At high schools across the nation, students are anxious to get exclusive opportunities with jobs, internships, and other prestigious programs. Competition is the common culture as students compare themselves in every big scholarship or small way that a teacher grades an assignment. It all seems daunting, as it prepares teens for “the big one” with college.
Learning perseverance is essential, but students more importantly need an outlet to rely on that does not feel like a competition or yet another opportunity to prove oneself. The arts is what many turn to in order to express themselves and be at ease to explore their ideas without judgment.
Although, even the arts can carry an incredibly toxic atmosphere where people begin to doubt what they can uniquely offer. For myself, I found that unfortunately common at dance studios where it is easy to compare the number of turns or the amount of tricks one can do.
Of course, practice is an immense factor in how one is able to hone their craft but many can get lost in the endless hours of refining that they forget to harness the genuineness of the art form. One way that I have developed a healthy and sustainable relationship with dance is by allowing myself to come to it whenever it feels completely necessary.
Even if I have a ton of homework ahead of me, a few minutes of improv in my living room will allow me to release stress and feel more confident yet relaxed as I try to figure out row echelon or redox reactions. Having this intimate relationship with my art grounds me because I know no one is watching and after a few weeks of forcing myself not to feel self-conscious, it truly is an act of defiance against the competition outside.
I approach poetry similarly, although writing comes with its own set of obstacles. I have been declined countless times this past year from literary magazines, awards, scholarships, workshops, contests, and more. After pouring my heart out onto a page and spending several hours drafting or editing with peers, it hurts to be rejected. I cope by reminding myself of why I love writing and how the submissions are secondary. It no longer feels like wasted time because I wrote my way through grief, frustration, or faith and was able to connect with myself on a deeper level.
It’s also true in the writing world that some people may hate your work while others will love it and life is too short to wonder if something is wrong with you, just keep going. Developing grit can be difficult but setting aside time to write small poems for myself or remember not to solely think about what the editor might be looking for has given me permission to withstand some of the pain in rejection and be freed by that constant pressure.
Still, the anticipation before an award is vastly different from that of an acceptance that determines the next four years of your life and beyond. While I’ll never be braced for college decisions, I know there is no way I could survive high school without writing or dance. It may not be through the arts, but every person needs to find a space where they can be vulnerable and liberated by expressing themselves authentically. Competition and judgment will try to leak through but protecting that sacred space is what everyone needs in order to support themselves and be better prepared for opposition in the future.