Hannah Friedman
FINALIST: Yale grad, professional author, director, education advocate, gen Y voice

"You are fat, lazy, and worthless. Also, you have no friends."

Looking back on it, I realize this is the undercurrent of much of my teenagehood. I didn't realize that I had low self esteem at the time, I was just convinced of my own inadequacy. Criticism became such a familiar part of my internal dialogue that I came to believe all the negative things I thought about myself were objectively true.

I can see now that perhaps highschool culture shock had a lot to do with that state of mind. My father is a musician, and when I was 12 the whole family picked up and moved onto a hippy tour bus roving the British Isles. I learned to play saxophone, I wrote journals full of stories, and my mother homeschooled me. I read every book I could get my hands on and my mother did her best to find engaging, hands-on ways for me to learn. When I took an interest in architecture we visited the Tower of London and built scale models of suspension bridges, when I decided I wanted to know more about the history of fashion we spent two whole weeks at the Victoria and Albert museum studying the vast historical costume collections and coming home to trace dress patterns through the ages.

When I returned home and enrolled in a private preparatory school as the girl on scholarship, things were different. Grades were of the utmost importance and there was no time for exploration or personal projects- you had to follow exactly what was on the syllabus or risk punishment. My new friends were smart and wealthy, but most of all they were pretty. I listened with intrigued amazement as they discussed the new must-have $800 handbag, the best color-stay lip liner, their favorite of the five star Parisian hotels…

A favorite topic was diet. "You can never be too rich or too skinny," some would say with a giggle. By sophomore year fat officially meant failure as girls began to experiment with drastic calorie restriction and dangerous exercize regimes. Laxatives and green tea. Then cigarettes and cocaine. It was private school, after all.

I learned quickly that ugly people were ostracized, and although I didn't understand why, I did my best to make sure I wouldn't be considered a target. I saved up money from my weekend jobs to buy knockoff designer jeans and I stopped eating chocolate. I ran five miles a day and bought lengthening mascara. When I felt defeated or depressed I would eat everything in sight- cake, candy, fries- and then feel terrible about it for the entire week. I was a failure. I had to work harder.

The pressure to be perfect was overwhelming. As we grew to be upperclassmen we were constantly reminded that even a single poor test grade could cause our average to plummet, meaning not only a damaged GPA, but the death of a dream-college acceptance-letter. The Ivy League was God. SAT prep courses, private college tutors, and personal essay writers costing tens of thousands of dollars began to dominate the weekends of my peers. There was no time to slack off. By senior year I was president of the student body, the drama club, the disciplinary committee, and enrolled in the most challenging courseload I could manage. But I was barely managing. Obsessive thoughts about my yo-yo dieting had completely taken over the time when I wasn't studying or writing hundreds of pages of required essays about topics I cared little for.

I wrote an article about the insanity of the college admissions process which was published in Newsweek. Although I expected people would be glad to read an honest critique of the all-encompassing hysteria of the application system, my school was furious. I was vilified by the elite school I had worked so hard to prove myself worthy of. Administration insisted that I retract my article, and when I refused to do so they spun a humiliating rumor into grounds for suspending me from school. I got into Yale. At Yale finally everything would be perfect.

But I soon discovered that Yale was not as perfect as I had been told. It was a good school with great facilities and many opportunities, but the curriculum was just as strict and inflexible as before. Some professors were interesting while others were tedious and unenthusiastic, even abusive. I tried my best to strive as I had done in highschool and drowned my anxiety in the syrupy rhythm of studying, binging, essay-writing, calorie counting, and wishing I didn't suck so much.

Then one day after a poem I worked especially hard on received a 'C' with no explanation, I decided to do some research into the history of grades, these measures of worth I had worked for so long to perfect. I read that the 4.0 system was invented about 100 years ago at YALE, and I fell off of my sofa. I lay there on the floor like a beached starfish pondering the cosmic cycle which had drafted me as a perfectionist pawn… I had spent 4 years attempting to perfect a system to impress the very institution which invented the system!?

I did more research into the history of grades and was shocked to discover entire communities dedicated to the sort of learning my mother had focused on all those years before- learning which was self-directed and fulfilling, flexible yet immersive, and most of all, learning which fed your passions instead of breaking them up into a 10 point rubric system and quizzing you incessantly on mundane vocabulary and fact regurgitation.

I switched majors, out of the prestigious one and into the one which nourished me, which allowed me to write creatively and to explore. I continued to research the parts of education I had never thought to question before, everything from nationalized public schooling (invented in Prussia as a means of having a subservient populous,) to letter grades. I wrote op-eds about education policy and practices. I wrote and wrote and researched until I had written an entire book proposal.

I was enjoying myself and was proud of my achievements for the first time in years, and slowly I began experimenting with things I had been too afraid to try in highschool because I was sure I would fail, sure I would get a bad grade or be exposed as a loser. I began to play music. I began to dance. I stopped doing busywork which was getting in the way of learning, and I began making time for books which I wanted to read instead of only the ones required on syllabi.

I was having so much fun by senior year that I took three big risks. I sent my book proposal to publishers. I made a film and submitted it to the New York TV festival. And then came the hardest one. I had spent so much time over so many years obsessing about my body, restricting and binging and dieting and berating myself… I decided that I wanted to feel good. Not the sort of fleeting glee that I felt when I starved for three days and stepped on the scale to discover I'd dropped a few pounds. I wanted to be normal- to eat until I was full and then stop, to have an occasional piece of birthday cake without worrying about it for hours before and afterwards. I was sure that my irregular eating habits, my inability to stick to a strict schedule the way I had done with SAT studying, was simply due to my weakness. It was disgusting. Unacceptable. But I thought that perhaps if I admitted that I had a problem and got some help I could begin to get control.

I took control of my own happiness and went into therapy. I learned how I was using food as a coping mechanism, a reward, and a punishment, and I learned that I deserved to have a healthy relationship with my body. It's a slow process but I feel stronger every day having faith in my own intuition, passions, and ideas. I have stopped trying to be good enough for everyone else's standard, and am concentrating on following my own bliss.

My film won an award and I was given the opportunity to direct, produce, and star in a documentary about my summer. I spent the summer touring the UK playing saxophone in my father's band, as well as writing my first book which will be published in August! Day by day I accept myself, and more and more I am able to excel and find happiness through forging my own path.