Self-expression in high school

Too many teens seem to fit a mold assigned to them by their peers. Especially in high school, peers can dictate who you are, how you are expected to act and who you will become.

However, not everyone fits the mold the world makes for them. We are all shaped by complex emotions and thoughts, and no one is simple enough to be labeled with a single term such as “nerd,” “jock,” “gamer,” or “teacher’s pet.” Because of this difference in expectation and reality, it feels like people are distorted and harshly forced to fit their mold. Many students have struggled with finding themselves and expressing their own opinions. It is a shame that in a period all about growth, so many youth are taught which ways not to grow.

Self-expression can be found in the type of clothes students wear, the words they use and the way they treat their peers. I feel these pressures all the time, which has caused issues with finding myself. I have been taught to be quiet and not stand up for what was right, such as when friends asked me not to confront others who were breaking the rules. It felt like I “had” to be a person I didn’t want to be. I gave in to their pressure and have since assumed that any action that isn’t right should just be ignored rather than addressed.

Because of these concerns, I decided to discuss issues regarding growth and self-expression with three of my high school teachers at AuSable Valley Central School to find out if they believe students have the freedom to fully express themselves in school.

These teachers answered quite similarly and held perspectives that I can fully understand. One of these teachers answered, “I feel that students do have room to grow and express themselves, but some struggle with it, and it can be hard.” Another teacher had a similar idea, saying, “Self-expression is present, but I feel like there needs to be more chances for students to grow.”

I also asked these teachers about how cliques may have an effect on development and lead to students struggling. A clique is a group of people that join together under a common interest, identity or social status. Think of the cliches in high school movies, where you have the “jocks” or “nerds” — it’s still the same in high school today. Although they may allow people to find unity, and give inspiration to find new interests, sometimes they can worsen feelings of isolation for the peers around them who are not invited into the inner circle. Even if a student is accepted into a clique, it may leave these students without the chance to explore new ideas that don’t align with the norms of their chosen clique. I was at one point in a clique, which was mostly made up of “band kids” and “art kids” who had actually left other cliques to form their own. I ended up leaving that group because they didn’t align with my morals, and I felt like no one really appreciated me there.

When asked about cliques, the teachers answered that they felt that how students perceive cliques depends on the person. Some may find it’s more freeing to find people of common interests, while others may feel like they can’t be truly themselves. They may cause them to fall again into a rigid mold.

As a student, I have felt “crammed into a box” at times. I was told who I should interact with based on how my peers valued me and thought of me from an outside perspective. When I was a new student at my school, I attempted to make friends but was told that I was ruining other people’s friendships and stealing their friends from them. From that experience, I realized that I should “stay in my own lane.”

This eventually led to my role as an outcast. An outcast is a person who has been rejected by a society or social group. Outcasts are everywhere. They tend to be decent students, quiet kids, and non-troublemakers. However, for often ridiculous reasons (whether they’re labeled “boring” or “weird”) they tend to be ignored. You may see them as “background characters,” or those who tend to be unnoticeable. Maybe you are or have been the outcast.

From my experience as the typical outcast, I have been disregarded in hallways, insulted for acting boringly and blandly, and, at one point, felt like a “doormat.” I realized I was struggling to be able to crawl out of this box, to be seen as more than one-dimensional. I was given no chance to grow and change and instead fit under one label that did not express who I really was.

From the opposite side of the spectrum, those who are popular and outgoing can often feel these misrepresentations as well. They tend to have many friends and seem to always be there to joke around or help out. However, popular kids are humans. They feel different emotions than what they may project, and that can be tiring to them and detrimental to their mental health. A study conducted by the National Library of Medicine revealed that suppression of one’s emotions may increase the risk of death and the development of disease.

Besides the constant looming question of how one fits into the social system of a classroom, peer pressure is an extremely present part of our high school lives. After a tally within AuSable Valley Central School where I asked 38 random students if they had experienced peer pressure in their school lives, 82% said they had experienced peer pressure.

As an elementary student, I was always told to “just say no,” or think of what is morally right. And while this can be true, and peer pressure can be a useful tool, sometimes it’s hard to discern what is right and wrong. I have had to deal with saying no in the past to things like littering or giving out my homework answers. When I decided that I wouldn’t do people’s homework for them, I committed instead to helping them. Often times, people just didn’t know how to do their homework, so helping them get through it was the best decision. For a time I would help a friend in my study halls with their homework, and they dramatically increased their grades, learned more, and engaged more deeply in their studies. That said, it was a really hard decision for me to make, and some other students may fall for the temptation to just let friends cheat.

On the other hand, peer pressure can in fact be beneficial in some cases, especially in finding out more about yourself in certain situations. The teachers I interviewed summed up the benefits and disadvantages of peer pressure perfectly.

One teacher suggested peer pressure could inspire people to do things they may not have done before — like take a healthy risk or stand up for oneself — and a sense of permission to think in a new way. The wrong kind of peer pressure can also cause you to go against actions that may be against your moral compass. As one teacher put it, “Peer pressure can push you to do things that you don’t want to do.”

Your role in your school seems like the most important thing in the world, but what really matters is how you grow. Without the ability to express who you are, how are you supposed to be an innovative person with new solutions and ideas? You are in control of your own choices, so consider taking what your peers say with a grain of salt. Take time to learn who you truly are.

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Madeleine Savage is a sophomore attending AuSable Valley Central School. Her writing appears in the 2023 and 2024 Wild Words anthology of Adirondack Teen Writing.


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