Danville Express

Cover Story - June 15, 2007

Surviving high school

The lowdown on pressures, partying, parents - and living to tell the tale

by Natalie O'Neill

It's a jungle in there. Inside the walls of Danville high schools, it can be treacherous territory - in academic and in social circles.

Not literally, of course. Most students don't feel unsafe in class, experience direct pressure to do drugs, or even face a risk of dropping out. But on the road to graduation, Danville high school students have had to survive different, very real stresses and burdens, five graduates tell the Danville Weekly.

Here, where most kids grow up knowing they have every opportunity in the world to succeed, an intense and sometimes cut-throat drive to achieve is born. On a four-year journey to adulthood, this sometimes paralyzing pressure to both stand out from the crowd and fit in, is just part of what graduates say they had to overcome.

"Everyone has had their breakdowns," says Kelsey Foltz, who attended San Ramon Valley High School, played soccer, and is on her way to UC Santa Barbara. Some weeks were draining mentally and others, emotionally, she says.

This evening, graduates will don caps and gowns, accept their diplomas and take their plunge into a world bigger than this town.

Parents will smile and cry and feel proud. Some students will say "good riddance" and others will say "good memories." But first they give the Danville Weekly the scoop on just what they've had to endure in the last four years.

Trudging through the academic terrain

Goals are set high, schedules are overloaded and college - now more selective than ever - is not an option for these teens, it's an expectation. But what do you do when everyone around you is excelling? Where do you find your own sense of identity? And how do you stay afloat in a sea of overachievement?

"Some people think everyone is so high-achieving, why should I even try?" Kelsey says, explaining that students push and compete with each other in the classroom.

The grads explain a competitive feeling to keep up - to go, do, and win.

"My college application was stressful with all the deadlines," says Will Skrip, graduating from Monte Vista High. "I've been real busy."

Additionally, parents play a substantial role in influencing their children to perform well.

"There is a lot of parental pressure," says Sam Kikes, from San Ramon Valley High. Although he adds that he can't speak for everyone.

Getting through demanding classes is easier, grads say, if you know one thing: The key is to have a passion, an outlet for escape.

"Get involved in something - anything outside of school - it helps," Kelsey advocates.

To some extent, this strong academic drive, partly self-induced, partly bred by a well-to-do suburban atmosphere, is healthy, the group agrees.

For example, being in advanced level classes - the ones taken out of interest, not obligation - gave Chloe Marx, who attended both San Ramon Valley High and Venture School, more than just a headache. They gave her an opportunity to explore ideas with peers and to get away from trite high school banter, she says.

"It's not just gossip you're talking about, it's real issues and real things," she says.

Others excelled in these academic environments and found that challenges actually make them perform better.

"The pressures come from our own competitive nature," Sam says.

"I'm naturally quite a competitive person," Alexa Egeck, a Monte Vista grad, agrees with a smile. Alexa has excelled in English and has been dancing competitively on teams and in classes since she was 3 years old.

For her, balancing a social life with school was the real challenge.

Chloe, who will attend San Diego State University in the fall, agrees.

"There were distractions," she says. "I had to get my priorities in line."

Social survival

Books and pencils aside, the insecurities, experimentation and desire for acceptance that typify the high school years are inward hurtles students have to jump.

Fitting in. Toying with drugs and alcohol. Understanding the opposite sex. Getting to know oneself. These were some of factors that made high school social circles complicated, the grads say. Also, some of them note the line between academics and socialization is blurry, and most students want to succeed in both.

"For me, I had to find a nitch. I realized the group I was with wasn't who I wanted to be in high school. I got injured, I was depressed and it affected my academic life," Kelsey says of one of her dark points in high school.

"Freshman year is testing the waters," Sam says, adding that there are feelings of awkwardness and self-consciousness within new high school students.

"It's a self-confidence thing," he says. "A lot of (the early issues) are from being wound up tight in middle school."

With everyone changing rapidly in these formative years, maintaining friendships was a difficult task as well as fitting into groups. But it was also a saving grace, Alexa says.

Finding a couple of real friends is the best thing you can do for yourself socially, she says. Having even one true friend is invaluable.

"Have someone that's not in your group that you can still count on, someone who won't judge you," Alexa explains.

Among girls, backstabbing, trash talking and competition for attention from boys can be nasty, the female graduates say.

"When it comes down to it, boys can be a major factor - wanting their attention," Kelsey says.

However, being "popular" isn't much of an issue, they agree.

"That doesn't really exist," Sam says. "(Different) groups are pretty much accepted."

While students don't feel like drugs are pushed onto them, they say they are everywhere.

"Coming drunk to school - it was a fad," Kelsey remembers.

"There are kids who smoke weed so much they skip every other period to get stoned... . Adderall has gotten big, too, their parents give it to them and they sell it at school," Chloe chimes in.

Drugs like ecstasy and prescription pills have also gotten much more popular since freshman year, they point out.

"It's about extremes," Chloe says.

Pills and booze are at parties, but most kids dabble in some drinking and then the novelty of getting drunk wears off, they say.

"The pressures are there if you are trying to fit into a group that does that," Chloe says, adding that most of the pressure is internal.

Along with drugs, students experienced infatuation and rejection from the opposite sex, and losing friends to girlfriends or boyfriends.

"Freshman year all the girls started hanging out with older boys," Chloe says, and this was a time when middle school friendships had to be reevaluated.

The grads also commented on the term "hooking-up," an ambiguous description they use to explain anything from kissing to sex.

"You hear about people hooking up and you never really know what they mean," Kelsey says.

The generational jungle

Adolescent issues are timeless, but what sets these graduates apart from the high school struggle their parents endured?

Technology is everywhere, for one. It's easier to communicate and this immediate gratification, along with an obsession with celebrity culture, wasn't as prevalent 30 or so years ago, grads point out.

"A lot of people around here feel entitled to things and that can make kids crazy sometimes," Chloe explains.

"Celebrities are royalty to us and there's an obsession with money. Everywhere you go, it's about getting rich," Kelsey adds.

High school parties, for example, just aren't the same. These teens can post party invites on MySpace and send out mass text messages, which can travel quickly to teens outside of Danville.

Grads laughed about one night when a cop showed up to a party before it even started, because he read about it on MySpace.

These teens simply have access to more then their parents did. More information, more connections, more media.

"(Parents) say, 'I've been there and you can tell me anything.' And you're kind of like, 'Hmmm, I don't know - that was a while ago,'" Alexa says.

While grads say some Danville teenagers have moms and dads that suffer from "I'm your friend, not your parent" syndrome, looking back they admit their parents really cared. This was the reason for most of their fights, they say.

Getting out in one piece

With hardship, come triumphs. Getting into college, sticking to their dreams and getting to know themselves were these grads' biggest victories, they say.

"Definitely getting into college is my greatest triumph," says Sam, who will be studying acting at Boston University's College of Fine Arts. "Acting is my passion."

"I'm ending high school in a place that I'm comfortable with myself," Alexa says is her biggest triumph.

At this point, social and academic pressures have almost completely been quelled. As this year's seniors move on and next year's freshmen prepare, the grads offer a few words of advice.

"Be your own influence," Chloe says.

"Don't sacrifice what you want for yourself," Kelsey adds.

"It's best to let it go and relax," Will says.

After four years in the jungle, these grads are stronger and smarter for it. Coping with classes, co-existing with parents and finding true friends are not easy tasks.

Even among the thick academic terrain and sometimes brutal social dynamics, the class of 2007 has made it. They have survived high school.

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