'I Leaned In to Freshman Year': A Student's Advice for Overcoming High School Fears

The first day of high school was terrifying, writes 15-year-old Emily Spangler. Here's how she overcame her fears and leaned into freshman year.

'I started raising my hand in class,' writes Emily Spangler. Photo by Jing Qu.

I’ll admit it—the first day of high school was nerve-racking, terrifying and full of surprises. I grew up watching movies and TV programs that showed high school freshmen getting thrown into empty trashcans and their heads dunked into dirty toilets. What if I couldn’t make it class to class on time? What if I was going to get shoved into a locker and made fun of? What if my schoolwork was harder than I expected? Fear overwhelmed me to no end. I didn’t know what expect, but I knew high school was an important time in my life. It would shape me into the person I was going to become and help me find what I wanted to do with my life. I was afraid of messing up and not being satisfied with the results.

Once I got into the routine of everything, however, those fears disappeared. Throughout the year, I made a tremendous transformation from the quiet freshman who didn’t raise her hand, to the freshman who would debate the usage of nuclear weapons during World War II with her World History teacher.

Being a teenager isn’t easy, and starting high school can be petrifying. But as I head into my sophomore year, there are a few things I learned along the way -- that helped me lean into school, and into developing myself.

[caption id="attachment_13224" align="alignleft" width="378"]Emily_Spangler_Photo Emily Spangler, an incoming high school sophomore.[/caption]

I Learned to Ask Questions Math and science aren’t my strong suit. They always seem to stump me and my grades. But simply admitting that I struggled with these two subjects in the first place was the first step I took to “lean in” to my education. My school counselor, teachers and parents advised me to ask more questions in class about the homework. I even went after school for additional assistance. What I learned is that whether it's about the lesson or the homework, it paid to ask questions. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg mentions time and time again that asking questions is vital for one to make progress in their career. Your high school career is one of the most important you’ll have.

I Engaged in Class Discussions I’ve never been the quiet person who sits silent in class discussions. Yet once I got to high school, in a building with nearly a thousand other people who intimidated me and who, I thought, were smarter and more talented than I was, I shut down for the first few months. I noticed other young women were doing the same. Was it because we were all freshman girls and were probably experiencing the same emotions? Were we scared of the boys and other girls and did we want to dumb ourselves down so we could come off as more attractive? Were we afraid we didn’t know what we were talking about, so we wouldn’t speak up?

The answer varies for every freshman girl, but I’m sure we’d all answer “yes” to at least one of those. What I learned is that it’s helpful to engage in class discussions, especially to practice stating your opinions, learning more in-depth and thinking for yourself. Teachers also find class productive when there are discussions and appreciate it when their students participate. When my freshman World History teacher held discussions regarding the topics we were covering in class during the week, I learned to state and back up my opinions, as well as learn about opinions my peers had. I learned the importance of being in charge of my education and the value of my own thoughts.

I Decided to Get Involved Though balancing everything can be challenging and overwhelming at times, getting involved will help you accomplish your goals and get you to where you need to go, whether in sports, clubs, theatre or groups outside of school. Personally, I’m athletically challenged, but thankfully there are other things I was able to get involved in. I’m a member of my school’s speech team and the President of my school’s Gay Straight Alliance. I co-direct ProgressWomen, a website that promotes progressive politics, feminism and empowers women to get involved in the political arena.

Getting involved has given me a voice in issues that are dear to me and have helped me overcome my fears of putting myself out there and be my own cheerleader. I’ve also learned that I’m capable of handling a lot of stress when I didn’t think I could, as I can balance running a club, co-directing a website, working hard in school, and having time for family and friends. Balancing everything can definitely be challenging at times, but in the end, it’s worth it.

I Stopped Caring What Other People Think Being a teenager is HARD, especially when you spend seven hours a day with peers. During freshman year, I was intimidated and scared of what others thought of me, and what they might say about me behind my back. I stopped speaking out and doing things I’d normally do, and instead sat back and let others decide for me. But by the end of the school year, I admitted this mistake to myself and promised myself that I’d stop doing it.

I first started raising my hand in class more and started class discussions, trying to stop worrying about what others had to say about me. I started opening up about myself and who I am, rather than hiding away. I even came out as gay in one of my classes during a discussion about same-sex marriage! By being myself, I know I’m more confident, and I can focus on myself and my education.

I'm only at the start of my high school career, but what I try to tell myself each day is this:

I am in charge of my education.

I am capable of joining clubs, trying out a new hobby or meeting people with the same interests.

I am going to be judged by others and it's OK if not everyone is in love with me.

In the end, I will look back and ask myself: Was the struggle worth it? Did it advance my education, goals and who I am today? Am I satisfied with what I did with myself and my education in those four years?

I hope the answer will be yes. Leaning in isn’t always a piece of cake, but you definitely won’t regret it.