by Delphine Burns
I heard it all the time from wise elders in high school. They’d say it to me when they knew I’d had a hard day, or could tell how jaded I was with the small, rural town I attended high school in. They’d tell me, “It gets better.” Or maybe even, “People who peak in high school aren’t going to enjoy the rest of their lives. You don’t want high school to be the best time of your life, do you?” I didn’t, but I was having trouble and I didn’t want it to be the worst time of my life either.
I went to high school in rural, conservative Hays, Kansas. Moving there from liberal Santa Cruz, California was a little bit of a culture shock to say the least. I hadn’t spent much time in the Midwest prior to this move, and had some trouble adjusting. Used to diversity, moving to a small town of Christians who held uniform beliefs about morality was a challenge for me. In this town, the first question you were asked was, “What church do you go to?” Being raised by a secular family and identifying as Atheist myself, I felt displaced. I hoped no one would judge me too harshly for my lack of religious affiliation and that I would still be able to make lots of friends and foster a community easily. I have never been more wrong.
High school for me was a blur of bigoted slurs, conservative bumper stickers, and long-winded lectures about the importance of abstinence. As president of Pitzer’s Smart Sex Society, and a Political Studies and Sociology major, this didn’t go over well for me. I questioned everything, because that’s my nature. I didn’t understand why this community had to remain so homogenous in beliefs. Although I faced a lot of discomfort, bullying, and ostracism in high school, there were three major areas of my life I felt were the most affected.
The first was choir. I love music, and have been singing for as long as I can remember. The choirs at my high school were actually good, and I dreamed of joining the most elite, a show/chamber choir called Chamber Singers. The audition process was intense, and I was determined to get in. I was accepted, and participated for two years.
Although the singing was wonderful and the singers were very talented, the environment was toxic to my mental health. It was quite competitive and many members of the group prioritized nothing but getting ahead of their fellow singers. It was also composed almost exclusively of Churchgoers, to whom I was deviant and not worth investing time in. These two factors made it impossible to create a positive, healthy musical community. Additionally, I rarely was selected to sing solos, and always played small roles in the musicals. Feeling alone and talentless, I felt discouraged from continuing with music.
The second area that emotionally challenged me was academics. There were a few courses I felt challenged me, but I overall felt jaded. I also felt alone in the college application process, since nearly everyone in my class stayed in Kansas and went to state schools. There were many resources provided for those staying in state, but for those who wished to attend other institutions, like Pitzer, the resources were very limited. I remember going to the local Starbucks, ordering a coffee, and sitting there for hours reviewing my college applications and essays, and hoping that maybe I’d be good enough to leave this town I detested so highly and attend my dream school.
The third area that was difficult at my high school was social justice. Being anything but a white heterosexual male at Hays High was challenging. This dominant identity was extremely oppressive to any minority identities, as usual. But here, it was magnified. Patriarchy and heteronormativity are still alive and well at Hays High. A few friends and I started a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school to offer a safe space to queer-identifying students. We faced much opposition from the administration, and I remember being in the principal’s office about once a week toward the end of my senior year. At Pitzer, Social Justice is praised and welcomed. At Hays High, it is objectionable.
I’m writing this because as a junior at Pitzer, I can look back and say my life has changed significantly. High school seems like a bad dream I had many years ago that I struggle to recall details from.
Now, I sing in an A Cappella group where my talent is celebrated, and I’m able to express myself through solos without being silenced by other people’s competitiveness. In my group, we are all friends. We all acknowledge each other’s talents, and we even hang out together and have awesome conversations. I never would have hung out with people in Chamber Singers.
I’m editor-in-chief of a newspaper I love, and am never bullied due to the content I wish to publish. I am able to take classes I love and succeed academically. The resources are here to ensure we as students are supported in our academic endeavors.
At Pitzer, I’m not slut-shamed, victim-blamed, or made to feel that my identity isn’t a valid one. In fact, I feel very comfortable with my identity thanks to college. So yes, I can confirm that it does in fact “get better.”