equation was unheard of. Not only was this a new idea for me but it also presented a whole new set of questions I have yet to answer: do I really want to go to college, what if it’s exactly the same underwhelming experience as high school, and what will happen if I don’t go?

However melodramatic I may sound, I know that I will end up going to college, not necessarily because my goal is further enrichment or a promise of a high salary, but because if I don’t go to college I don’t know where else I will go. Everyone sees me as a promising student. I don’t know what my promise is leading to but I think there’s something better out there besides college. I’m just not sure what it is.

“Alana, I’m scared.” I was sitting in my English class when my friend turned to me. “Of what, Andy?” I asked him. “Of the future,” he answered simply. Granted, this was not the conversation we normally had to pass the time in between the first and second bell; but the truth of his statement shocked and stuck with me. He made me realize that I am scared of the future, too—something I was trying not to admit because it scared me that the perfectly mapped out life I had painted in third grade was deteriorating. There was comfort in our shared outlook, though. I knew that at least I was not alone.

As the second semester of my junior year started, a flurry of college letters came, all offering me spots at their summer writing prep courses and telling me about their unique and wonderful school, all with that same glossy sheen I used to associate with freedom. Next, my SAT scores arrived and so did the congratulations, but I wasn’t sure for what; I had never equated success on standardized tests with intelligence, nor did I think my high score was some great accomplishment that elicited bravos. When my English teacher heard about my scores, he told me I was on my way to greatness. I smiled at him and said, “Yeah, sure.” But he just patted me on the back.

Illustration by Cecilia Cho, 15, Burbank HS

In comparison to the other kids in my college-prep program, I see myself as mediocre. I do just enough work to earn the “goes above and beyond the assignment” on my report card; I study, but only when it doesn’t conflict with a TV show or sleep; and, if given the option, I would choose to go to a concert over studying for my chemistry class. I am just a typical teenager, but by having a high GPA I have blinded my teachers and, especially, my parents to this fact. They don’t see that I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, that I have no idea where I want to go to college and, mostly, that I am acutely aware that I have no idea what I am doing with the rest of my life.

My 16th birthday came and went; I thought I would have found some sort of clarity in my coming-of-age, and yet, I am becoming more and more confused. The milestone that had been reaching its crescendo fizzled out: I am still uncertain. At 10, or even 13, I was under the impression that 16-year-olds had it all together. They were all not only extremely confident and smart, but they were also beautiful and well-liked; obviously, my vision was impaired. But even though my dream of the 16-year-old version of myself will never exist, I still want there to be some solid ground as I continue on through my high school years.

Shouldn’t I know who I am by now

Whenever I read books, I pick up inflections and speaking patterns of characters in the book. I find myself saying “darling” from A Streetcar Named Desire or having the sudden urge to put thousands of light bulbs in my room like the main character in Invisible Man. Despite the fact that this is odd, I see my friends doing similar things; we steal each other’s sayings unknowingly and all mold ourselves to our surroundings. College interviews terrify me for this reason: what if I had just finished reading The Virgin Suicides or some other equally strange book? Would my interviewer mistake my apathy or hostility as an actual personality flaw rather than one exhibited by a character in the latest book I have read? And how am I supposed to know what I want to do with the rest of my life when I don’t know who I will be acting like next week?

My career aspirations, too, have changed: in first through fourth grade I wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice. The title was heavy with influence, and I thought I could cause social change. Later, I was going to be an elementary school teacher. I was so sure, my voice so unwavering, as I told anyone who would listen that yes, I was going to be a teacher. Now, I have no clue; the way I see myself is constantly changing, and probably will continue to. My future is rushing closer and it seems more real than ever. The idea of being a teacher seems as unrealistic as my idea that, at 16, I would finally have the perfect teen-movie life.

But maybe I am just becoming a jaded and sullen teenager. Cue the lights: I am ready for my teenage rebellion. At the same time, I feel I am justified in my new-found attitude (something all pseudo-rebels probably say). School has been a complete let down. I was expecting to be challenged, and to become exposed to new and different things. English class would throw obscure authors and vocabulary words at me, I would be bombarded with historical facts I imagined myself later throwing around. High school was supposed to mold me into a writer, history buff, mathematician and an all-around more intelligent and well-versed individual. This has not been the case.

I have seen the flaws in both my point of view and the school system. I, as a “smart kid,” have expectations to fulfill: not only am I to get the grades, but I also must get into the brand-name college so my school can champion a Stanford, Brown or NYU admission. In the end, though, we all get the diploma and all my hard work gets me four more years of hard work and, well, the school, not the students, reaps the rewards. Once, the school administrators rounded up all the “smart kids” and called us into their office about a week before the CAT 6 test. At first, we were confused, but soon it became clear: they were basically telling us that the entire school’s test scores depended on us, and that we had to take the test seriously and do well or the school would look bad. I felt like we were shouldering the entire reputation of the school with one standardized test.

Recently I have become increasingly bad at being able to look into my future, and not just my long-term future. Choosing what I am going to wear the next day or eat for lunch is a decision warranting hours of my time. My friends act the same way, too. We are all trying to avoid anything beyond the now. Reminiscing has become a favorite pastime. We would all rather look back and remember freshman year, the eager and hopeful innocence of ninth grade. We laugh over inside jokes, remember surprise parties we threw for people in classrooms and wish we could rewind and replay. If only we knew then what we know now, we all say, as if we are wiser as seniors in high school. But really we are all just kids who don’t want to face the immediacy of the next year of our lives. Therein lies the connection between wanting to postpone adulthood and feeling like a fake, but it is a complicated one.

I don’t know where I want to go to college

Now, as a senior, I feel I should be mature and ready to accept my future and impending college choices. My parents, teachers and counselors are all chomping at the bit, pressuring me to craft my “top 10” college list and start brainstorming personal essay topics; even my driving instructor asked me where I want to go to college. I found myself spewing the same three colleges I always do: Amherst, Hampshire and Swarthmore. Every time I recite this list, though, I grow more and more disconnected from the names; they become words like any other. For all I know, I could be saying “toothbrush, sneaker and paper clip.” 

I also find myself wanting to regress back into childish freedom and stubbornness. The definition of teenager is a muddied one because we (as teenagers) are supposed to be able to cope with the trials and tribulations of being an adult, but with the optimism and happiness of a child. From adulthood on, there is no parent to blame for things and no one to tell us what to do. And even though all teenagers claim to hate parental advice and nagging, we all secretly need to know what we are supposed to do in trying times. Our parents provide that support and foundation to jump off of. But I am afraid to jump because then life is fully my choice and I have to figure out where to live, where to work, and remember to do my laundry once in a while.

I see myself among the graduated seniors, as they don sweatshirts emblazoned with college logos and board planes to opposite coasts and begin college. This is the decision that will ultimately provide the bridge to the rest of their, and our, lives. I’m not ready to place myself in their black polished shoes, in their graduation robes, and, yet, here I am; those same robes are now waiting for me in a dusty storage facility.

College equals adulthood. And I just want to be a kid for a little bit longer. I am afraid that my teachers, or colleges, will see my desire to remain sheltered as naive. I’m afraid they’ll see that I’m not a mature and college-ready adult, that they will see me as the honor-roll fake I am deep down inside.

Still, as it gets closer, the future seems more exciting and less scary. I know there is nothing I can do to stop time, so right now I smile hesitantly, laugh with my friends and wait for the future to catch up with me while I enjoy my youth.