Big Shoes to Fill


When I reflect upon my interactions with upperclassmen as a freshman, I still remember envisioning the juniors and seniors as big, scary people who totally had their lives figured out. I thought for sure they would know how to do every problem on my Algebra 2 homework; I figured they knew exactly how to manage their time; and I was certain they thought of fifteen-year-old me as a little kid. In short, upperclassmen, regardless of character or work ethic, seemed worthy of my respect. Now, I wonder why on earth I ever put upperclassmen on that pedestal simply because of their stage in life. As a senior, I still feel I have to earn respect just as much as I did freshman year. Essentially, this self-perpetuating concept of inferiority as an underclassman does not directly correlate to a self-perpetuating concept of superiority as a senior. Why? 

Realistically, I do not have my life figured out. I probably cannot correctly complete an Algebra 2 problem set anymore, and I am still easily distracted. But, surprisingly, I don’t see all the fifteen-year-olds as little kids. The difference now is that I am far more selective with my reasons for putting anyone on a pedestal, and I am more confident in the idea that everyone has something to offer that is absolutely worthy of our appreciation. However, we must recognize that excellence in one area does not translate to excellence in another, as well as the fact that struggle in one area does not translate to struggle in another. 

I really miss having upperclassmen around to look up to, but I aim to build new relationships with underclassmen that hopefully mirror the current relationships I continue to appreciate. The Speech Team’s trip to the Duke Invitational Speech Tournament last week put that aspiration to the test. My co-captains and I were in the minority as we traveled with ten sophomores. I walked away from my first tournament in the role of captain humbled by the talent the sophomores demonstrated in their speech and debate competitions. I remember looking up to the Speech Team captains my sophomore year, and always expecting them to perform well, offer unparalleled wisdom, and lead our team to victory. Last weekend’s success, though, can be attributed to the dedication of each individual team member – not at all to the leadership roles my co-captains and I share. 

Conversations before and after the competition demonstrated to me the weight being a senior truly carries in our community. I laughed every time I heard a sophomore describe her perspective of our senior class – not out of disrespect, but out of sheer surprise. We all felt the same intimidation and reverence as underclassmen, but we could hardly ever imagine that we would one day be the top of the heap. There’s still the fear factor that we all felt as freshmen walking through the upperclassmen section to go to class. There’s the inferiority factor when you think you could never outperform an upperclassman, so you don’t even try. And it’s the intimidation factor when you can’t possibly bear to turn an article in late to your section editor when you’re two years younger, but you don’t even formally ask for an extension when one of your section editors is in your grade (thanks, Annie). 

When I think back and picture the class of 2018 as eighth graders, I still think of them as so much older, wiser, and better at almost everything, no matter how long it has been since I was in eighth grade. Well, having underclassmen alongside me in my hardest classes, on the hack soccer field (@MAXC_hoorawr you’re not getting your hubcap back), and on the speech and debate stage, has taught me that age has no inherent correlation with ability and shouldn’t have anything to do with respect. 

I hope that next year, when I am a freshman again, I can take my own advice and appreciate individual virtues without being quick to judge, because we all have the ability to earn each other’s respect. Be bold as an underclassman but humble as an upperclassman. Recognize your strength lies in your experiences not the extent of your experience, and strive for a balance between action and reflection. The best leaders are those who speak honestly and listen thoughtfully, so take it all in stride and pay it forward. Someday we will fill our leaders’ shoes, and surprisingly, we will know how.

Mark Pang