In Memoriam: Harper Lee

A while back, when Go Set A Watchman was announced and given a release date, I wrote a short commentary on how Harper Lee’s deteriorating health made me highly sceptical of the technicalities behind Go Set A Watchman being “found” (as that is how the publicists are choosing to sell it). Sadly Harper Lee has now passed, and while this is a great loss to us all, I can’t help but wonder what will happen in the aftermath of this.

Continue reading “In Memoriam: Harper Lee”

Productive Procrastination (Or An IB Student’s Guide To Not Flailing Your Arms About Wildly When Stressed)

The International Baccalaureate is notoriously one of the most difficult high school diplomas you can take, and with good reason: counting seven compulsory subjects (if you include TOK), required extracurriculars in the CAS program and the killed 4000 word Extended Essay, by the halfway point most students have cut out as many “unnecessary” extras as possible, including socialising with friends and family, exercising, eating properly, and hobbies. However ask any student what they wasted the most time on in the IB, and (with the exception of TOK) you’ll most likely be greeted with the simple one word answer of procrastination. Continue reading “Productive Procrastination (Or An IB Student’s Guide To Not Flailing Your Arms About Wildly When Stressed)”

Planes

When I was little, I loved planes. Absolutely adored them. I come from a reasonably well off family, so I traveled a lot when I was younger, and my parents always knew how to make flying simply brilliant. I lived for the feeling of take off, that sudden lightness that this behemoth of a vehicle has when it begins its ascent into the heavens. I loved looking at the clouds, soft and fluffy. It was like a mound of pure white candy floss, with a texture halfway between cotton and snow. We used to play hang man on the sick bags for hours. There was this intense excitement linked to flying, because no matter what flight we were on we knew the destination would be so much more exciting than being back home. Even that cheap stale airplane food didn’t taste so bad.

I was three years old when things began to change. I didn’t know what was going on for a while, only that Mum was worried because Dad hadn’t gotten back yet. He phoned us once or twice and she felt a little better. She watched the news every day, three or four times a day, until he got back. After that it was maybe once or twice a day. I wasn’t allowed to watch with them. All I knew was something had happened in America, but I didn’t know what or why it affected us in any way. We lived over here, the other side of the pond. What did it matter what was going on over there?

Mum sat me down and explained it to me after a while. Some bad people had crashed a plane into a building. “A house?” I’d asked. “No, one of those big buildings.” She didn’t say much more than that. At the time I thought that it was just a bad accident. It took me a very long time to understand that people had actually died – a few years later really. Even then I didn’t understand fully what had happened.

It didn’t effect us much. We lived over here, they lived over there. We didn’t know anybody who’d been in the Twin Towers. Maybe Dad did, but nobody close to the family.

A few years later planes started to fly regularly over our house. We lived near an airport, but the planes had always flown slightly north of us, so it hadn’t affected us before. Now every night, throughout the night, my room would vibrate with the harsh bass tones of planes flying overhead. I lived in constant fear that a plane would come crashing through our roof. Not because I thought we would die, but because I thought that we’d have to move house. I had become aware of the fact that bad people did bad things on purpose.

Suddenly the world around me seemed to be a shade darker than it was before. I became afraid of plane crashes. I began to understand that people kidnapped little girls like me and stole them away from their families, and that such people had existed in the area where I lived. Curiously for a while I developed a fear of black BMW style cars, believing that the boot would open up after driving past me and a net would launch out, pulling me into the car and driving me away – Inspector Gadget really fueled my imagination as far as creative ways of kidnapping people went. I realised that people could and did die. When Mum was five, ten, fifteen minutes late to pick me up from school, I began to think that she’d died in a car crash, that I was going to be sent to an orphanage. Even to this day I still get paranoid when my close family are later than I thought they’d be.

We all have triggering moments from when we were young that showed us that this world is not as perfect as we once thought. Things we once loved, like planes or car trips, become death traps. It’s sad to think that the toddlers of today will hear of gunmen, of churches and schools and other safe and wonderful places that have been ruined by these few evils in the world, and that what once seemed so beautiful will now be fodder for macabre fantasies.

Freeverse can hide depression – so be wary

As a boarding school student, I’ve naturally had to deal with a lot of deep intimate and troubling conversations at obscure hours in the morning. The bulk of these occur in the weeks before a holiday: everybody is just tired and stressed and has way too many deadlines, and on top of all this is getting quite homesick. So we end up sitting in corridors, sipping tea and talking about depression, suicide, death. Granted sometimes we talk about cheerier things too, but these are bittersweet topics like how close we are to our siblings and how brilliant it was to go to the beach that one time with our mums and dads.

Unfortunately, there isn’t always an easy way of saying the more difficult things in life. Fortunately for us, somebody runs a creative writing tumblr account for our school and our sister schools. So unsurprisingly when we are gripped with these nauseating fears and bouts of depression, we go to this site and submit anonymously.

All of this is to say one thing: poetry is not as intense as prose. A quick look through the tumblr in question will show you that most all of these depression related posts are done in freeverse poetry form. But they are written in such a way that you could remove the line breaks and it would make a simple paragraph.

So why don’t we? Because we are used to seeing a heightened sense of reality, what we often refer to as the “poetic feel of a poem”, within these poems. However we use simple prose for more diverse topics, including (and perhaps most commonly) to state things as they are or to give a clear perception of reality as it is. It is a slice of life compared to the poetic slice of ultra-HD life.

To show this I will write the typical poem that you’ll find on that tumblr page. You’ll notice there’s not much too it, very little personal touch despite the fact that it is about what should be a very personal topic.
Falling into darkness

I don’t know how it started

But now I just want it to end

The falling

The darkness

It all leads to 

Death.

You stopped holding me

And stopped caring

So I too stopped

Caring

For me

And now I feel nothing

So nothing I’ll become.


Cute isn’t it? Really dark, mysterious, sort of weird and there are line breaks where there shouldn’t be. You can hear the teenager behind the keyboard trying to be poetic and deep, especially in the last few lines, but it’s not really working well. Then again I could’ve probably published this alone on WordPress and gotten a few likes, because it does feel poignant at parts. But this among a sea of similarly paced and written poems would find itself lacking that tang that makes it garner a few likes here and there. Now look at the prose:

I don’t know how it started but now I just want it to end. The falling, the darkness, it all leads to death. You stopped holding me and stopped caring, so I too stopped caring for me – and now I feel nothing, so nothing I’ll become.

Suddenly I’m on red alert and am sending this person suicide hotline numbers. This person is obviously in a bad state, and needs help – pronto. But even though I got similar vibes from the poem, it was easier to dismiss them because it’s written to be sensationalist. Poems highlight the abstract through over the top descriptions, but we don’t expect the same to come from a piece of prose.

This is important. It’s important because the same emotions are behind these poems and prose, and while the teen writing it may be deliberately overblowing the situation, you shouldn’t be distracted by the structure. Any cry for help, no matter how small or distorted, is a cry for help.

So help the sensationalist teen next time you see one. Please.

The Lone Wolf: how leaving home helped me cure my social anxiety

Anybody who’s spent long enough in a small town knows that in the last few years of school things begin to taste a little bland. Some people respond to this by having some kind of teenage outburst, taking to the streets for adventure and making amazing memories in the town they’ve loved for so long before its out of their reach. My teenage outburst was a little different: I applied to boarding school.

See, I knew that my small community was never going to stop being boring unless I acted and tried to make it less so. But I couldn’t do that because I was absolutely terrified of talking to even the closest of friends. I blew off tons of meetings by claiming family emergency or prior appointment that I’d forgotten. Anybody who’s done this before knows the drill: you make plans, you get excited for the plans, then around an hour beforehand you get hit by a surge of anxiety and you panic, so you excuse yourself and miss what would’ve been a night full of memories.
Around October two years ago I was sitting at dinner. I was in my second year of IGCSEs and had the best friends I’d ever had around me. My mum cracked a joke about how I might as well go to boarding school, since all my siblings would be in university next year.
Skip forwards three months and I’m scrolling through top IB boarding schools in the UK, trying to find one who’s applications were still open for entry that year. Unsurprisingly, most good schools have closed applications way before early February. Somehow we came up with a list, and one particular school stood out among them: Atlantic College, a school along the coast of Wales that was part of the UWC foundation (which has a strong reputation in international circles).

 

Oh, and did I mention its in a castle? Because it is.
 
I applied and got in by some miracle. As soon as I went public with my decision to change schools, I had family friends and teachers telling me all about how amazing this school was and just how unforgettable my experience would be. I was unsure. My application had grown not from an interest in the school mission or the values of the school, which as I would find out is one of the most cited reasons for going; I applied because it symbolised a way of escaping the humdrum of day to day life (albeit an extreme way).
My fears were not quenched when I arrived. I found myself surrounded by intelligent, caring, thoughtful and all round brilliant young minds and souls. It was a family of 350, one which was filled with people who’d probably all beat me if we competed for a spot in a top university, because they were all complex and interesting, and I was just… me.
I locked myself away for the first month and a half – sometimes literally. But it’s harder to hide yourself away in this place. My roommates would talk to me every day, whether I liked it or not. My friends knew that I’d be in my room, and cared enough that they’d come and drag me into the sunlight every now and then. I couldn’t just excuse myself because everybody knew everything about everyone. It’s not easy to find a dark secluded corner when every room has another coffee-fueled student.
And slowly I adapted. I stopped caring about what people thought because I realised that they were all honest and that nobody was going to hurt me. By moving away I managed to cut out all the poisonous branches from my life once and for all. I grew. I evolved. I changed for the better.

 
In January of this year, almost exactly on the anniversary of my decision to apply to the school, I gave a Tedx talk on social anxiety, introverted and extroverted behaviours and how the three behave around one another. Through that talk I was able to conclude that having been forced out of my comfort zone into a new environment has helped me. I knew I had a long way to go, but I was ready for it and I was ready to start healing.

 

A picture from the aforementioned talk. I swear I’m not actually that pale.
 
Atlantic College didn’t just make me a better, stronger, more caring person. Many schools can do that. But AC was different because it showed me how I could improve myself, how I could fix these problems and how I was better than I knew. AC showed me the power of teamwork and cooperation not just in working on solving an academic problem, but also a problem with myself.
For that I am eternally grateful.