They were like a swarm of ants, dashing to escape the playful foot of a child who just kicked in their sand hill.
It was just minutes before the first bell at Brainerd High School and hundred of students were racing to get to their classroom on time.
Tiny print map in tote and feeling like the one lost ant, I finally stepped through the door of my first class: Math Topics.
I was back in high school for the day. It was a way to find out what it’s like to be a student nowadays and see just how much things have changed since I graduated in 2006 down in Winona, Minn.
But as I made my way to my back row seat, I started feeling a little over my head.
A good chunk of my fellow classmates clung to coffee cups. Two girls mouthed a silent conversation. Nobody said anything to the new girl.
Teacher Troy Nelson ran through a review of Euler circuits. I sat wide-eyed and head titled.
The boy next to me sped through each of the examples ahead of the class.
I knew his type. I’ve sat next to smart kids before.
Mr. Nelson handed out review packets with even more, er, fun, problems. I tried the multiple choice, scoring 5/14. I gave up on the rest of the packet.
As Mr. Nelson walked around, I found myself trying to cover my work packet with my arm. It’s a tactic I used in my own high school math class so my teacher couldn’t see I was struggling.
A group of kids sitting near the front laughed, looking back at me. I’m still not sure what they were giggling about. It couldn’t be what I was wearing. I was one of six people sporting a plaid shirt that day.
By the end of class I was ready for something new.
Hesitantly, I navigated the hallway to my next room: AP literature. Now this is something I can handle. I’ve always excelled in anything written - hence the career in writing.
Fewer coffee cups on desks. Students a little more wide-eyed.
“I went to bed at 2:30 a.m. I’m so tired,” a girl said as she high-fived the boy behind her.
I went to bed at 10:30 p.m. the night before and I was still yawning. Now I really felt old.
A girl in a pink sweater sat next to me working on homework while others kept their heads down to their phones.
Teacher Alan Hewitt reminded me of my English instructor. A pair of black framed glasses sat on top of his balding head.
The group dissected a poem by William Wordsworth.
In Pottery class, I slapped a two-pound ball of reddish-brown clay on the potter’s wheel. My fingers wrapped around the rough material as it spun. While molding the uneven shape, I learned a few lessons on fitting in.
Joining a sport is the easiest way, one boy offered. That’s what he did when he joined the district back in middle school.
It’s hard to fit in if you’re shy, said one girl, whose clay pot had already taken superior form. You’ll make friends faster if you’re outgoing.
By fourth hour Physics, I was beginning to feel a little more part of the senior class.
Sam, who was also in AP Lit, invited me to join his group for a melting experiment.
Finally at class end, it was lunch time. For most of the student body, it was a rat race for the pizza or chicken and fries lines. I was one of the few who went straight for the salad bar.
The new push for taking fruits and vegetables isn’t quite widely accepted, said principal Andrea Rusk.
Next stop was the gym for Adventure and Challenge class. Today, I would learn to tie a few knots as the class opened its unit on rock climbing.
I sat in the front row of the bleachers next to a girl with perfect brown hair and flawless makeup. I introduced myself and the girl tilted her head up slightly.
“Oh,” she said, turning back to her friend on the other side.
As class continued, another girl helped me with my retrace figure eight knot.
Cliques define you, she said. Once you are in one, rarely will you associate with other groups. There are, however, friend groups you have in class, but you wouldn’t hang out with them outside of those four walls.
“It’s hard,” the girl said of fitting in. “I wouldn’t want to be new.”
The last class, American Government, seemed to float by. Kids rested their heads heavily on one arm while taking notes with the other. Coffee cups were gone.
When the final class bell sounded, halls cleared just as quickly as they were filled that morning.
Feet dragging, I made my way past the senior locker bay. It’s the go-to hangout spot for members of the oldest class.
The younger kids are usually found in the student lounge, band or choir rooms, or on the square balcony of the commons. Those passing under the square opening feel like fish in a bowl as the kids above people-watch.
Specks of red clay dried on my black shoes. My eyes were heavy. I walked back to my car like a dozen bricks weighted my backpack.
I came to the conclusion that it’s still pretty tough being a teenager.
Beneath the iPhones, cliques and fashion trends, they are all just trying to find out who they are.
They’re lost. Just like I was when I was their age.
To the young adults I studied next to for the day: Hang in there. Never accept a label that’s been handed to you. Never settle for anything less than the best.
You deserve it. Now get to class.