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What I Wish I Did in High School

I grew up in Baltimore City, lived in Northern Roland Park since I was 4. I did Kindergarten at Johns Hopkins Horizons, Lower and Middle school at the Calvert School, and chose Baltimore City College (City for short) for High School. As a sophomore at Hopkins, I have now been through 15 years of the Baltimore education system. In a competitive college environment, it’s hard not to reflect upon the upbringings that have shaped who I am and how I have adapted to the college lifestyle.

Up until 14, I had gone to a cushy private school, which was truly an amazing educational experience looking back on it. Our graduating class was just 60 kids, which meant a small, well connected class and especially strong relationships with teachers. However, as 14 year olds do, I lacked appreciation for the opportunities I was given and thought I would blaze my own path. I chose a public magnet school much to the discomfort of my parents. The decision boiled down to my desire to expand my perspective, and to decline the $30,000 per year price tag for my parents. Here are my thoughts looking back at this decision a couple months through my second year of college.

First things first about students at City: Students at the school are incredibly gritty. Baltimore City doesn’t have a proper school transportation system like other public schools. Without rides from parents, students are given a student pass for the public transportation which amounts to unpredictable busses and a dirty and inconvenient light rail system. A typical student got up at 5 AM, took the 6 AM bus to the transfer stop, and hopefully caught the 6:30 AM transfer bus to the school bus stop. Then, possibly the worst part was a 15 minute hike, up a hill, to the cafeteria for breakfast before class started at 7:50 AM (P.S. detention if you are late). Repeat the 2 hour commute after sports practice and part time jobs to reach home at 10:00 PM.

School

For better or worse, this led to a very forgiving and relaxed classroom culture. If more than 2 papers or tests were scheduled to be due or on the same day, other teachers were not allowed to schedule their own tests on that day. Homework was never due the following day, and was typically optional. Due dates didn’t have strict deadlines, as long as work was turned in by the end of the semester, teachers would extend extensions to accommodate. While lenient, the grading system was also highly conducive to a culture of ‘good enough’. Grades were given on a 1-7 scale used by the International Baccalaureate schools, where at our school, a 7 represented an A+, 6 an A, 5 a B+, 4 a B-, 3 a C, 2 a D, and 1 an F. Not only does this not present the discretion for teachers to assign a straight B or an A- for example, an A+, A, and A- were graded as the same in calculating GPA. A 6 was incredibly easy to achieve, so there was no incentive for high performing students to push themselves.

The school took a very majority focused view on student outcomes. In a district where a third of schools have zero percent proficiency in math or reading, City’s 88% and 67% respectively are an improvement, but still far from ideal. Success was defined by college attendance, graduation rate, and passing proficiency, metrics that lend itself to supporting the ‘good enough’ culture. 90+% of students came from underserved and underprivileged communities, and the fact that 99% percent of our graduating class enrolled in a college following graduation is evidence of a system that truly worked despite its shortcomings.

For myself though, coming from the top of my class at a private school with abundant extracurriculars, math competitions, and opportunities for enrichment, I found the school culture dampening and restrictive. Sure, I could have skipped grades, taken community college classes, or self studied advanced coursework. Socially however, I was reluctant to perpetuate the stereotype of the overachieving asian boy, being only one of two asian students in the 400 people in my class. Demographically, we were ~85% black, ~10% white, 4% hispanic, and <1% asian. As a result, being good at sports, not being an academic show off, and developing a strong social circle was most important to me at the time. Academics were a secondary background focus, which was mostly fine with myself and my teachers; I got my work done. Outside of classes, I played competitive tennis and chess, took Piano and Viola lessons, and played pickup basketball, nothing super spectacular.

Having successful parents meant that I had high expectations for college, but outside of a strong focus on academics, I was mostly on my own to think about summer plans, career prospects, and extracurriculars to pursue. Freshman year was a breeze, Sophomore year was also a joke, and by Junior year of high school, I realized that school really was just a requirement, nothing else. Most days would be sitting in class, waiting for time to pass. While they were at times useful for improving writing skills, or getting a brief background of the material, it was never challenging and typically had no external purpose, such as preparing for an AP exam. We were only offered the opportunity to take 4 AP exams, and one we had to self study. The IB tests that we took were useless for me, because the colleges I applied to didn’t accept credit for the offered subjects. At the same time, we weren’t allowed to self study and take any other AP exams that the school didn’t already offer.

There were some cool experiences that I began to immerse myself in starting my Junior year summer. I started my first summer doing lab research in Dr. Jonathan Powell’s cancer immunology lab at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus. In the school year, I read and podcasted widely, learning a great deal about entrepreneurship, economics, and the habits of successful people. I also worked on a team called Baltimore Beyond Plastic to help push legislation to ban styrofoam food containers from Baltimore City Schools, the City as a whole, and now the state of Maryland. It was a very exciting day to see the styrofoam trays we used to get cafeteria food off of turn into compostable paper trays one day from the advocacy that our group did.

What would I do differently?

Hearing all the stories of my now classmates at Hopkins, I can now appreciate what my high school gave me, but also start to think about what I might have missed out on. Here is a list of decisions I wish I made when I was in high school.

  1. Interact with the local college or university as much as possible. Students studying there will be way more mature, know much more than you think about life, careers, and anything you might want to know. Start by going to public campus events and talking to professors, students, and anyone else there about what they do on campus.
  2. Find a way to bypass graduation requirements by taking advanced classes. My school required me to take Heath, PE, Global Politics, and a bunch of other history and writing classes I had no interest in. Try and see if you can make the best of it by taking more advanced versions of those classes. Ask to take 10th grade english in 9th grade. Ask to take APs early and take classes at a local university. As someone who had to go through all the general requirements in college (General Physics I&II, Chemistry I&II, Intro CS), I can tell you it’s pretty painful seeing your friends in upper level classes while you are stuck in introductory classes. Take advantage of your relaxed high school scheduling, college with be much more busy.
  3. Only join meaningful clubs. Think about the output you want from these clubs and ensure each one you do has a purpose. You shouldn’t be doing 5 clubs just so you can show you are interested in 5 different things or that you can be a leader. Only do them if you enjoy them and can get some non-resume related benefits out of them such as skills, connections, or happiness.
  4. You will go on to do much bigger and exciting things than whatever occurs during high school. Your high school doesn’t owe you anything, and the mindset that you should have during your time there should be centered upon either improving the school or improving yourself through your own efforts. You shouldn’t expect the school to do anything for you. What this means tactically is that problems need to be viewed as an opportunity. The school doesn’t have a science olympiad team? Time to start a competitive, successful science olympiad team. If you don’t do well, it’s your own fault.
  5. One last thing I will say is that high school is the time to find out exactly what you are good at, and begin to think about what you want to do as a career. This is the one time in your life when you won’t be swamped with coursework or busy with a job. High school shouldn’t be difficult so you should use the extra time you have to think about the skills you want to develop, and spend the time improving your strengths. In college, you will be filled with an array of talented, smart individuals who you need to be better than in at least one capacity. Spend time thinking about what exactly your strengths are, and make sure you invest time making sure that you can be among the best in your grade at whatever subject/skill you choose.

Thanks for reading, I hope that was helpful!

Dennis Gong