Community, academic rigor equally important

Photo+by+Luke+Chval

Photo by Luke Chval

Luke Chval

Art by Sarah Poor
Art by Sarah Poor
The very first time I entered the halls of RBHS as a student last year, I was a freshman. I can remember staring at the incredibly high ceilings, the large commons and the extensive campus, completely encompassed by the differences from my previous school, West Junior High School.
Being a student as a freshman is no longer uncommon at RBHS, as there are now hundreds of them. The thing that made my attendance strange, however, was that last year, the school was limited to sophomores, juniors and seniors.
Being the son of a professor of education who knew the ins and outs of Columbia Public Schools, I enrolled in several advanced classes during middle school, my mother noting, “You don’t want to be bored, do you?”
The question was fair enough, since during elementary school I had found the curriculum lethargically paced and unchallenging. So in sixth grade I took Algebra at WJHS, a zero-hour class filled with seventh graders. In eighth grade, I skipped another class and made the jump from Spanish 1A to Spanish 2, intent on more challenges.
Already planning to continue to Precalculus Honors and Spanish 3, I knew I would have to take those classes at RBHS. But then I earned one thing that I had never gotten before, to reach an academic goal that eluded even my brother. I would take Journalistic Writing, a class normally filled with sophomores a year early, something my siblings were unable to do.
At this point, my schedule must have been the most confusing and hectic any freshman had. I was surprised when the guidance office at WJHS was able to fit it all together into a structured day. I started every day at RBHS for first block, then bussed back to WJHS for three classes and lunch and then was driven back to RBHS for fourth block. When I was at RBHS, my sophomore friends said I was basically a sophomore, and when I was at West, I was counted as a freshman instead.
This split in my day created social challenges; it’s hard to make friends when you spend half of the day at one school. Several times, when I walked through WJHS seeing people I hadn’t seen in a while, they would ask me, “You still go here?” I didn’t belong in a grade, and even though I attended two, I didn’t belong to a school.
By the time I had gotten to my freshman year, the division of students between honors and advanced classes had finally caught up to me, and I no longer had to seek challenge. I struggled regularly in Precalculus, often peering over my shoulder to ask the kid next to me what the teacher was talking about. I would spend time scanning all my sheets with several Spanish verb tenses, I sat for hours at a computer screen, trying to put forth my best work for Journalistic Writing because I knew that no matter how good it was, it would be returned marked in red ink with dozens of corrections.
In retrospect, I only gained a sliver of the experience of a RBHS student last year, just a tiny amount of my mind and body. I didn’t have Advisory with all my peers, I didn’t have the large class of AP World with a lot of kids who don’t know each other and persevere under the pressure of a tough course. I could probably only name five kids from my Precalculus class last year.
Just as no one can gain the full experience of a swimming pool by dipping their toe in the water, I could not understand what it meant to be a student at RBHS when I was a freshman. Only by jumping in and completely submerging yourself in a pool do you encounter the full effect. Now, I have done that at RBHS with all my extracurricular activities, strenuous classes and the peer community I have found.
This year, the pressure, the difficulty and the community that I have at RBHS have all amplified tremendously. Precalculus no longer seems difficult compared to the first month of AP Calculus BC, and as Government and English 9 seemed easy, AP World History has replaced them.
But as the workload has increased during the last several years, so has the amount I have enjoyed school. Compared to RBHS, there was no sense of community within Smithton Middle School or WJHS. The schools only held two grades, and the administrations didn’t focus on bringing the students together, as Smithton even split each grade into four teams, isolating the students even more.
I never really understood I felt distanced from my peers, or how this happened. But now I realize that even though Smithton and WJHS had a limited sense of camaraderie, I left behind whatever community I had with my peers by advancing. I didn’t realize this at the time, but the decision I unknowingly made was the choice between academic rigor and a group of peers of the same grade in my classes.
It’s really unfortunate that there has to be a choice between the two in intermediate schools, and most students aren’t given the choice in the first place; they simply have community without the challenging curriculum. The norm for intelligent students at Rock Bridge is to be ahead, with hundreds of students in dozens of AP classes, honors classes or just challenging classes. Because of that, now I have the gift of both academic rigor and a sense of identity and community with my peers. Since the beginning of this year and some parts of last year, I am finding that high school is so much more fulfilling than middle or junior high school. I think part of this is that challenges bring people together more than anything, along with the addition of peers challenging themselves alongside me.
It’s a lot easier to make new friends while sweating through an arduous project due the next day than a boring lecture that doesn’t provoke mental capacities in any form. There is always a sense of community in the shared horror of a potential bad grade, where teamwork suddenly becomes necessary to help the individual grades of each person.
So while I may struggle through my difficult classes now, I am just being challenged intellectually in a classroom. I no longer see this as a type of failure, but rather a sign that school is getting better.
By Luke Chval