The ugly face of that A*- a reflection on my last years of school

It has been two years since I finished my IB diploma and left sixth form. That is insane to me. Lately, I have been reading through the plethora of diaries that I kept during those two years from September 2013 to Spring 2015. I entered into that new world of academia, a new school, new people, new subjects – a new world. I felt as if I knew no one and nothing.

I was 16, predictably naive, still hiding my writings in old notebooks, terrified of being seen when I first entered the school. I had never been anything other than average in terms of school work, so I felt like an alien in this new world of terrifying intelligence, I felt as lost as I was lonely, and had no idea why or how I had got there. I found myself studying the arguably harder version of  A-levels; six subjects, philosophy (a system of continuous existential breakdowns), one extended essay, various hours of creativity, activity and community service. The school I attended had a reputation for achieving the best grades around, so between this and my extra circular pressures, life became very busy.

I attended dancing almost every day after I had stayed at school until around 5 pm finishing essays etc. Dancing became a struggle, a chore, I began to hate it. I didn’t matter that I was good, I was getting solos or praise. I just didn’t care. I was constantly tired but could never sleep. I remember praying for days off just so I could catch up on sleep and stop the perpetual headache. Yet, I still woke up at 6 am every morning got that empty bus, then those two full trains – headphones in Radiohead on repeat.

That first year was ok I guess. Yes, I made friends, ones who I still treasure today, I was well liked I suppose, but the over-arching loneliness always followed me home, not that I had a minute spare to feel it. I liked my teachers, my grades were average for that place, but I was overworked,  and unlike my peers who had four hours to spend on an essay I at most could only find one. I was running in a race I couldn’t win. There was no way I could compete, and yet I still compared those numbers against my own. A grade B felt like a failure. I had a turbulent home life which I won’t go into, but that year’s exams were inevitably poor.

I do remember that first year I had an older teacher who in one lesson humiliated me in front of a new teacher and classmates; I had another late night and woke up so tired I forgot to wear a vest under my shirt, I’m a fairly confident girl but I was still embarrassed that my underwear shone through the blouse. No one else mentioned it throughout the day but that one older male teacher did. He pointed it out and scolded me for wearing such ‘provocative clothing’, I had never felt such injustice as when he told me that I was making myself an unfair ‘distraction to males’. Considering I attended a single sex school, the only males in the vicinity were adult staff, I was only 17 at the time. He retired that year and was replaced, thank god outdated misogyny like that was rare. Still, I do think that ideology is still trickled down through the school system in a series of unfair uniform regulations only inflicted on girls etc.

Anway, the second year did have happy memories; every English class I attended got me through the excruciating pressure of every other aspect of my life. I showed my poetry to a favourite teacher who instead of dismissing it encouraged me, I am so grateful for that, I guess I would never have started this otherwise, they would probably be the best teacher I have ever encountered. As the year passed the workload got heavier and I started developing an anxiety disorder that would last another year and a half after I left school. I remember all the essays I wrote at 2 am and the emails I had to send when I was too exhausted to finish them, that went from the beginning of the year begging for an extension to the end when all I could do was say was that it wouldn’t be finished. Every new deadline was another stressful day, every project, oral exam, presentation, essay, coursework assignment – was crushing me.

I expressed this to my peers who felt this with me, and the faculty must have known what we went through but mental health was hardly ever discussed. I was told that I would need to quit dancing if I wanted to achieve any success, but unfortunately, my mother’s strong opinions didn’t allow for that. That is until I was thrown out of the dance company because I refused to attend a practice because I could no longer sacrifice my grades any longer, but it wasn’t until May 2015  was allowed to leave dancing.

I had been at the same dance company since 1999, the head of said company knew me and watched me grow up, she just didn’t understand that I could not put ballet above the IB. Whilst completing my second year of the IB I was taking dance lessons in modern, tap, classical ballet, pointe work, and jazz. I was also taking extra exam dance lessons in ballet, modern and tap, as well as weekend all day rehearsals for an upcoming show (which ironically I never performed in as I was kicked out before July). Dancing stopped being fun that year. Then the pressure to be skinner kicked in, eating became a method of control – something my life lacked then, something I still am recovering from today.

I had no idea what I wanted to study, or who I wanted to be. I had my dreams shattered by those who told me university was not an option (although I ended up receiving an unconditional offer from my first choice). I felt so defeated, only small things got me through each day. My favourite lessons, or the teachers who cared. I know that in a school it is easy to be lost in the crowd but I do feel that in some ways, some elements of the pastoral care in that place let me down. They checked up on us, but only enough to satisfy their regulations. Or maybe I just slipped through the system, I got good at pretending I was fine. It’s funny though because when I did breakdown, I didn’t tell my parents, or my sister, or my best friends, I called a girl I barely knew. I sat in my closet terrified of what I might do, sobbing uncontrollably because I couldn’t face the pressure of any of it anymore. I forgot how to be happy. I had no time for a social life. I completely lost myself. I’m so thankful to her, she picked up that phone call and (not to sound too dramatic but) saved my life in a way. So, I carried on, unhappy and empty but I continued.

When exam season started and the lessons that I had loved stopped the panic attacks started to get far worse. I didn’t recognise them at first, all I knew was that at night when I tried to sleep I would wake up every five minutes, thrown into consciousnesses by hyperventilation and an overwhelming sense of dread. Sleep became utterly impossible and then I couldn’t hide from my parents any longer. The change in me so was too noticeable. They didn’t know how to help though, other than to just get through it, I’m sure that they felt as helpless as me. I did get through it, I passed my exams and achieved very good results. I got into my first choice, but I felt nothing.

I had panic attacks throughout my first year of university, on trains, in clubs, alone, with peers. I worked through it and I put school second to my health. I skipped classes to be with friends, to have adventures, and I still worked hard enough to do well. I was never taught the balance, only the pressure. I am so happy now, I still, like the rest of humanity have bad days but not bad years. I pursue creative ambitions, write, sing, enjoy photography, spend my days in art galleries and cafes.

This reflection was triggered by seeing my younger sister struggling with the very same stresses I did, and feeling the utter frustration that nothing has changed in the system. She is far stronger than I was at her age, so I have now worries about her, but what about that other girl in her class. The one like me, quietly confident, with friends, good grades who evades attention but cries at night – what happens to her if she slips through the net?

Reading back through my entries saddens me beyond belief. That I could imagine no future for myself just breaks my heart especially when now I am so content. It makes me worried what the students of today are writing in their diaries. I just can’t believe that I was not taught that grades aren’t everything. I guess it’s more convenient for a school to encourage that mentality; they would rather have a school of A*s than one with healthy young adults.



Also to any potential university goers – University is a breeze compared to the IB trust me.  understand that this is a perhaps all too honest and true insight into the hardest years of my life, but

I understand that this is a perhaps all too honest and true insight into the hardest years of my life, and this does concern real life events, but I have been as vague as I could so as not to reveal too much. Obviously, this is just my personal experience and opinions.





2 thoughts on “The ugly face of that A*- a reflection on my last years of school

  1. I love this post. I think so much pressure is often put on younger people, and it’s done with ulterior motives, i.e. to make parents/schools look good, without much regard or understanding for how the young person is feeling. Glad you’re happier now.

    Liked by 1 person

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