On High School Reunions and Gratitude

Last weekend was my five-year high school reunion, and it got me thinking a lot about the concept of gratitude. 

For many reasons, I was apprehensive about coming back to campus. Towards the end of my senior year of high school, there were unpleasant events that took place that made it difficult and painful for me to think about my high school experience for the past few years. I have found that the easiest way for me to stay focused on my current goals and have the motivation to keep moving on is by pushing away my memories, both the good and bad. However, a couple of years ago, I started working in a research group, working on a project that is important to me and has made me excited about science again. Every now and then, I would have flashes memories of high school that could only be described as fond. I know that so much of my curiosity and passion for science was developed at the school, and those are not things I want to forget. I decided to attend the reunion, because I finally felt I was strong enough to show up, reconnect with some of my peers, and be okay. Revisiting school brought back a lot of the memories, with almost the same intensity as before. 

Before my chemistry class in tenth grade, I always thought of scientists as those socially awkward, frizzy-haired men you always see on television, like the main characters in The Big Bang Theory. I never related to that iconic image, and although I found science mildly interesting, I was fairly certain that I was not the target demographic for professional science training. In my freshman year of high school, just before entering the upper school, my biology teacher told me that she was considering enrolling me in the honors track for Chemistry, something I could have never predicted. I remember standing in her office hours, stunned, when she told me, convinced that she had confused me with someone else. Her belief in me, her recognition of my abilities when I did not believe in myself, was what encouraged me to work harder than I had ever worked before. I fell in love with the class. The bright colors, the neat, balanced reactions, and the physical concepts that, when distilled heavily from complicated mathematical models, seemed rather intuitive and logical. 

Part of why I had such a positive experience is because of my chemistry teacher. She was such an inspiration to me, as a fellow woman in science, someone who was dedicated, organized, caring, and carried a calm authority as she conducted the laboratory experiments. I deeply admired the confidence she seemed to exude; it was something that I wanted to emulate myself.

I often felt that my high school environment was critical and unforgiving. Recently, I was talking to my younger brother, who graduated from my school two years ago, about his experience. He told me that even though he had an overall positive experience at the school, he felt that none of the adults on campus assured him that making mistakes did not define him as a student and that they could serve as a learning experience, something that he only realized in college. Fortunately, I had one person in my life in high school who had told me that, and that was my chemistry teacher. Several days a week, after my AP Chemistry class in my junior year, I would stay back and discuss everything with her, my life, my friendships, my family, and she told me about her experiences. I found her experiences, her strength, and her confidence so comforting and inspiring. She struck me as someone very similar to me, with similar traits of dedication and ambition, but she had wisdom and confidence that I aspired towards. She was like my cheerleader, telling me that I needed to be confident, and telling me that my mistakes didn’t define me, and that what mattered is that I bounced back from them and appreciated what I had learned. In an environment when it felt like everyone was criticizing me, this validation, from someone I admired and respected so much, meant everything to me. It was the most important support I had at the time, my one bubble of hope in what felt like an overwhelmingly stressful environment. 

I acknowledge that not all this is the fault of the school, for there are many pressures, such as the competitiveness of peers and their parents, that contribute, arguably even more forcibly. Many marveled at how tolerant and wise my parents seemed. I have since talked to some of my peers from high school, some of those whom at the time I envied and feared would judge me for my inadequacies, and I realized only after college that the academic pressures they faced at home were more than anything I could fathom. My parents were not those parents. Although they pushed me to succeed, they give me considerable freedom to explore my interests and expressed pride when I worked hard and achieved things. They did not bombard me with overwhelming criticism, and I believe they strove to be approachable. But there were issues at home that were not always apparent on the surface. I did not always feel safe when it came to my immediate and extended family, as the culture of my family clashed with an identity that was not my choice, that I fought to suppress. In school, I always felt somewhat like an imposter. I felt that most of the students I was interacting with in AP Chemistry and some of my other classes saw themselves as “elite” students, something I never identified with. I felt that my successes in Chemistry were based on luck rather than true ability, and I never felt like I truly belonged in the AP Chemistry group. I grew to be too reliant on my teacher to provide me with the safe validation that I didn’t always feel at home, and the validation that I never offered myself, because I was so busy punishing myself. 

What makes this so difficult for me is that although I have harbored negative feelings over these years, how I felt the school and my parents seemed to be punishing me for having feelings that I did not want to have in the first place, how I never felt I had the time and space to grieve the loss of a relationship that was important to me, as I was so ashamed of the very fact that it was so important to me — despite all this, I still feel so much gratitude. While many of my peers in college seem to generally accept that high school was overall unpleasant, and it is tempting for me to agree, it would not be fair of me to do so. Being at my school was so important for my growth as a student, and as a person, and for most of my time there, I loved it and appreciated what I was learning. It is easy to forget these things when my most recent memories of my time there are unpleasant, but retrospectively, it is something that I would like to acknowledge and appreciate. 

I have so much gratitude for the role my chemistry teacher played in my life, despite everything that happened. She was an incredible teacher, one who was able to distill complicated mathematically motivated theories into simple, logical concepts that students without a background in calculus could intuitively grasp – something I appreciate now, after college, more than ever. She was an inspiring role model and mentor, someone who appeared so strong. She was there for me at a time when I found it difficult to approach others. She was incredibly kind, and she went out of her way to help me and make me feel comfortable, both in class, and at the beginning of my senior year. I knew she cared about all her other students as well, and she was and is loved by so many. I still believe that she is kind, despite the unfortunate and complicated situation that followed at the end of my in my senior year. I believe she is kind and good and meant well, and I feel sorry that my feelings and actions caused her discomfort. I am grateful for what she taught me, not only about chemistry, but about life, and about how it is okay to allow myself to embrace confidence and happiness. I have learned that confidence is not about knowing all the answers or expecting myself to perform perfectly, but knowing failure is part of the process and having conviction in my ability, not to perform well every time, but to learn and grow from failures. Just two years ago, I started taking a suggestion she once gave me about making the effort, every day, to write five things that I am grateful for, even if they are incredibly mundane things. This has been immensely helpful for me.

Processing this gratitude makes it so very difficult, because sometimes, it’s just easier allow myself to be consumed with sadness and anger. A huge part of my process has been recognizing that people are incredible, smart, and kind, but also flawed. I have to come to terms with the fact that my high school experience was painful and uncomfortable, but also inspiring, life-changing, the very reason I am embarking on a science research career now, and not something I ever want to forget. I am grateful to have had someone in my life who cared so much about me, even if that caring eventually led her to become overwhelmed. Today, I try to offer my friends and family the same validation my teacher gave me, and I have realized that I don’t need her to be that validating person in my life anymore. I can be that person myself. Sometimes, we have to accept that we will never get the closure we want; sometimes, closure does not come with a conversation. Sometimes, closure involves only internal processing and changing the way we think about things, rather than changing other people. But through that process, we become stronger. We learn that life can be unbearably painful, but the pain is something that we can handle, learn, and grow from, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. 

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