"I feel like I'm in a hell-hole as of late--drowning in a storm of issues and deadlines which I don't want to do."

At 0843 PM 6/9/99 -0700, you wrote
Mr. Geib,

I don't really know why I bother to write; maybe I'm just seeking some sort of vent other than a journal--which I use quite frequently--and friends who have probably gotten sick of it. You'll probably find me immature--I'm sure every single teenager goes through one of these little 'crises'--a phase that gets blown out of proportion. Nor are you really a psychiatrist or such that I should probably be talking about this to. I found your page by chance while browsing on the Internet. Kudos to you on your wonderful work, especially your page on Thoughts Worth Thinking, which I've spent a considerable amount of time reading through.

I am in one of my state's specialized programs (APP, Accelerated Progress Program), the children who are found to be gifted or talented. For example, we're on a curriculum where at eighth grade, our last year of junior high, we're learning math at the sophomore level along with our history and language arts classes.

However, I feel like I'm in a hell-hole as of late--drowning in a storm of issues and deadlines which I don't want to do. I'm weighed down. Something that's been of direst importance all throughout my life (grades and academics) and that which my parents focus a lot on, has suddenly ceased to have meaning. Letters on a sheet of paper? What good does that do, if I don't conceive the meaning behind the endless militant rows of text that my eyes consume each day? Throughout school, I've come out with straight A's, I've been one of those perfect students who had a life, yet was a 'good two-shoes'. Respect for teachers, respect for school, always with the goal in mind of *making* that grade and making my parents proud of me.

Yet, I'm increasingly asking myself the question what is happiness? Am I really going to attain my eventual goals of 'being happy'--however vague that term is--by going through all of this school? (Yes, I tell myself, this is an essential step to be respected, is to be educated and capable of clear thought, logic, and the reasons and facts to back it up.) Maybe it's because it's near the end of the year, maybe it's because I've spent years and years on this, and suddenly I feel jaded by too much experience with the schoolsystem and how slow it can be sometimes. I *know* I have the talent to do these classes which I'm suddenly finding myself (and starting this year, too) getting B's and C's on (the epitome of the vast gulf of failure, to me) on classes which I *know* that I should be able to whiz right through.

I feel inadequate, inept, and like a dismal failure constantly. Everything which I've taken pride in (1360 on the SATs at age 13, 1250 at age 12) suddenly ceases to be *great*. So much for high scores, when I have such high standards that I've cried over making test scores higher than a college-bound high school senior yet not high enough to match up to *my* standards. Everything I think I can be good at, is constantly shown to me that I'm *not* good at it. Surrounded by so many people just as gifted as I am, I'm weighed down by knowing that a lot of them (my best friend!) are so much more intelligent than I. She's the one that gets the top scores, she's the one that I feel like I want to compete with--and when I do, I don't make it--she's the one that I love so much, yet envy so much; she gets awards, I'm 'just a little bit behind'. Never at the top, she's always a little percentage, or a big percentage, ahead of me. My own brother, entering college at age 14. When I tried to! enter that same program this year, I was rejected because I didn't have the drive. I do have the drive. Yet.. where is it?

I ramble, I know. I just don't know what to say, where to go, nor what exactly is wrong... it just feels like I'm drowning. I care, but I don't care; academics matters, but it doesn't when I want *happiness*, immediate gratification. I want to be great, yet I don't want to put the effort into it (yes, it's lame of me.). What do I plan, what do I want to do? I constantly ask myself this some star to reach for, some goal that I can find at just thirteen years of age. Yet, I don't know.

... just another angsty teenager.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
-- William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

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      Dear Jennifer,

      You sound like a completely normal teenager to me -- no need to apologize for "immaturity." Many of the problems you are dealing with are "adult" problems: the finding of direction, the creation of an identity that works, etc. And I have met many adults who have had less success than you apparently have had in resolving those problems and "growing up." Life is rarely easy and often challenging. Teenagers find this out for the first time in their lives precisely when they become teenagers -- hence the "angst." No, life is not like a Disney movie. Sorry.

      There is nothing wrong with excelling in school and trying to be the best. I commend you and your parents for having made this a priority; more often than not, the problem today with students lies in their laziness and lack of motivation and direction, which you seem to have in spades. On the other hand, you need to excel in school for reasons other than simply being the best or pleasing other people. (I think you figured as much out, eh?) I have in big letters in my class the mantra: "Non schola sed vita decimos." Translated from Latin this means, "We learn not for school but for life." Think about it. When you are younger you can work to excel in school because your parents and teachers pressure you to do so. But as you get older, you need to find a reason to do so that satisfies yourself. As a teacher, business people tell me I need to prepare my students to be good "Information Age" workers who can work in groups, seek out and acquire information, possess good basic skills, etc. Others say students need the skills to be able to succeed in standardized tests and AP classes and thereby gain admittance to select graduate programs and a meal ticket. There is truth in all that, but I always saw my job as helping young people to grow up happy.

      But academics is only one aspect of your life, and a person also needs physical exercise and a good emotional life to keep everything in balance. Often one sees the best of the best excel in all these areas in a synergistic effect. And I have met plenty of stellar students who by the time they were sophomores in some Ivy League college they were brilliant poetesses dressed always in black ready to slit their wrists a la Sylvia Plath. What does it matter if you have all the education in the world yet are bitterly unhappy? Education, in my opinion, is the way we make ourselves happy. Today we study so much math, science, vocabulary, expository writing, technology, etc. In contrast, an education before the "modern" era revolved around epic poetry (often love poetry) and philosophy. I often think the old style provides more sustenance to a young person looking for direction and meaning in life. So often we suck the life out of learning in schools today!

      I would urge you to think bigger than just academic instruction. For example, you will learn as much from your first boyfriend as you will in any classroom. The old lady on the corner, moreover, might be able to teach you more of what you want to know than can be found in geometry theorems. And if a program of study is so severe (as yours sounds) that it prevents you from having a "life," then I would argue it is not worth pursuing. The things you learn (poetry, philosophy, etc.) should not be the ends but only the means to living well; we don't live to think, but we think to live well. There is a difference! And it is not nearly so simple as to memorize the information, pass the test, and be happy. Would that it were!

      I would posit that knowledge serves human purposes only when it yields wisdom and true learning. Memorizing enough information and then regurgitating it by rote learning on exams does not mean you have "learned" the material. I see time and time again that the highest grades in my classes do not go to those who are the smartest or who understand the material best; they go to the hardest workers. And hard work, while vital, does not count for everything. It are often, after all, the "C" students who run the world! A bit crude, but there is truth in it. Your parents and teachers push you to do more than is comfortable and that is good. But you are also questioning what you are doing and the reasons for it; and that is also good. You seem to be very competitive -- as I am. But think about someone like Einstein who never did well in school or Steinbeck who never graduated from college and think about why they had so much success in their lives where a grind who does nothing but study, write, study, write all day and all night fails to make it to the top ranks 99 times out of 100. Nobody really cares what college you attended or what your SAT scores were. Think bigger than that!

      I know the end of the school year was here and most likely you were as tired as I am (school gets out for me this Thursday). It is true that nothing worth having ever came easy to a person. As Edison said, "Invention is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." But it need not be an either-or equation: you can have work hard and play hard, after all. Perhaps it is simply that you don't balance the work with "gratification," as you put it.

      Finally, I would urge you to be gentle with yourself. I know from my own experience that young people can be so exacting with themselves and so unforgiving of mistakes. In the hyper-competitive United States, less than 100% ability to live up to your goals can bring about a punishing barrage of blows to the self-esteem! We human beings are more fragile than most people believe, and so give yourself a break once in awhile. If you think you can berate yourself as "inept, inadequate, a dismal failure" indefinitely and not feel the effects dramatically in your life, you are mistaken. Be gentle with yourself! And I know how hard it can be to see someone else do something better than you, especially after you have given it your best. On the other hand, you really only have to compete with yourself, in the end. Trust me when I tell you that it so often evens out and that individual you put on a pedestal for having a skill you lack... well, he or she has weak areas you know nothing of that are for you strong points naturally. It so often evens out! And then there is always the most difficult task of all: being happy, making yourself worthy of happiness. Lasting success comes from achievement at that most basic task. Chase grades and test scores only so far as they are part of the path to happiness, I would urge you. Enjoy your classes! Think about livin' off the fat of the land as an undergraduate at Stanford or Oxford! It ain't so far off, you know?

      At any rate, I trust this e-mail finds you feeling more settled about things. And if you are looking for summer reading and are not enrolled in a summer cram class, I suggest Thoreau's "Walden." It sounds (with your talk of "what about happiness?") like it might be just the trick for you right now. Ask your parents to buy it for you and watch their eyebrows rise.

      Be well.

      Very Truly Yours,

      Richard Geib


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