A Different Kind of Success Story

Reflecting on the real awards of my high school experience

Lucy Tu, Co-Editor-In-Chief

My freshman self wouldn’t like the person I am today. Honestly, if she and I met, I don’t think I’d enjoy her company either.

Although most details of my first day of high school are a blur, key memories stick out. Namely, the outfit I wore (my mom’s white shirt and salmon-colored American Eagle shorts), my afternoon snack of three Dunkin’ donuts, and my expectations of who I would become four years later. 

I’d have straight A’s, be preparing for my first semester at an Ivy League University, and have a star-studded resume on scented paper that would make admissions officers and potential employers beg me to join them. I planned to have one serious boyfriend, a wide circle of friends, and I expected to be well-liked. All of this, I thought, will be in my future! Just follow the plan.

During my freshman year, I signed up for Art Foundations, merely attempting to fulfill a graduation requirement. My favorite project was a written assignment involving a two-hour visit to the Joslyn Art Museum and an essay about a small painting tucked in the corner of the newest exhibit. A few weeks later, my art teacher forwarded the essay to the journalism adviser, who suggested I apply to be a reporter on the school newspaper. 

Despite having no prior journalism experience, I was eager, partially because two of my best friends also intended on applying. But truthfully, my freshman mindset was zoned in on joining as many extracurriculars as possible. I was the epitome of a resume booster, and I thought of journalism as one of many boxes to check on my “path to success”.

If I thought I’d be a natural, then my ego deserved the kick it received. My first piece was written in the style of an English analytical essay, not a news article, and the first round of edits was a flurry of red X’s. Despite this imperfect start, journalism became one of my favorite parts of the day. The articles I wrote and read transformed my perspective of my community as I learned more about the individuals it comprised of. My first memorable interview had been with Tara O’Shea, a social studies teacher whose son was diagnosed with acute liver failure a year prior. It was the first time I saw a genuinely personal side to Millard North. My article covered how our student body raised $1,000 for the Children’s Organ Transplant Association in his honor. During the interview, she sat across from me, her desk covered in half-graded papers and her eyes brimming with tears.

“I want to thank the students,” she said. “This school is home to me. You guys are my family.”

The shift in how I envisioned my high school experience was gradual, but that interview and specific quote were prominent landmarks in my journey. My freshman-year goals were centered solely around myself and my personal successes. My interview with Mrs. O’Shea incited my understanding of how my future was intertwined with the individuals and the stories I wrote about.

While I was still committed to earning high grades, my goals shifted from self-oriented successes to my role in a larger community. For speech, the importance of the team state championship outweighed my individual placement. For journalism, I imagined a complete redesign of the newspaper, a thought that wasn’t fueled by a hope to add another line on my resume—but by a desire to modernize our publication and engage students with important stories.

My first year of reporting coincided with massive changes in my personal life. Family issues, harassment at school, and my first panic attack (that would eventually lead to an anxiety disorder diagnosis) pushed me into begging my parents to let me transfer schools. As I struggled through my first semester of sophomore year, refusing to open up about my problems to avoid appearing weak, journalism became a safe space. Journalism was simultaneously my isolated world and my means of becoming more aware of my surroundings through reporting.

I chose not to transfer, a decision largely influenced by journalism, in addition to my unrelenting refusal to back down. When my course load and responsibilities magnified, journalism became a happy place again. Although my role as Co-Editor-in-Chief required many extra hours of attention, it provided a strange relaxation.

And I loved the work. Journalism has become a string of highlights in my mental high school scrapbook. Memories of doing interviews in cars (James Cordon style), designing 30 diverse faces on Adobe Illustrator at 10 P.M., and somehow placing multiple times in Sports Feature Writing at the State Journalism competition despite knowing nothing about sports are featured on every mental scrapbook page. 

Then there was my life outside of school. When I stopped being consumed with earning every award, I began understanding myself through unexpected experiences. There were silly things: my newfound baking hobby, a hatred for track and field, and a dating lineup that included a Jehovah’s Witness, a barbecue-loving football player, and my best friend who was once shorter than me. But serious experiences were peppered between those memories too: physical insecurities that consumed my daily thoughts for hours and my acceptance of both my anxiety and my parents’ refusal to acknowledge it. But instead of bearing the weight alone again, I leaned on a healthy support system.

On my first day of high school, I had high expectations. Looking back, academically, I became who I wanted to be. And at the risk of sounding narcissistic, my transcript is objectively littered with the straight A’s, perfect test scores, and speech state championships I’d always wanted. Just a week ago, I committed to Harvard University and was named a U.S Presidential Scholar, feats my freshman self dreamed of. Yet, in spite of all of these material accomplishments, I don’t think freshman Lucy—who was incredibly concerned with fancy titles and trophies—would be satisfied.

Freshman Lucy was never enough. She viewed success as a quantifiable measurement of self-worth, a tool she utilized to tell herself she didn’t measure up. If something was difficult, it was because she wasn’t good enough; any setback was viewed as a failure. Now, I believe the best accomplishments are the ones you fight for, and my understanding of myself is shaped by my community and my role within it. I focus less on material accomplishments and more on how my actions will impact others’ stories, in addition to my own.

Freshman Lucy would hate my outspoken nature, the way I sometimes miss my mouth when I eat, and even my intended college major (Comparative Literature. Far removed from her plans of becoming a doctor and earning a lot of money). While I don’t claim to be wise and sophisticated, my values have changed for the better. Freshman Lucy and I wouldn’t be best friends, but I can appreciate her wide-eyed enthusiasm and sweet naivety. And if I could have a conversation with my freshman self, I’d promise her that she’ll learn to appreciate me too. Maybe in four years.