Learning to Be Happy

Going to Catholic school for 11 years was rough—I mean, really rough. From first to eleventh grade, I spent most of my days clad in uncomfortable uniforms walking the halls of schools that made me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. It only ended when I managed to walk out the doors of my Catholic high school for the last time . . . and straight into a pandemic.

After three years of an awful high school experience, I finally convinced myself that it would be better for my mental health to switch to another school. I ended up selecting New Garden Friends School (NGFS) and made the switch in mid-March. However, that particular week was NGFS’s spring break. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, except that the accursed COVID-19 pandemic happened to skedaddle onto the main stage in the United States and specifically North Carolina that exact week. Schools were shut down, so my first day at a new school was in a Zoom classroom with a bunch of kids I didn’t know.

But even through a laptop screen, I immediately felt more welcome at NGFS than I had ever felt at my old school. It was no longer only about grades and social status—it was about creating a safe and welcoming community. It was definitely a bit of a culture shock but a good one. It was so odd seeing people goof around and be genuinely happy and open about their emotions, intentions, and lives, even if it was translated through pixelated images from webcams.

I wanted to share in that accepting, eager camaraderie everyone seemed to have at New Garden, but I didn’t know how. I had been practically trained to fit the mold of a quiet, obedient kid that gets their homework done on time, gets straight As, and keeps their shirt tucked in, but that mold slowly started to break. Day by day, I learned to relax. I learned to take everything a little less seriously. I learned to have fun! My mind was no longer clogged by anxious thoughts urging me to hold back, to not embarrass myself, to behave properly—I was thinking genuine thoughts: What would I make for my art project this week? Should I ask my friends to play Minecraft later today? Maybe this person likes Dungeons & Dragons too!

To put it simply, by leaving my old school, I left my old, emotionally exhausting mindset behind too. In my wake, I left the kid, the me, that spent hours trying to figure out what was all right to talk about at school without being made fun of. I left the kid that nearly failed out of high school because it was all just too much. I left the kid that tried so, so hard to not be left behind. And I’m so glad I did, because if I didn’t—if I still clung to whatever sense of security the oppressive environment I grew up in offered me—I don’t think I’d ever be where I am now. I wrote a college essay on something I love that I never would have written at my old school: Dungeons & Dragons. I got into my dream college with that essay, and I’m going to become a teacher so that I can provide the safe and fun learning environment I was denied for so long. For the first time in a long time, despite the pandemic, I’m genuinely excited for the future.

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