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Excerpt
The following is an excerpt from the book The Overachievers
by Alexandra Robbins
Published by Hyperion; August 2006;$24.95US/$33.95CAN;
1-4013-0201-7
Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Robbins

The first time I met AP Frank, before he left home for Harvard, he told me about a philosophy of his that worried him. He said, "When you cage up an animal for all of its life and then you let it free, it's going to go crazy." He was afraid that once he got to college, he would experience that fate.

Many students don't wait until college to attempt to break free. As C.J. suggested, high school students might not drink because of peer pressure. They drink because of pressure, period. They drink because of pressure to be superlative. They drink because of pressure to be perfect. Consider all of the other factors that high school students have to deal with in addition to academic stress. Besides the full-time job of overachieving, students deal extensively with social, psychological, romantic, identity, and family issues while at the same time trying to navigate adolescence. None of these pressures lets up after the bell rings at the end of the school day.

Students can get so tightly wound, it's understandable that they search for outlets to let off steam. Drinking alcohol happens to be one of the most popular methods, perhaps not surprisingly, given adults' habits of imbibing to unwind. Like adults, many students say they "need a drink" to escape the stress and pressure of their daily lives. By the time they reach twelfth grade, almost 80 percent of students have consumed alcohol, and nearly a third have engaged in binge drinking, defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion. By eighth grade, almost half of all students have tried alcohol, and more than 20 percent say they have been drunk. At the college level, campuses report record increases in binge drinking. As University of Virginia professor John Portmann told Psychology Today, "There is a ritual every university administrator has come to fear. Every fall, parents drop off their well-groomed freshmen, and within two or three days, many have consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and placed themselves in harm's way. These kids have been controlled for so long, they just go crazy."

The statistically good news is that nationwide, illicit drug use is on the decline. (Illegal use of prescription drugs is on the upswing, however, as discussed in Chapter Fourteen.) But the sad fact is that students who try these substances often do so less out of rebelliousness than out of escapism. As a Massachusetts junior told me, "I turned to drugs and alcohol because I felt the need to escape everything. I no longer do any of that because I realize it was dangerous and stupid. Sometimes I do think about it, though. Everything seemed much simpler when I could escape the pain and loss of control."

For many students, there's another outlet that falls under the umbrella of "partying" to relieve stress: sex, or just fooling around. "I suppose I went to extremes because of the amount I was working and the reputation I had," a California senior said. "I enjoyed being the valedictorian who could still get drunk or high or have sex on the weekends. My friends knew me as someone who would study until late at night, then go out with a guy, and wake up on Saturday morning to go running and then study all day. It's funny to think that being a good student led to me trying dangerous things, but I think I was just trying to break the mold."

When I asked her what adults might not know about today's high school experience, she expounded on why she partied. "I was definitely very stressed, and I worked very hard. Long nights studying, job shadows, college classes, internships, SATs, sports, all at the same time as balancing a social life. This could be why students do things to such extremes. There is a sense of urgency and pressure. Many of my friends and I would drink to the point of blacking out. Every time. I would have sex with guys the first time I hooked up with them, because I didn't want to waste time. I think I came out fine, and I was happy with how I balanced work and play. But I don't think adults realize what high schoolers are capable of. They think that if we work hard and appear to follow the rules, then we won't make mistakes."

More than 60 percent of twelfth graders have had sex, and health centers say students are experimenting with sex at younger ages. In recent years, middle schoolers have been caught having sex on school buses. In Pennsylvania, a group of middle school girls who called themselves the "Pop-Tarts" offered blow jobs at parties. And in high school, some students are using sex as a tool to attempt to break out of the cage.

A midwestern Latina student felt imprisoned by her parents' pressure to be the perfect college applicant. They refused to allow her to take art or music because the classes weren't APs, and they forced her to take Spanish classes, even though she was fluent, to get the easy A. They also insisted she become a cheerleader, though she disliked it, so she would have an extracurricular activity to bolster her college application. When she wasn't at school, her cage became more literal: Her father locked her in her room, where she was expected to do nothing but study. Because she wasn't allowed to leave the house during the weeks before the SAT, she took to sneaking out late at night. Just before the test, the sixteen-year-old sneaked out to have sex with her boyfriend to relieve her stress -- and had a pregnancy scare. To this day her parents don't know about the home pregnancy tests she frantically took then and twice more in the ensuing months, or that she then turned to alcohol as another escape.

Locked in her room as the SAT neared, she was forbidden to take breaks, relax, or chat with friends. Burned out and stressed beyond belief, the non-drinker skipped school soon after the test to try to relax at a friend's house, where she had two beers. A police officer happened to catch the students, arrested them, and jailed them for the day. Her parents didn't speak to her for a week, but not because of the arrest. They were furious because of her 1300 (out of 1600) SAT score.

Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Robbins