Opinion: Five first days: High school lessons to take into college


Art: Charlotte Anthony

Aww, how cute.

From my seat among the cluster of seniors sitting on the Palo Alto High School Quad during lunch, I can see a trio of freshmen walking towards the edge of the grass. I don’t know them, but everything about them screams freshman: the giddy smiles at the lunches they bought from Town and Country, their eyes darting around in awe, the way they look just a little smaller than everyone else, even though they’re probably taller than me. But above all else, what stands out most about freshmen is the way that they’re excited by everything that I have grown used to about Paly. The intense spikeball games on the Quad, rushed Peet’s trips after a late night and journalists armed with stacks of magazines no longer surprise me; they’re just a part of my daily life.

But it took me many years to feel so comfortable; when I walked on campus on the first day of freshman year, I had never felt smaller. It’s terrifying that in a few short months, I will be a freshman again, trying to navigate a new place. But through the challenges of the last four years, and four first days of school, I have gained wisdom that I am confident will get me through (at least) the first day of college. 

The first first day

I’ve never been a morning person, but on the first day of school I always find myself waking up long before my alarm — nervous, but excited. The first day of freshman year, though, was far more nerves than excitement. I’d spent the last three years at an all-girls school with 200 students, and now, I was walking into my first day of high school at a public, co-ed school with 2,000 students.

As I waited outside my Advisory classroom for the first bell, I watched my classmates break off into clusters of jittery small talk, not seeing a single familiar face. Time passed and I was still standing alone, my heart started to beat faster and my face heated up. I went from just feeling awkward, to feeling out of place, and I started to nitpick at my outfit and my hair and my makeup. 

“Hi, I’m Anna. Are you also in Ms. Kolb’s Advisory?”

I looked up to another student smiling at me, snapping out of the nervous spiral I was hurtling down just a moment ago. 

Lesson one: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

All it took was one introduction for me to feel infinitely better. I was lucky enough to have someone approach me that day, but I learned, in the future, putting myself out there for the sake of having someone to share a new experience with was worth it.

Second time’s the charm?

The first day of sophomore year was both safer and scarier than the previous. While I had grown more comfortable with day-to-day Paly life and my place in it, I never imagined that my first day of school would be a YouTube livestream in the midst of a global pandemic. And, furthermore, that I would be asked to be part of that video and record a short clip about my summer project. I had recorded the 90-second video over and over for the perfect take and waited anxiously until finally, my face filled the screen. Trying not to cringe at the sound of my own voice, I focused on reading students’ comments — mostly a stream of emojis and jokes unrelated to the video itself. But among those inane comments, one stood out: I’ve never seen any of these people in my life. The comment was gone in a matter of moments, but it stuck with me long after. 

Going into my second year, I finally felt like I got over the learning curve, and I knew more than just a few people and I wasn’t in an entirely foreign environment. But that comment brought all my newfound confidence and comfort crumbling down, and I felt like the meek, overly anxious freshman I was a year ago. 

Lesson two: It’s okay for things not to go your way.

Nothing had actually changed. The comment didn’t end my friendships or erase the knowledge and experience I had gained over the last year, but it made me feel like it did. But in a school of 2,000 people, of course there would be more who didn’t know me than those who did and that was okay.

Junior year — for real this time

After more than a year of doing school from home and no regular face-to-face interaction, I was overjoyed to be starting in-person school again, and on top of that, I was going to be going to Prom and doing other upperclassman things. To be honest, I didn’t even really know what that entailed, but it didn’t matter — I was excited. 

But the bubbly anticipation I felt before junior year dissipated quickly as I went from class to class that first day. The cold air of the AP Statistics classroom felt like a literal shock that snapped me back into reality and out of the summery weather and carefree attitude I had gotten used to. I had made the decision to load up my schedule with as many difficult classes as possible, because though exciting, junior year came with a pressure to always pick the most rigorous option. I told myself that I would be fine, I didn’t need a prep, the amount of APs I was taking wasn’t too many and I would have the time to balance my workload, out of school commitments and social life, right?


Unable to focus because of how cold I was, my mind began to wander. I did some mental math and added up the number of hours I could expect to be doing homework each week and the answer was way too many. If I could barely focus and make it through introductory periods, how was I possibly going to make it through an entire year of back-to-back, content-dense classes? 

Lesson three: Know when to give yourself a break.

Unsurprisingly, I made it through barely two weeks of AP Statistics before embarrassedly walking up to my teacher before class and silently handing him a drop slip. Even with a free period, I still found myself with a never ending list of assignments, but I learned that to achieve more, sometimes you have to do less.

The final first day

The first day of senior year was, surprisingly enough, not an emotional one. After all the ups and downs of the past three years — freshman year nerves, sophomore year uncertainty, junior year excitement — it felt like there was nothing senior year could throw at me that I hadn’t already seen. 

Lesson four: Take time to enjoy yourself.

Relaxation and “going with the flow” have never come easily to me and throughout high school, I had spent much of my time focused on achieving my academic and extracurricular goals and moving from one activity to the next, never really taking the time to appreciate the small moments. But that first day I did not find myself focused on the year ahead of me or trying to imagine what the year would bring, and just enjoyed the traditions I had long anticipated being part of, like wearing camouflage pants, decorating my car and of course, sitting with the massive group of seniors on the Quad at lunch, watching anxious freshmen pass by. 

Freshman again

And though I am most certainly not the same girl I was when I started at Paly four years ago, some things will never change. I am positive the night before my first day of college will be a sleepless one, that I’ll try on at least 20 outfits before picking one and that no matter how many pep talks I give myself, my heart will race at every interaction. 

But I am also equally positive that I will push myself to introduce myself to other students instead of panicking because I don’t recognize anyone, to accept that trying new things doesn’t always go well, to allow myself to change my goals, and above all, to appreciate each and every success, failure and anxiety-inducing moment. Because the best memories I have of the last four years are the ones that scared me the most.