At my elementary school, “Say No to Drugs” posters littered the walls. In the cafeteria, the classrooms or the gym, we always had looming, overhead reminders of the importance of “Drug Abuse Resistance Education,” as if my seven-year-old self was even considering going to the dumpster behind the playground to partake in hard drugs.
So while it may be that my elementary school did a good job of discouraging my friends and me from going to the gas station to buy packs of cigarettes in the second grade, what they failed to address was the pressure to conform to the classroom herd mentality. I remember being tempted to switch out of orchestra and join band instead when I realized that everyone else had joined band. Was band cooler? Was there something extraordinary about the clarinet that I wasn’t seeing? I remember feeling like I needed to be turning the page of my test if I heard other people turning their pages. Was I running out of time? Would the thunderous sound of my paper turning five minutes after theirs make me seem inept at multiplication tables?
Years later, though perhaps just as uneasy about my mental math capabilities, I have yet to escape the temptation to be one with the crowd. In nearly every class, at some point, I find myself facing one of the two following scenarios.
I’m in class, and an explanation of some concept that I feel reasonably familiar with is displayed on a generic Microsoft Office PowerPoint template. I consider writing it down. Maybe my fingers even twitch in the direction of my pen. But alas, a dilemma arises. No one else is writing anything down. I use my peripheral vision to glance at the other hands in my row: clasped in a lap, supporting a chin, tapping a desk or typing on a phone. None seem to have a pencil in hand. Do I write this down? Is it too simple to write down? Am I going to look like I’ve never heard of this concept if I write it down? I know this, but it’s a refresher. I can’t explain that to anyone else, though. Do I risk looking clueless? Or will I look like even more of a try-hard at the school of the try-hards? By this time, the slide has changed, the professor has moved on, and I am left with my empty fingers outstretched towards a pen.
Alternatively, I’m in class, sitting and listening contently to what seems to be information that certainly no one needs to write down, and then, the clacking of laptop keys or the scratches of pencil to paper begins. What are they writing? Do I need to be writing? Am I going to later find myself racking my brain in an effort to remember this apparently crucial information if I don’t make note of it now? Maybe I should just start writing. I mean, I must be missing something if everyone else is writing.
I suppose that, in high school, I was a bit of an excessive note-taker. I would try to write down every single thing that was on the board, but that was also what most people did. Our teachers attempted to discourage us from doing that by repeatedly emphasizing the fact that, in college, professors don’t give you power points. There’s no time to write down what’s on the slides. They talk, and you listen, and you attempt to keep up with the words that tumble out of their mouths at a speed faster than any human could comprehend. That was a lie. I mean, if anything, I usually waste my own time with my bouts of indecision sparked by the imagined pressure I feel to follow along with the rest of the lecture hall.
I now find myself trying to walk the delicate line between writing too much and not writing enough, and I’ve managed to convince myself that the rest of the class collectively knows where that line should be drawn, even if I don’t. Well, that’s wrong. Orchestra is just as good as band, my multiplication skills are perfectly fine and no one knows what I need to write down but myself. Regardless, maybe elementary schools should add to their list of forms of peer pressure from which they encourage their students to turn away.
Contact Kassidy Kelley at kckelley ‘at’ stanford.edu.