What I Wish I Had Learned in High School

Sachi overcoming one of her fears, speaking in public
“What I Wish I Had Learned in High School” is an ongoing series of guest posts by alumni of Burlington High School reflecting on what they wished they had learned then given what they know now. This is the first installment, written by Sachi Leith, class of 2011.

This is a shortlist of some things I’ve started to learn since high school. They’re valuable life skills (to me) that it would have been nice to know earlier, that I probably didn’t have the maturity or opportunity to learn when I was in high school (unlike you, especially if you’re considering this program). These are also hard things to learn, and high school can be a tough place, and there’s so much more to life after high school than you can imagine while you’re in it. So if you’re a high schooler and they seem daunting, don’t beat yourself up. You can do it!

  1. How to manage a long-term project. All the seemingly-boring and seemingly-little stuff, like how to get in the habit of making lots of little to do lists, and budgeting my time, and finding systems to keep track of information. Ideas are cheap, but actually following through is Hard Work, and I wish I’d known in high school that it takes more than just willpower to get a project finished.
  2. More about money. I learned a lot in high school that may never be relevant to me ever again. But I never learned that much about how money functions in the US, so there are things I’m still learning about on a personal level (budgeting, investing, what a tax form even looks like, etc) and on a systematic / societal level (tax brackets, benefit requirements, structural inequality, etc etc etc). Even though we deal with money every day, it’s surprisingly easy to be ignorant about financial affairs. As a practical example for teachers, the one math problem that will stick with me for the rest of my life was the day in middle school algebra that we calculated the amount “Susan” accrued in interest by only paying the minimum on her credit card for “X” years. As a result, I aspire to *never* pay only the minimum balance on my credit card. I wish I’d had to do more math problems like that.
  3. How to ask for feedback. Building a team of people around you, with varied strengths, whom you trust enough to share with, is a big deal in itself, but what I didn’t learn until later was that to get really good feedback on your work, you have to know how to ask for it. After working as a writing teacher myself, I learned that a lot of people don’t know how to ask for feedback, and as a result they don’t get what they’re looking for, and their work doesn’t improve in the ways they want it to. You have to be both confident and humble to ask people targeted questions about your work, which are two things it’s hard to be. So:
  4. Confidence and humility. I wish I’d been asked to do more public speaking, or interacting with strangers, or speaking to adults who weren’t my teachers or my friends’ parents. I wish I’d been trained a little more in how to carry myself as an adult, around adults–to talk about myself and my own work and interests, to ask interesting questions about theirs, etc. In high school, it’s easy to see oneself as the center of the universe, and easy to think that nobody else understands what you’re thinking and feeling. I wish I’d known back then how many things don’t concern me and how much I can’t control; more humility would have helped me gain confidence and take some pressure off myself. I also wish I’d been forced to fail more and feel out the things I wasn’t good at, or feared (like public speaking and talking to strangers).
  5. How to ask a good question: whether of someone very different from oneself, of an important or intimidating adult, of a speaker at an interesting lecture, of a classmate, of a teacher, of a stack of research material, of a first date. Asking a thoughtful question can get you far. We spend too much time in high school answering the wrong questions.
Sachi Leith lives in Chicago with her sister, sourdough starter, and many houseplants. Recently returned from Abu Dhabi, where she spent four years at university and two years teaching freshmen-level college writing, she now works as an associate producer for Flikli, a commercial animation studio.

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