The Rules I Follow
Since my first year of middle school, I followed the rules. Studying hard, getting good grades, not talking back to teachers, trying to be a good person. I didn’t even sneak into a movie theater to see an R-rated movie with all my friends. So why with so much success would I look back on my 3 years of middle school as a complete failure of fulfillment? Well, I guess it’s because I gave up so many good experiences and chances for one A on a math quiz. Maybe it’s because I missed so many exciting times for long hours of stressed work with flashcards. Maybe it’s because I’ve noticed that good grades and not getting in trouble can only win me a high school, maybe a college and an hour of pride. Following rules doesn’t win me friends, memories, or long lasting experiences. Instead, rules are what make me lose these. Rules make me lose the things that are far out of reach from winning back.
I remember leaving school one Friday in sixth grade. Kids were running around the courtyard of the school, smiling, planning times to hang out and looking forward to a weekend of fun. I, however, trudged down the block solemn and angry, already having turned down an invitation to go to someone’s house with three of my friends. I was angry inside, carrying a yellow sheet in my backpack that described clearly that I had homework to complete on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. “How could all these people be so excited for the weekend? Don’t they follow rules? Can’t they see that we have homework to do? Why am I the only one doing it?” The truth was there weren’t really rules. I just felt that I had to do exactly what it said to do on the sheet of paper. My mom kept on telling me, “Ryan, it’s Friday, go have fun.” “No,” I said back sternly, “I have homework to do.” And so began my days of following “rules” and losing my grip on what was actually important to me. I had thought that I was doing the right thing abiding by what it said on the yellow sheet of paper. The yellow sheet of paper that no longer just represented the homework I had gotten that Friday, but represented all of the rules I followed. Instead I was doing it all wrong. I was obeying the wrong set of rules, rules that I thought made me a better person, but in fact made me lose sight of what was truly important.
I remember days marching home from school after saying no to hanging out with friends just so I could get that extra hour to study for a test. I recall staying up late some nights making sure my homework was perfect and missing the show that everyone was going to talk excitedly about the next day. I missed all of the fun times at a friend’s house for a 95 on a test with a “great job” written beside it. I sat bored and quiet as my friends discussed all of the amazing things that happened on last night’s TV show, only to say to my parents that I got a check plus on all of my homework assignments.
Sometimes I would even refuse to have fun at sleepovers with friends. My friends would say to me, “Ryan come on, let’s go sneak around the house.” “No,” I would say, “I have a soccer game and homework to do tomorrow.” “Ryan, why are you so boring?” they would ask. And I would just lay there in my sleeping bag as they pranced around the house whispering, snatching candy from jars, and squealing at the slightest noise of adults coming to scold them. They would fly up the stairs, tell scary stories and laugh for most of the night. I would lay in my sleeping bag yelling that I wanted to go to sleep. “I have stuff to do tomorrow,” I would say. They would cringe and ask, “ Why are you so boring Ryan? Can’t you have fun?” The truth was I couldn’t have fun. I couldn’t sneak around a house, steal candy and just be a kid. The weird thing was I never had an answer to why I couldn’t, besides that I had stuff to do.
As middle school rolled on, I began to lose some of my closest friends. We would walk by each other in the hallway and share an awkward hello, not a secret handshake or an inside joke. We would both say hello and walk right past looking at our feet. It felt weird being so shy with the person I had shared all of my secrets with for ten years. The person I could talk to when everything seemed like it was falling apart. Sometimes we wouldn’t even acknowledge each other, we would just look at the floor and walk right by. As all of this occurred, I never looked at it as a result of me working too hard in school and only focusing on right versus wrong. I thought all of these bad experiences were happening because I could never be good enough. I wasn’t cool enough. I think my working so hard became an obsession. Something I could say I was good at. Maybe getting that A would get my friends back. However, the way I looked at these situations was horribly wrong. The “A” didn’t get my friends back and didn’t help me reclaim the experiences I had missed.
I never noticed how utterly wrong I was until a few days before writing this essay when I began to realize how much I had wasted my life following my rules and getting A’s. I was sitting in history class watching a documentary on Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. At that point in the documentary we were learning about how Luther never thought that he was good enough. He would do penance five times a day, read the Bible, sing in church until his throat hurt, yet he was never good enough. As this moment came to a close, my history teacher got up and told us a story. He told us about his friend’s sister who had admitted to him that although she had gone to a great high school, was graduating from a top college, and had always gotten A’s, she was completely unsatisfied with her life. He explained to us that she had come to him crying, saying, “I followed all of the rules, why am I so unfulfilled?” A light bulb went off in my head at that moment. “Was this the path I was taking? Was this how I would end up? Begging for others to help, even though I had made it through life successfully? Would I end up like the crying girl, having ignored the family, friends and experiences that were really important to me, lost trying to follow the rules on a yellow sheet?”
I left class wanting the lesson to escape from my mind.“ Am I really this person? Will I really end up dissatisfied?” I decided that the answer to all these questions had to be no. I couldn’t go through life like this. It might be a struggle breaking away from the rules, but it must be done. I must, I need to forget the rules on the yellow sheet.
As I look back on my first three years of middle school, I find that a 95 over an 85 wasn’t as important as I thought it was. Maybe I just followed rules because I was worried about the consequences. Like if I don’t get an A will it ruin my chances for a college? Will I end up behind a counter selling Big Mac meals for $7 dollars? Or if I run around ringing doorbells and running away, will I be locked up in juvenile jail for a night and not get into high school? The truth was my ideas were way out of the zone. One 75 doesn’t knock me out of college. I don’t think you go to jail for waking people up at 11:30 at night. Why was I so worried about doing everything right then? Didn’t I listen when I heard people tell me that nobody is perfect? I still think by doing everything perfectly I was trying to redeem what I had lost. However, it could just be that I’m too worried about all the bad things that could happen to me if I forget my rules on the yellow sheet.
Why do I riddle this essay with so many questions? I ask all of these questions because I truly have no idea what the answers are. These questions aren’t just answered by yes or no. Will I end up like the girl crying on her friend’s shoulder? If I answer no, than what do I change? How do I change? I guess this is one way I can say I have begun to change. Looking back and reflecting, learning what needs to be done to change. I won’t change who I am as a person, but how I work as a person. I’ll forget once in a while the rules that are written on the yellow sheet and look at my own rules on a different sheet. The rules that say go hang out with friends, have experiences, create moments that last forever, because all of this is most important. All of these things are what make me fulfilled. All these things that could be held back by a single yellow sheet that tells me what to do.
Aidan King, Age 14, Grade 8, The Berkeley Carroll School, Honorable Mention