There exists an interesting phenomenon at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy involving the metaphorical inflation of one’s head. If you’ve noticed the lack of ceilings in classrooms, the official story is that it serves as a literal demonstration of the infinite capacity to imagine. Yet upon closer examination, we might venture a guess as to the fact that it’s for the better acoustics by which to hear each others’ speak, even three classrooms away. It is crucial that we hear about our sixteen-year-old peer’s confident and poignant views on American involvement in the Cold War.
From the moment we walk in through the doors of the East Entrance, we are constantly sent reminders that we are the “best and brightest” that the state of Illinois has to offer. Filling the benches with our neatly tied ties and well-pressed shirts and pants, we are fed the traditional Convocation speech, concerning IMSA’s mission to “advance the human condition”. Bombarded with such descriptors, we work to prove the reality of these words spoken so oft. Despite our sickeningly average teenage hormones and our contemptibly normal food and sleep intake requirements, we take upon ourselves the desire to be exemplary, impressive, outstanding, and “perfect” because that is what is demanded by the title bestowed upon us.
And fine endeavors they are, constructing new water filtration systems. Identifying effective treatment patterns for the multitude of unsolved fatal diseases. Establishing connections with similar STEM-focused schools in foreign countries. Wondrous goals we have, and I commend everyone who makes such an impact on the world during their time at IMSA. In your schooling, you are receiving the education necessary to propagate such monumental advancements.
The problem, however, lies in the fact that while although our egos may lead us to believe so, we are not the best and the brightest. Not in the world by far, hardly a speck in the country, and certainly not the brightest of our state. Students here like to believe that they attend some supreme school, with no competition, and yet we are a school comprised of hardly over 600 students.
Each one of us can handle only so much. We are not superhuman with the ability to juggle a national level student protest on one hand, conduct extensive research in neurology on the other, and become an Olympic-level competitor (who is also involved in the musical performance bit for the opening ceremony). Chances are we are unable to complete service hour requirements tenfold in addition to the previous list of activities. Thus, the issue arises when one of us attempts to pursue all of these projects simultaneously, and rather than take up the mission to “advance the human condition” as an IMSA group effort through collective contributions, we take upon ourselves the entirety of the burden.
We take the “best and brightest” title and apply it to ourselves, rather than our student body at large. Ironically, as Kevin Zhang ’13 wrote, despite outwardly believing all people are “intrinsically equal”, we labor under the delusion that our self-worth is based off of our grades, our test scores, and our extracurricular titles. Because, after all, we have to prove to ourselves that we are worthy of being described as “one of the best”. These tangibles are the best way to demonstrate on paper that we deserve such a title. To further perpetuate this cycle, we put seniors with these characteristics on a pedestal and work to emulate them, rather than developing our own selves. Consequently, we cry in shame, uproar, or simple whininess about our grades and board positions.
And yet your grades are meaningless if you cannot recall what you learned after the semester is over. Your test scores are only representations of how much you know in the moment. Think about every time you took a test and remembered how to answer a question just five minutes later – does that really mean you did not understand the material and will fail in life? And then there are the extracurriculars at IMSA, forming what is really the social backbone of our campus (other than League of Legends). Clubs are not necessarily life-changing, so the simple event of being named its executive board member does not mark you a worthwhile contributor to human society. Instead, if you take this title and impact your community because you want to, perhaps then you have taken the first step towards being “one of the best” leaders and fulfilling IMSA’s mission as it was originally intended: a group effort.
Let’s look at the phraseology once more: “one of the best”. This remarkable expression is one of the best examples of the best linguists besting logic itself. It is impossible to be one of the best. We say that we are “one of the best” to make ourselves feel better, but really only one person can be the best. And chances are, statistically speaking, you are not it. You are not special. There are many high schools like ours, and many students like us. You are undoubtedly incapable of saving the world by your lonesome and in no way exempt from your own personal life responsibilities. I know you are not special, because I am not, and you do not possess some extraordinary predestined designation that I do not.
The first time I posted this article I was asked what could students even do about this. Apparently, we are at the mercy of colleges to make ourselves look good on paper. Well, so be it. If you want to be the “best” student in the eyes of colleges, then you are going to have to do something extraordinary anyways. A 4.0 will not cut it. So figure out what the hell you want to do and expand your efforts past the pre-constructed definitions of becoming “the best” (the president of the school, the yearbook editor, a LEAD facilitator are all good examples of what we assume are “good” accomplishments). Instead, the “best” leaders and movers and shakers of the world define for themselves what being great is. Start your own project. Change an existing one around and improve it. Smile when you do it.
The students of our school have done some amazing things, but we must ensure that it is for the right reasons and not lose sight of the real goal. I am guilty of trying to be one of the best; I’m giving up that dream to rewrite my own rules. See what rules you can come up with.