Laure, High School Student, CA

When you’re at school, you don’t think about how much you’ve learned, you think about that letter at the end of my name - what’s the little digit between 1 and 4 that makes me who I am, my worth.

Laure is a student at Palo Alto High School (Paly). She was interviewed by her peer and one of our student Catalysts--Gillian--for the RE-ENVISIONED collective visioning project at Paly in Spring 2017. Check out other #SchoolSpotlight interviews for Paly by searching #PeopleofPaly.


How would your friends and family describe you?

The narcissist in me wants to answer, “Oh she’s so amazing, she’s thinks things through, she’s gonna go somewhere”. I think people would describe me as an extrovert who thinks she’s an introvert, because on the inside I just want to do this, do that, and on the inside I’m just too low-energy to do it, so, I think that’s how they describe me. You said well-spoken earlier, so I’d have to say that. Yeah, I think they might also describe me as someone who wants to fight verbally with people, but doesn’t have the energy to a lot.


What do you think makes a good life?

So, I think what makes a good life is being able to have the qualities of recognizing what a good life is. You know, it’s different for everyone. What makes someone’s happiness can make another person unhappy, and vice versa. So, I think just having the ability of thinking to oneself, of making that sort of decision, that sort of metacognition sort of thing, is what makes life happy. It’s what separates us from human and animal, essentially. Animals don’t, for what we know, they don’t think of their life as happy or bad, they’re just surviving. And, when we have a happy life, it’s when we can define our life as happy.


Now, imagine you’re all grown up -- let’s say you’re 30 -- take three post-its and draw or write on them three central things that would make it a good or successful life -- you can just like say them -- and then how do you imagine your parents would answer is similar or different. So, first just say them and then reflect on them.

Okay, so, I think self-confidence would be one of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re “cool” or what people imagine confidence looks like or is -- as long as you feel comfortable with who you are and being able to function on a psychological basis day to day. I think that would be one of the key factors. I think having personal connections with people. Not necessarily like a spouse, but having connection like this friend and family. Just having that keep you in check because not only is family there to unconditionally love you, but they know who you are, more than anyone, and so they -- for at least my family, they’ll say “uh, this is weird Laure, this is not you, are you okay?”, and I think that would be the second thing to make me happy. 

The third one, I would say, is being -- like despite my rant about not being a careerist, I think being financially stable, would be something that I think would define some part of happiness, because it would be difficult to -- like not impossible, but difficult -- to find happiness without being able to pursue it without thinking of, how am I going to pay my bills, and all that. How I think my parents would answer that?

*dad interjects* Laure’s dad: Happiness is when your kid cleans their room.

I think my parents would say love is definitely one thing, I think they’d agree on economic stability. And, I think their third one would be surrounding yourself with people who are reasonably honest. I think so right? Like the people that you love should be honest with you. You know, you don’t want a bunch of people.

*dad interjects* Laure’s dad: I don’t have any choice.

Yeah, I know but still, part of happiness would be that, wouldn’t it?

*dad interjects* Laure's dad: Actually, part of happiness, for me, is more of me being able to be honest, than others being honest with me. You’re in a world where there are so many constraints around you, that you have to live by, that you barely find freedom in your own daily life. Being able to, live with that, not having to cater to some kind of interest.

So, “freedom” would be that third one.


How should school support, like getting, acquiring, or having a good life?

So I think, going back to the metacognition thing, I think school should really be there to teach you how to think. And, if you know how to think, it’s not to difficult to imagine a happy life. So, teaching different ways in questioning yourself. You know, you’re never going to know if your life is happy, if you don’t question it. So, that’s what I think that school should do, instead of just teaching black and white facts, they should teach, you know, why is this that, and is this real for some people, is this a blanket statement, or is this a changing reality from person to person.


Do you think Paly will support you getting a good life, and why or why not?

 I think that goes back to the Palo Alto mentality of success equals happiness. I think they push for you being happy, but also economically stable. I guess they are concerned with you being happy, but they’ll only support you if they think you are working very hard. That’s the assumption of Paly students, that they’re constantly working, they’re giving themselves nosebleeds over essays. So, I think that Paly will support your pursuit to happiness, but they’ll support it as long as it comes in line with that careerist kind of goal.

Where do you see Paly pushing you to be happy? Like, where do you see that in your classes, or from teachers?

So, in my definition of happy, I see it a lot between students, I see it more often because when I talk to people and they say something, and oh, well why do you think that? Because not that I want to put my own opinion into other people’s lives, but the encouragement that teachers have to become teachers is that they’re shaping the next generation. So that means that my peers are part of that next generation. I am too, but so are they. And so, I feel  like it’s not my job to inflict my opinion and things like that, I just want to see how critically their thinking about their own lives, not just about their STEM, or their philosophy, or things like that, but about their own lives because I think that if the next generation is not thinking about their own lives and only thinking about others, I think there’s going to be a bit of a problem going forward, not in the career part, because obviously there’s a good push of that in a lot of the admin. I think the admin pushes that a lot because the teachers have got to teach you about their material, but in the future -- careers and everything will be fine because everyone will be like pursuing to the extreme in their career -- but I think as for morale it’s just as important to have a group of people who work as hard as they love to.

"So, in my definition of happy, I see it a lot between students, I see it more often because when I talk to people and they say something, and oh, well why do you think that? Because not that I want to put my own opinion into other people’s lives, but the encouragement that teachers have to become teachers is that they’re shaping the next generation."


Do you experience any classes that you make you think about what a good life is?

I think the U.S. History class that I took last year really made me think of things, because in a lot of history classes, it’s “in this year, this thing happened”, and “in that year, this treaty was signed” and “in this year, the industrial revolution began, and things like that” but you’re never, not until that class did I feel like, we were pushed to think, what are the effects of this, and why is this good. For example, the era of “good feelings”, why is that not true for everyone, you know? That era was mostly classified as one party was in control, so everyone agreed. But there was still slavery, women still couldn’t vote, and I don’t think until halfway through, there were, you know, only people that owned land could vote, you know, white guys. So, it made us question, when we hear something, if that’s true, you know, and then it made you look at your own life as well. You know, things are happening and you can put a blanket statement on it, but what makes you life multifaceted.

Have any of your STEM classes really impacted you?

I’m not much of a STEM thinker. I’ve never attached to any sort of STEM classes, and I think that might be one of the reasons why I haven’t. You know, it just shows you, this is this, this is that, and that’s why some people like it, you know, it’s like an equation, you plug it in, you get a definite answer. I always veered more towards the X files, kind of thing, you know, the things that will make you question reality you perceive before, and sometimes science classes do that, but for the most part, I’ve never found anything about that, life-defining.


Do you think people, like your parents, and teachers that you’ve had, and the community, like the Palo Alto community, agree with you? Agree with your ideas about, what is a good life, and how school support that?

I think some people would agree, but if you were to ask anyone who lived in Palo Alto, I think the majority of people would answer with success makes your life happy. And they would define it as, just job success, or some sort of accomplishment that you could put on a resume. So, I find myself occasionally looking into the community and thinking, are these people doing this because they love it, or because it will make them or their community feel better, or is it to put a few more words of ink on a paper that they can show someone. 


What do you think is the most important thing you are learning in school?

In my World Literature class, I feel like I’m getting a lot of valuable lessons, we’re right now reading The Kite Runner. Yeah, and it makes you look at places that, you would have thought, “Wow, this place is so dangerous, I’d never go”, but actually before Russian involvement in Afghanistan and everything, the place, it was was normal, it just was another part of the world that we’re not familiar with. And there are a lot of places like that now that aren’t entirely destroyed, nudge nudge to Syria, but they’re viewed as uncivilized, or in the process of destruction because of their proximity to places of war -- Iraq, Syria, things like that, places like that -- and of our perception of their religion. In The Kite Runner, there’s a lot of characters who are Muslim, but are secular, which is not something you think about a lot. Like when someone tells you they’re Christian, you do not think they are wearing the papal robes every Sunday. You know, you don’t think of them as these extreme Christians, but as soon as you hear someone say I’m Muslim, you think of all the more stereotypical things, like reading the Qu’ran before bed, and not having a hamburger, and just things like that, right? So, I think that’s one of the more critical thinking classes now.

"So, I find myself occasionally looking into the community and thinking, are these people doing this because they love it, or because it will make them or their community feel better, or is it to put a few more words of ink on a paper that they can show someone."


Why do you think we have schools as a society?

I see a need, like in early civilization, a need for schools to teach children the craft of their parents, because that’s kind of how it used to be, right? You had the older children who would have to learn their “lordly” responsibilities that they’d later have to take on that their parents were too busy performing to teach later, so you’d have the tutors teaching them the higher education and things like that, but you’d also have the farmers who had to work all day, and so, like small time schools, where the kids would learn, would kind of spring up. 

So, I think, as a society, we have schools to teach the younger generation, what to do when they bring that up, but now, it feels like, we have schools but we’ve managed to make some of them for profit, rather than for education. And, it’s pushing a bottom-line agenda. When you’re at school, you don’t think about how much I’ve learned, you think about what’s that letter at the end of my name, what’s the little digit between 1 and 4 that makes me who I am, my worth. So, it’s just become another business, another enterprise that you know, takes in kids, spews out just a little more educated kids, and maybe they remember what people told them, but, in the end, they’ll remember the number that is a sign to them, rather than the material.


Going back to, like the profit thing, how do you think that’s affecting people who can’t pay for private school or can’t pay for tutors, how do you think that’s affecting them?

It’s really a shame when you gotta pay for tuition for schools, and not just colleges, but high schools, and private, below post-secondary. It’s a very bad disadvantage, for lack of better words, a lot of kids. Not only aren’t able to pay for a private education, but a lot of times, it’s based on location, if they’re in public schools. For example, in Palo Alto, we go to a public school, we don’t have to pay tuition to go to a private school, a majority of the services are free to us. I was in a public school in Florida, that pushed for academic excellence, but for Florida. It wasn’t academic excellence in order to compete with everyone else, but in order to comfortably choose what you want to do later. And, that gives a major disadvantage, because, when I came here, to Palo Alto, I immediately recognized how everyone from where I was, who was achieving, was actually five steps behind. 

So me, who, I consider myself a middle student there, I wasn’t like overachieving but I wasn’t underachieving either, when I got to Palo Alto, I felt like, “oh my god, this is insane”. It’s this whole competition that’s unfairly distributed. In communities, who can’t afford better public education than we do, it should be a race based on things that you can do, not things that are forced onto, things you can’t control. Where you live, what you family makes, should not be a determining factor in what you grow to be.


When you were living in Florida, and your experience coming to Palo Alto, can you talk about when you realized that the environment and the atmosphere here was so much different than the one back in Florida?

I immediately recognized it because even though Palo Alto is a place that pushes their kids to excellence, they're very aware of the psychological damage that it can do. And so they take these measures to be able to take care of their students at the same time. They're not just a few serial codes, they're actual people that are being affected by decisions that they can’t weigh in on necessarily. When I was in Florida, that wasn’t the case, it was very much, “here’s our decision, you have to deal with it”, find ways to keep going. And so, when I walked in to Palo Alto, immediately, even the way people walked, you could see they were getting someplace, but you knew I’m going to get there, but if something goes bad when I get there, I am supported. It was almost a web of people, that were all supporting each other. 

In Florida, it felt like different strings, just  going along, and if one was cut, it fell back, there was no support. Even when I was told, “oh, it’s time to go to advisory”, I was like “what is that”. We never, in Florida, I was in my junior year, no one, i had no idea what the common app was. I was just like, oh, I’ll look at the colleges website, and I’ll do the application and send it in, and hopefully they’ll tell us something about that soon. But, there was no word of common app, all the teachers there were like, “remember, ask me for your letter of rec”, but that was it, I was like, “Okay, I could ask you, but I have no idea what that means”. So, the atmosphere change was almost instant for me.

Do you prefer the atmosphere here?

Yeah, I prefer it here, there are obviously, there are gonna be things you like and things you don’t like about a place, it’s always going to be different, because Palo Alto is just different, you know. What I don’t like about it is the whole resume culture, that nice LinkedIn profile? But what I really like about it is it’s aware, of the con. In Palo Alto, they’re like, you gotta overachieve, you gotta do this and this and this, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. It’s a focus on the humanities almost, that’s really interesting. 

In Florida, the con was, “you fall behind, you fall behind”. And if you don’t get help yourself, if you don’t adamantly seek it out, you’re never going to get it. It’s not like advisory, where they tell you, “this and this and that and this”. It’s, go get that for yourself. Even if you don’t know you’re supposed to. In Florida, what I thought was, I guess a pro, it was, there wasn’t too much of a push to exceed, to be the best. You know, no one was pushing you to go to Stanford, for instance. No one was pushing you to go to Columbia, or Harvard, or anything. There was like, oh you know you could go to University of Central Florida, or University of Florida, and these are like the top things that we are looking for achievement. Like, UCF was the top. No one was pushing you to go further than home. It was a nice homely feeling. But, I personally grew tired of it, because people were only looking to achieve so much.

So, you found yourself different from the people there based on, what you wanted.

I found myself different from there, not only from wants, but ever since I’d gotten there. I was immediately defined as an immigrant who spoke a different language than everyone. And, even though I looked like them, it was predominantly white, I still stood out. Every immigrant child will tell you, it’s the school lunches that make you stick out. Because, I would get there, I had Nutella before it was cool, and everyone would be like “Oh, what is that, what is she eating”. I pushed my parents for two years before they even considered Lunchables. So, I stood out in many different ways, and, it was a little difficult. I feel myself assimilating better in Palo Alto, for the reason that, it’s so diverse. Not only in thought, but in practice and in culture. You won’t find one of the same people. You’ll find people who kind of think alike? A lot of people in Palo Alto seem to be more on the liberal side. So, there’s always that kind of group mentality. There are some people obviously who don’t. No one’s ever 100% in every location, that would be really weird. But the fact that there’s enough diversity to create debate, is really interesting, I think.


Can you tell me about a time when you learned something and it felt really good and empowering like you just wanted to keep learning more? Could be in school or in life.

I like making ciphers. They’re kind like being able to write a sentence, but masking it with letters and codes, things like that. When I was younger, I made a basic code, where A=1, B=2, and then I would just work through sentences, and add them together, and be like “Oh, 53 means this”. So, I taught myself that, and I thought I was so smart, and then I showed it to my dad, and he broke it apart in a second. And, I was like, oh great okay. And he was like, “oh, you’re getting onto something”. So learning about these ciphers and then challenging my father to solve them was kind of like my motivation, because I always wanted to one up him, and make myself almost like at the same level of smart as he is, and so that kept me pushing and pushing, and it was never like a bad feeling. It was like, you know, if I do this, it will feel awesome later, too, so, I kept working, and I occasionally made small ciphers when I’m bored, and I’m like maybe, I’ll try this out later.


At, Paly -- or at your school in Florida -- who has been your favorite teacher?

Some of y favorite teachers came from Florida. Weirdly enough, I wasn’t as attached to the school, but the teachers last a lasting impression on me. My European History teacher from the second year -- sophomore year -- I think he was the first person to make you think critically about things, and so for me, that opened a lot of ideas in my mind, and that got me interested in history. So, I occasionally email him, he wrote my letter of rec. The only teachers that wrote my letter of rec, except my advisory, are from Celebration in Florida. 

And then, the other one was my philosophy teacher -- the chillest guy, for lack of better term, he was really cool. He was like “okay guys, you’re in philosophy, I get that, I know you guys also probably think philosophy is boring, but let me show you a Simpsons episode and then we’ll talk about the philosophy behind it” -- and he was just the coolest guy. You get personal connection with teachers when your school kind of lacks on the achievement pursuit, you get a closer connection with teachers, almost like friends.

What were their names? The teachers?

So, the European History teacher is Mr. Sherman, and the philosophy teacher is Mr. Foley. And i also think that in Paly -- like civic teachers for me or like the easiest people to talk to. I think it’s because we’re kind of like-minded in that way that we just think about things, but I felt like a professional connection with the us history teacher her, Mr. Rappeport, who i think does a really excellent job at teaching his material. All three teachers were passionate about what they were teaching. And I think it showed that, you know, you don’t have to have this high-achieving job to be happy and that goes kind of back, incidentally enough, to the whole theme of this interview, as I’m talking like this. Those are the teachers.


When do you feel most alive at school?

I think I feel most alive when I learn about new things that are interesting. Like, any other unit in any other math class is just like, yeah, there’s no reason to feel like that rush of adrenaline, right, but -- unless that’s your thing -- when I learn about things that interest me, like different parts in history, it gives me an idea, “oh I can do this, and I can do that with this”. There’s just so many things. I’m a creative person. I draw, I write, I do a little bit of dance classes -- not really well, but still -- so, when I get information that I can interpret into my own life and I can do something with, that’s when I feel most alive at school.


What are the best parts of your life right now? When do you feel like life is really good?

I really like working independently. That’s something that i enjoy doing, and because I have the resources to do it, that’s a part that I really enjoy. Independent study -- not as part of my schedule -- but when I get home, and I have this idea in my head, and I have to plan it out, and I never do it, but still. I like being able to do that, and kind of self-reflect, and that’s really something that I enjoy doing.

What are some good ideas that you’ve had?

Right now, I’m kind of writing these semi-memoirs. It’s mostly, so I can tell a story, but not be able to be completely true, because I don’t want to misrepresent anything, so it’s half fiction. So, what I’m doing is writing this story of this Belgian immigrant who lives in America, who writes letters to this guy who makes films in Egypt -- who is a guy I know. He’s very into the idea. I had to tell him, I kinda want to help write your story, but you’re also writing your story, but I just wanted to represent the relationship that we have because it’s got different facets that are interesting. As a person who enjoys literature, I think there’s a lot to tell with this. So, I’m kind of just writing back and forth, and I’m really stuck on writing his side of the story, because they are letters back in forth, so you’ve got to have their voice and everything. But that’s one of the projects I’m working on.

That’s really cool, I’d love to read that. 


Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you expected me to ask, but didn’t, or that I should have?

 I think you covered some of the things that I wasn’t even thinking about, because some of them I started, but I just started thinking farther and farther into it. I was surprised about you asking “how does your community support your vision of what happiness is?”. I thought that was interesting because I always see happiness as introspective. People supporting your happiness is almost against evolutionary principles. Everyone’s looking for their own happiness, and others find happiness giving other people happiness, like it’s a whole thing. I think you covered this pretty well, I enjoyed this.