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Illustration by Rachel Wada

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person looks at heading back to class, something that’s always challenging, even without a pandemic.

The moment I let my academic life suffocate my youth was an accident, as most growing up is. It started when they sat me down in front of a child psychologist. That snowy day I was plucked from my third-grade classroom and sent to the principal’s office to write a series of cognitive tests.

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By the end of the winter, my parents were filling out paperwork to transfer me to a new school for the coming year. At the age of 8, I was grouped with children the school board deemed suitable peers: the esteemed gifted class.

I remember that first day of school, how we sat in a circle and went around saying our name, what we did that summer and what grades we usually got. For a kid who never really fit in, this new world was a relief, free from the pressure of social cliques and the need to play dumb.

The teachers had warned us about our egos, explaining that being in this program didn’t make us smarter than any other child. Though well-intentioned, it only created silent competition between students. While there was encouragement from our teachers to succeed, to try our best and excel, the pressure for perfection mainly came from ourselves. We all wanted to be the smartest person in the room.

Amidst the competitive nature of the gifted program was an underlying contest to be the most unhealthy. We weren’t supposed to try too hard for our grades but flaunt the sacrifices we made to achieve them. As if showing an effort was an insult to my intellect.

There was an unacknowledged rivalry between us – who took part in the most extracurricular activities with the least amount of free time, who could drink the most caffeine to last the longest on the littlest sleep. We’d calculate how much Red Bull and coffee we could stomach before making ourselves sick.

Destructive lifestyles became synonymous with academic success. I was 11 the first time a friend showed me her scars from self harm and 12 when another was hospitalized. We knew who had tried to harm themselves the night before, who stayed up with them till the early hours trying to talk them down or why some students were pulled out of school a few times a week. Suicidal tendencies became old news and we were all okay with it. It became a joke in our class, creating a new wave of stigma, where it was treated as a punchline rather than taboo.

Suicide and depression were never discussed by my elementary teachers, and a teacher deleted a personal piece I wrote about it from my computer drive. The stress we had been put under at a young age was never acknowledged and it was only once I began high school that mental health was taught in the classroom.

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Because I was raised in a program that put my intelligence at the forefront of my identity, all that mattered to me was my academic reputation. Once I felt that slipping away, I wanted to hurt myself. I stopped eating and sleeping and deprived myself of friendship because it felt painful and sharp and rebellious. I thought that if I could prove I was strong enough to endure this, it wouldn’t matter if I was no longer the smartest kid in the class. Health was never my priority. Where other kids were faking coughs to get out of tests, I remember trying to hide fevers so I wouldn’t miss a day of class. I believed that if I didn’t push myself harder I was wasted potential.

All the damage I did to myself was of my own volition. While a lot of my classmates faced pressure from their parents, mine were more relaxed – they didn’t want my opinion of myself to collapse once I lived in a world that wasn’t run by grades, but I couldn’t listen to them.

In Grade 10, wrapping up my sixth and final year in the gifted program, I started to realize how twisted the system was. I remember lying in bed thinking about exams that were months away and realizing I hadn’t felt like a kid for years, and that at the age of 15, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my life was almost over.

I’d always thought about childhood the same way I think about the last snowfall of winter: We’re so desperate to move into the warmth of summer that we don’t appreciate the beauty of the cold weather. I had grown up too fast and had spent too little time enjoying myself.

Truth be told, I needed to be in a gifted class, but it could have easily been the death of me. The problem isn’t the program itself. No curriculum or classroom could undo the damage we students inflicted on each other. We conditioned each other to love the sick twist in our guts and rush to our heads when we got out of bed without enough sleep. We were a group of overworked teenagers looking to ridicule rather than comfort.

Going into my senior year, I’m slowly learning what it means to be okay. I’m learning how to validate my feelings independently. I’m learning that self-care is more than bubble baths and binge-watching TV shows. I owe it to myself to pick myself up after a bad day rather than skip a meal and hope the hunger pain cancels it out.

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Positive growth doesn’t focus on running back, on obsessing over what could have been. It’s about growing and moving forward, accepting what happened and learning how to fix it. Well-being doesn’t always mean making the right decisions, it’s about realizing a pattern of unhealthy behaviour and lovingly helping yourself change. It’s a learning curve I’ll master some day, but a class I’ll never graduate from.

I see my younger sister and think of myself at her age, about how I can stop her from making the same mistakes I made. Catharsis comes from helping someone lead a healthier life.

The learning, the fixing, the teaching: That’s what well-being is to me.

Anastasia Blosser lives in Richmond Hill, Ont.

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