Persevering Even When It’s Hard

Photo Collage
Photographer: Genevieve Olson
Written: April 2019
Revised and edited:  April 2020








You know what I find hard to do sometimes?


You know? 


Do you ever feel like you’re experiencing several different emotions at once? That your brain just has these emotions spinning around and around, intertwining, looping together, and forming knots? Then after a while, your body becomes so confused about how to respond to your emotions, that it doesn’t at all? 

Almost every day.

If by any chance that made sense to you at all, you have probably experienced high levels of stress. It seems my stress levels are at a constant high. At the very end of my freshman year of high school, I was studying hard for finals when some of my hair started to fall out. I had a bald spot hidden underneath my hair that I didn’t notice until August when I got a haircut. My doctor said that stress was a possible explanation. I can’t say I was too surprised. My mop of curls are fine now, but it was a wake-up call for me to examine the way I react to stress (well, at least I thought it was).

Obviously, stress is a common, daily struggle for most people, especially students. Especially high school students. I just recently found out that April is National Stress Awareness Month. (of course, I find out at the very end of the month.) When one of my classmates told me this, I chuckled. April is almost always the hardest month for me as a student. My freshman year of high school was not my finest. That April I was determined to finish the year strong (unlike how I began the year). My hair took the bullet as a result.

Sophomore year went a bit differently… 

I started my sophomore year with a lot of nerves. I had heard from former sophomores that sophomore year was the hardest. Why might you ask? One word. Biology. Whether you were taking Honors Biology, Biology, or Biological Fundamentals, your life was officially over. (at least that’s how they described it.) 

When I was in elementary school, I loved science. It was the only class where you got to do fun experiments with things like sandboxes and water tubs. It was like an indoor recess! (that was until the teacher yelled at you for not following directions) If we weren’t doing experiments, we were binge-watching  Bill Nye—it doesn’t get much better than that. 

My feelings changed quickly when I started middle school. The second they decided to add math to the curriculum, I was out. I was lucky enough to even pass sixth-grade science. 

Seventh-grade was a slow start, but it ended up being one of my most memorable classes of middle school. It wasn’t until about halfway through that school year that I became interested. Seventh-grade science consisted of ecology, cells, chemistry, genetics, & human anatomy. Ecology wasn’t really my jam, but I was captivated by the other units. I was amazed by the intricate structure and detailed system of how a cell operated. It was like a whole other world. Although I will never forget the memory of informing my teacher that as an adoptee, I couldn’t participate in one of the activities, the genetics unit was by far my favorite. It was during that unit that I had my first “brain explosion” moment. From that moment on, I soaked up every second of that class. 

As I went into eighth-grade, I was hopeful that my science class would be just as interesting as seventh-grade. Sadly, it wasn’t. I didn’t find Igneous rocks and sedimentary rocks too interesting. (I mean, It’s a rock for crying out loud.)

Freshman year of high school was full of interesting things. My science class wasn’t one of them. It turned out to be a follow-up to eighth- grade with even more boring subjects. (The star unit was kinda cool though.) Looking back on my middle school years, I remember less of the curriculum and more of the personal experience—the only exception being my seventh-grade science course. I guess you only remember what you want to remember.

When I entered my first hour Biology class on the first day of school in September 2017, I felt every knot in my stomach. I had looked at my schedule and saw that my teacher’s name looked familiar. I had remembered him from the year before when I saw him featured on my school’s news broadcast program, Eagleye. He was in a teacher vs student rap battle. I knew that if I ever got the chance to have him as a teacher, it would be amazing. I was nervous about the class, but I was feeling pretty good about the teacher. (Which is something very few teachers can pull off, especially upon introduction.)

As a student who cares deeply about their grade, It was important for me to “feel” out each of my teachers, to study them. In a totally non-creepy way. It’s important for me to figure out how each one operates so I can adjust my strategy and prepare for their class in the best way possible. Every teacher is different and although I don’t always understand, agree with, or fall in sync with their “way of life”, it’s my job as a student to adapt and overcome those barriers by focusing on the things that I can control. I walked into my biology class with the expectation that I had nothing to worry about. My expectations were exceeded.

I remember sitting there at my desk, looking around the room, observing the animals on the cabinets and the posters on the walls. The final bell rang and an average height, blond-haired, blue-eyed man walked in from the right side of the room from where I was sitting. As he closed the door to the science office, I noticed he was wearing dark brown dress pants and a brown sweater cardigan paired with a brown AVHS-themed v-neck. Okay, maybe I am a little creepy. He looked young, somewhere in his early thirties, maybe even late twenties. As he went on to tell us about himself, I learned that he was actually forty and had an eight-year-old daughter. His hobbies included Jiu-Jitsu training, Ice climbing, and waking up at 4:30 in the morning to work out. I later learned that he also enjoys creating art and lived in Japan for a year to teach English while practicing some form of fencing.

This is the guy people write about. I’ve never had a teacher with such diverse interests. I found him extremely interesting—and to top it all off, he was going to be teaching me one of the hardest subjects in the school. I walked out of that classroom thankful that I had the coolest biology teacher ever. 

A month into trimester one, (my district runs on trimesters instead of quarters or semesters) history repeated itself. Like seventh grade, it was a slow start. I was performing a little below my average. We started with ecology, I didn’t love it in seventh-grade and I didn’t love it now. 

Although the seventh grade unit had easy concepts, the tenth grade ones were a bit harder for me. I had heard that sophomore biology was going to be a follow up to seventh grade and for a while I was excited. But here I was, sitting at a lab table with three acquaintances (who were the leftover options for group formation) staring at a white lab packet with blank expressions. My teacher was diligent about checking in on all the lab groups (which surprisingly not all science teachers do even though they really should). He would ask simple lead-in questions to the group and I would sit there, like a dummy, having no idea how to respond even though I probably should’ve. Hey Siri, how do I stop overthinking everything? 

My biology teacher had this thing that he did with his students at the beginning of each week called, “Monday Meditation.” Every day, he he would write a quote at the top of the whiteboard. On Mondays, he would discuss the quote and encouraged us to think about the quote in relation to our life—that is after sharing with us how it relates to his life. We would spend two full minutes practicing our posture and thinking about the quote while slowly breathing in and out. 

It was things like this that I not only admired, but took note of. When I get to run my own classroom one day, I hope to replicate something like this. 

I barely finished my first trimester of biology with an A. Thank you test curves. Although I felt discouraged from the beginning of the year, I was still excited for the following units. I knew that the cellular units were coming up and I was READY. 

One month and a score of 100% on my Cells and Structure test, it was now January and I was feeling good. I was doing good, or as my teacher calls it, “crushing it”. 

It was now registration time, and I started to wonder about the classes I should take for my junior year of high school. While my biology teacher was suggesting that I should register for the CIS (college in schools) anatomy class, he also mentioned that I should look into taking the AP Biology Exam at the end of the year. I had remembered someone saying that the Honors Biology students had the option of taking that test, but I didn’t realize that the on-level kids could still take a whack at it if they wanted to. 

 I started to think about it, but I had a lot of doubts. Standardized Tests and I don’t go well together….at all. Every single science MCA test I have ever taken has landed me in the “red” zone (aka the well-below average range). I have test anxiety sure, but I also seem to always be represented as a dummy when it comes to my standardized test scores. I didn’t really want to add another score to that list. 

After a month of constant reminders and some thoughtful consideration, I said, “What the hell” and signed up. I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and I thought this was the perfect opportunity. 

I wish I would’ve understood at the time that the simple act of signing up was itself a bold move. That stepping outside my comfort zone came down to a click of a button. Not a process that claimed: in order to officially step out of your comfort zone, you need to set the bar outrageously high with every step (and I mean every step).

AP exams are (usually) taken from students who are enrolled in the corresponding AP class. My high school didn’t have an AP class for biology, so I guess you could say that we didn’t get taught the “AP” way. (At least the on-level kids sure didn’t.) The students who signed up for this test were mostly honors kids who decided in September to take the exam and register for it when the time came in March.

I decided to take this exam in February, registered in March, and was scheduled to take the exam in May.

Three months is enough time to study…right? 

Sorry Zimm, but I politely disagree.

I spent my entire spring break that year studying and boy, did I have a ball.

Now let’s get to the lovely month of April. 

By this point, I had gone crazy. No seriously. This would be the point in the article where you take a gander at the picture I uploaded along with this piece. Details to follow…

For some odd (and stupid) reason, I thought that this test was the end of the world. Here’s why: 

For the first time ever, I was getting not only an A, but an 100% in my science class. I achieved what I had thought to be the impossible. As the year went on, I wanted to maintain the momentum. I caught onto the curriculum faster than others, but I still wanted to study to ensure that I would get an 100% on my tests. I spent hours writing my lab write-ups, making sure they were absolute perfection. What is up with writers wanting their words to be perfect? My notes were perfectly highlighter color-coded. (Yes, my highlighted notes had a key because I needed the whole world to know that vocab was only to be highlighted in orange and the title of each chapter HAD to highlighted in blue, while the learning targets were in pink and key concepts were in green. And don’t even  get me started on what yellow meant.)

 The grading scale in Biology was different than in my other classes. The tests and write-ups were summative, which was 80% of my grade. The final was 20%, and everything else in between was 0%. So, If I totally murdered a lab, (which I did a few times) the lab packet wouldn’t affect my grade. But damn, if only you saw my beautifully worded write-ups.

 I was so invested in my biology class, more invested than other classes. Although I couldn’t admit it at the time, I felt like I had to prove something to myself. When the AP biology exam came into the picture, I approached it the same way. I wanted to maintain the momentum of “achieving the impossible” like I had all year. I didn’t understand at the time that there was a difference between your possibilities and your limits.

 I was completely oblivious to the hell that I was putting myself through. The fiery hell all revolved around my mental stability. I had sent several emails full of questions to my biology teacher about what I needed to be studying. I had folders everywhere full of study plans for each chapter. I eventually knew the entire organization of the biology textbook. To this day, I still know all the titles of all 32 chapters in the 2012 Holt McDougal Biology Textbook because apparently that’s important stuff.

A sophomore told me a few weeks ago that they were studying mutations in biology and I immediately thought, “Oh yeah! chapter 8, section 7, I loved that chapter!” 

I had folders saved on my laptop full of diagrams, links to articles, links to youtube videos, etc. I had typed up and printed out the names of the chapters, key concepts, and main ideas, all of which were highlighter color coordinated. Which by the way, do you know how long that took me? That’s three hours I’ll never get back. I printed out and highlighted an 100 page PDF on the exam criteria provided by the CollegeBoard. I had three sheets of paper taped to my wall that acted as a calendar, every day full of things I needed to do. I had bought five AP Biology textbooks and was often found sitting on my bedroom floor with all of them faced open, surrounding me in a circle.I got used to having Sal Kahn (founder of Kahn Academy, an online education resource) teaching me my “daily” lessons while I scrambled to stay on top of my other school work. 

What a dork.

Have you ever seen a crime show/movie where the investigator has a wall full of notes, diagrams, and pictures taped to it? Well, that’s what 1/4 of my room looked like.

Whoops…spoke too soon.

Oh, and did I mention that in the three months that I had to prepare, that I also took two MCA tests and the PreACT? That was fun. 

I didn’t want to mention my struggles to my peers or my biology teacher because I secretly wanted to figure it out on my own. Which obviously worked out great. 

My mom was the exception. She knew my struggles and tried to warn me about the path I was about to go down. I understood what she saying, but I didn’t want to believe her. And if you knew my mom, you would already know that was a huge mistake. My mother is the definition of “mother knows best”. 

I was daily cramming information into my head, trying to learn a whole chapter in two hours. You don’t have to be a genius to know that “cramming” never works. No matter how strategic you think you are. 

It’s obvious facts. Unless you have an unbelievable memory, you can’t tell yourself something once and then expect to remember it three months later on a test. (While simultaneously learning several other topics.) Not to mention that my brain naturally works at a slow pace, so to go from “slow and steady” to “speed of light” wasn’t very smart. By the time May 14th rolled around, I was exhausted. And incredibly stupid, but that’s a different conversation. 

I walked into the test room that morning feeling like it was a suicide mission. It felt like everyone in the room was more prepared than I was. There were 13 kids taking this test, most were honors kids. As far as I knew, I was the only on-level biology student in the room. I knew some people, but only from small interactions. I tried reaching out to a few of them to make a study group, but they weren’t interested which was okay. 

When I opened that test booklet, my mind went completely blank. I think 40% of it was test anxiety, and the other 60% was lack of knowledge. How embarrassed I felt. How angry I felt. 

I walked out of that room feeling like my brain was on fire. I remember one kid commenting, “Is it possible for all of your brain cells to commit apoptosis?” Another pitched in saying, “That test destroyed me like the way high temperatures denature enzymes.” My favorite was, “How is the Hardy-Weinberg Equation similar to my AP test score? They both equal one!” 

They could joke all they wanted about failing, but I knew they totally crushed it. 

The test finished around noon and we were excused to go to our the 5th period class, which as my luck may have it, was biology. 


I dragged myself across the entire school until I finally reached the locked blue door at the end of the hallway that I was dreading to knock on.

Words cannot describe the emotion I was feeling when my biology teacher came up to me and asked the simple question, “So how’d it go?”

July 5th, 2018.

I was currently standing on a dock on Oak Island in Lake of the Woods. I was leaving to go home from a weeklong wilderness canoe trip that was run through my school. My biology teacher (the leader of the trip) was standing right beside me. We were staring down at my phone, waiting for the CollegeBoard website to load in the midst of bad cell service. It was the day that my score was going to be released. Going into it all, I wasn’t studying to get a 5 or even a 4. I was aiming towards a 3. I had to be realistic being that I only had three months to prepare. I’d be accepting if I received a 2, but a 1 was out of the picture. I didn’t work my ass off to get a 1. No way. Not happening. Zip zero. 

After two minutes of waiting, The Hardy-Weinberg joke was no longer funny. 

To say I was pissed would be an understatement. Deep down, I fully understood why I had received a 1. When you laid out the timeline and pin-pointed every small detail leading up to May 14th, it made sense. Though in that moment, I couldn’t comprehend it. My emotions decided to override my all-point-of-view oriented mind and instead, took over in rage. My biology teacher (who is the Tony Robbins of AVHS) tried to give me some words of encouragement, but I wasn’t in the state of mind to hear any of it. It’s a shame that  I wasn’t paying attention to why I assume was the best TED talk ever.

As the months went on, I thought I had gotten over it. Like all great warriors, I had developed a new mantra: “You can only do what you can do, so if you give it your all, that’s all you can give.” I went into junior year feeling confident that it was resolved, but it’s funny how things tend to sneak up on you. 

Junior year was all about the ACT (the teachers couldn’t shut up about it). I had gotten a 16 on my PreACT, but I brushed it off because at the time the only thing I could think of was AP biology. It wasn’t until I took a practice test in my ACT prep class that I knew I was in trouble. My mom told me that if I approached this test as I did with AP biology, I might surprise myself. Knowing that she was the holder of all wise decisions and thoughts, I knew she was right. That being said, the only thing holding me back was the idea of going back to that state of mind.

As the year progressed, I became frustrated that I wasn’t improving an inch in my ACT prep class. We had taken four practice tests, but I was still performing the same. It’s funny that I talk about this like it was so long ago…more like three months ago. I guess it feels like that when you finally learn the lesson.

Every single day I felt like I was dragging myself to that class. If you want to know what lowers your self-esteem more, take ACT Prep as a trimester elective. 95% of the class were honors kids who had gotten a 22 or above on the PreACT. I was seated next to a girl who had gotten a 25 on her PreACT and was pissed that she didn’t get a 30. Oh, you got problems. 

I soon began to realize that history was again, repeating itself but in a completely different way. I had created a whole new type of hell that was surrounded by my own self-doubts and opinions. It wasn’t until the beginning of March, that I realized that I still had unresolved anger about my AP score. I let myself be dragged through ACT preparation with this anger still looming in the background. By that point, it was already third trimester and I was no longer in my ACT Prep class. Great timing on that one Viv.

I walked into my exam room on April 2nd (three weeks ago) scared that this was going to be a repeat of AP bio. I didn’t know if I could handle another one of those seeing that I was still trying to recover from the last one. 

To my surprise, I felt pretty good. I walked out of that room feeling confident and satisfied in my work. It didn’t matter at that moment what my score was, I was proud. I went in there and gave it my all. It was at that moment that for the first time, I felt at peace. I wish I had a better way to explain this dramatic turning point, but I will tell you this: 

Two weeks ago I was skimming through some old journals when I came across the one I had used for my Lake of the Woods trip over the summer (the one I mentioned earlier). In order to get a grade, which in this case was an extra science credit, we all were given journals to complete daily writing assignments in.

My biology teacher collected them all at the end of the trip and graded them on the ride back to AVHS. When I got my journal back, I quickly skimmed through it to see if there were any grading marks, which there wasn’t. 

I never looked at that journal again until two weeks ago. As I flipped to the last entry, I realized that I still had a lot of extra notebook paper left. I thought it was a good idea to rip out the previous pages and preserve the notebook for future use. It wasn’t until I flipped the last page over to see the handwritten note left for me. 

Personal Note
Photographer: Genevieve Olson

I sat there on my bedroom floor for a couple of minutes. 

Here’s what I’ve learned in the past year: You should always push yourself to be a better version of yourself, but never to be someone you’re not. Understanding the fine line between the two is extremely important. As the saying goes, you can do anything, but not everything. 

When things don’t go as planned, your reaction defines your reality. You can make it into something amazing, or you can let it tear you apart. Either way, you can’t change the past, but you can become smarter than you were before.

Your biggest competition is yourself, but before you try and prove yourself wrong, you need to understand the difference between confidence and pride. Are you building self-confidence or are you maintaining self-pride? One is fantastic, the other one makes you insane. 

Although learning to stand on your own is necessary, sometimes you’ll need a little help. Even when you are the “helper,” you can’t pour from an empty glass. You need to let yourself breathe. You need to give yourself time to rest—not quit. 

Doing the best you can requires more mental and less physical. 

People come into your life for a reason, take advantage of it. 

Your life is different from others and their life is different than yours, comparing yourself to them is pointless. 

Lastly, understand your rhythm and march to it.