Small fish in a big pond


Matthew Yam

The phone rang.

I answered, not expecting much, but when I hung up, I became a future Harvard-Westlake student.

I was in the sixth grade at the time, and I didn’t really consider the ramifications of my acceptance into one of the most prestigious prep schools. My middle school ended in eighth grade and leaving all my friends for a three-hour daily commute wasn’t exactly appealing.

I took my ISEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) lightly and did not prepare, but my scores were still decent. The school wait-listed me, and it wasn’t until I received a phone call on a Sunday afternoon in mid-April that I knew that I would be attending.

Ever since I can remember, I always felt as though I was at the top of my class. I recall in second grade, two of my classmates finished a math worksheet before I did, and from my desk I heard them excitedly exclaim to each other, “We beat Matthew! We beat Matthew!” I vividly remember smug eight year-old me, sitting at my desk feeling proud because if “beating me” at classwork called for that much celebration, I must have been doing something right.

My days in elementary school were filled with successes. I always had the most tickets (class currency earned for being a good student), won my school math contest, and when my parents chatted with the parents of other students, they were met with, “You’re Matthew’s mom? He’s so smart! My child has told me all about him!”

When I came to Harvard-Westlake, however, everything changed. I became surrounded by students from all over who were exactly like me: the smartest kids who had always been at the top of their respective classes. I experienced the “big fish, little pond” effect, which is so common for many Harvard-Westlake students.

At elementary school, I was comparatively always at the top, which is why when I was dropped into a bigger pond, the change was harsh. Without warning, I was hit with a wave of my own mediocrity. For the first time in my life, I had to study for tests and quizzes, and even when I tried my absolute best, I still received unsatisfying grades that I was far from accustomed to. Now, school consumes all my time. My daily routine is go to school, study, go to bed, repeat.

I often feel overwhelmed by the never-ending climb (literally and figuratively) that is the Harvard-Westlake upper school. I feel as if all my work is for nothing. I spend all my time completing assignments and studying, but when I get my test scores back, they simply aren’t good enough. I am disappointed at myself and feel even more helpless. I feel as though I will never be able to improve my grades, leading me to think I will not go to a “good” college, engendering a sinking feeling that I will never amount to anything in life.

Teachers tell us that grades aren’t everything, but the majority of my time is spent trying to get good grades. I have often been told by counselors, friends, and family that colleges look only at GPAs during the application process.

I know that many of my peers feel the exact same way. Many of my friends tell me that they have unhealthy levels of stress, some hopeless and depressed from constantly studying and receiving unsatisfactory grades. I feel our futures are taken away because of our poor marks.

However, even through all my struggles here, I understand my decision to come to this school. I, along with every other student, chose to be here in order to train myself to take on anything life decides to throw at me in the future. Although I am often overwhelmed with stress and pressure, I recognize the only way to learn to cope with these realities is by experiencing them firsthand. With every struggle comes strength. With every fall comes a rise. With every shortcoming comes growth.

Instead of focusing on feelings of failure and inadequacy, we must remember who we are and where we come from. Focus on our accomplishments and be proud that we chose a school where we can surround ourselves with peers who are every bit as talented as us. Know that we will be well prepared for our challenges, our college, our careers, our lives.

Sure, Harvard-Westlake may feel like manacles holding us down, but when we graduate, and the shackles are finally released, we will be ready to take over the world.