Anna Popnikolova: On Student Burnout

At least once a week, I’ve started having days (like today has been) when I have so much work to do that it feels like I’m physically wading through all my commitments. I don’t think I’ve ever genuinely felt this way — this is my first time feeling entirely and completely academically overwhelmed.

Now, I’m not trying to make it seem like I don’t know I have it easy, or that I have it worse than anyone else. My grades are still as good as they’ve always been, I’m getting my homework in. I go to school and I get it done.

Have you ever felt like you’re running as fast as you can, just to hold on to something? This isn’t a running-away metaphor — this is a running-to metaphor. Like… imagine you’re trying to get in the car, in the passenger seat. 

Up ‘til now in my life, I’ve been comfortable in the seat. The heat was running in the car, the AC was working in the summers. I was safe there, I was seated and nothing was amiss, nothing at all. School has never been hard for me. I was labeled gifted from a young age, I moved up years when teachers decided I could handle the grade above me, and still, I was top of my class. Somehow, I feel that somewhere along those lines — maybe, the fact that I’m two years below the rest of my grade, or the fact that my expectations are still higher than everyone else’s — I slipped out of the seat. 

The car’s moving forwards. Moving, slow each day, just as it always has. Time is as constant as ever; it doesn’t speed up or slow down, it just moves, creeping forwards just a tiny bit more every day. And now, I’m standing on the pavement next to the car. The door’s open for me, for me to get back inside and sit in the seat again, but somehow, I can never quite get in fast enough, before it moves forwards again. I have work upon work, piles, and piles to digest and work through, and somehow, before I’m comfortable enough to take a breath, there’s more. 

I’m not complaining. This isn’t asking for sympathy. This is the reality of high school, of what it’s feeling like for me. For the first time, I feel like everyone else. Academically, we’re all in the same boat. I’m also getting stuff in last-minute. I’m stressing out over the tests, like everyone else, and the homework doesn’t take me 15 minutes.

I worked on a lab report yesterday for seven hours. Before I started, I thought this’ll take an hour, an hour and a half. I finished running it through grammar and plagiarism checkers at 9 pm last night. I started working on it at 2 pm. I guess I’ve just been underestimating everything. I had 15 hours in total of work to get done this weekend. I managed to get through three of the items on my 20-item to-do list. 

I guess it’s just scary, to realize that I have so much less control over my academics than I thought I did. That the car’s going to keep driving, and I’ll have fallen so behind that I’ll need to run to catch up, to even graze the door with my fingertips. I’m worried that I’ll never sit in the seat again.

But maybe I’m not supposed to. God, as much as I don’t want to say it — it sounds cheesy and scares me a little bit — it’s probably just a part of growing up. You aren’t always going to be comfortable. Childhood, well, it has to end eventually. School can’t have recess blocks and nap times, we can’t have snack time and worksheets once a week for homework. Classes get harder, AP bio gets hard, and you’re not always going to be a winner. I’m not always going to get it all, and it’s going to suck

I guess what I’m trying to say is that burnout comes with everything. Things change. Things get harder and worse, and the only way anyone can ever really manage them is to try their best. Try your best! I’m doing my best — and sometimes, my best falls short. And that’s alright. Because, usually, my best is just right. I’m not in the seat, but I’m running at the same pace as the car. I’m next to it. I’ve reached the point in my academic life where I’m actually being challenged, fully and entirely. I have to run, a little bit. I’ve never felt like this before, and it’s not very fun at all. It’s human nature to prefer comfort over challenging or uncomfortable situations. But sometimes, discomfort is the only way we can push ourselves.

Because I really hate running — least favorite thing to do in gym class, by far. 

But this is how we grow, by stretching. Maybe, if I run for long enough, I’ll get faster (and I’ll manage to make a 13-minute mile, finally). But I don’t think I’ll ever sit in the car seat again. And honestly, I think I’ve made my peace with that. I realize that my best, our best, is all that anyone can ever really give. And for the things that really matter, your best is going to be enough. 


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