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The AP Complex

An examination of AP students in my school done in the form of a research paper


Focusing on the students designated “AP Kids,” and the emotional/psychological impacts of their efforts in areas outside the classroom. Using my own personal observations, perceptions, and conclusions concerning these students, and after spending the better part of the school year with them, I have laid out what I believe to be a psychological complex: the Advanced Placement Complex. These students’ natural intelligence, introversion, perfectionism and uncertainty, coupled with external pressures and expectations, have led them to be unsure of who they are and where their true motivations lie. Their formative years of high school have been inundated with a level of work and stress unthinkable to an outsider, and this has unavoidably changed who they are and how they perceive themselves. The ways in which they deal with this uncertainty divides them into three distinct classes, designated Class I, Class II and Class III. Class I is marked by an avoidance of existential questions and purposeful superficiality of relationships, Class II crafts a false reality in order to avoid the uncomfortable answers to those existential questions, and Class III both avoids intimacy with others and lives in a more comfortable reality, but both to a much lesser extent than the former two. Although my methods of observation are informal and potentially subjective, I hold that this is the only way to gain a genuine understanding of these students.

On The Advanced Placement Complex

This year, I enjoyed the pleasure of becoming close with the students referred to as the “AP Kids.” Receiving their nomenclature from the Advanced Placement courses they thrive in, these students are marked by impeccable academic and extracurricular performance. Their ambition is matched only by the amount of effort they put forth; they are the spitting image of the perfect student. Throughout my time as their friend, and in many cases, one of their sole confidants, I have experienced some of the happiest times of my life. Their intelligence and more than admirable work ethic makes them lucrative friends for one such as myself, and their deep emotional capacity allows for a closer connection than I had known in a long time. I have shared more laughs, tears and love with these students than any single group of people in the past. However, even amongst the AP Kids, there is another, higher level. This upper echelon of students exists at the pinnacle of academic performance; they are the Ivy Leaguers, the 2300’s, the constant studiers. They are the valedictorians and the 4.0’s. They are viewed by the remainder of the student body with disbelief, deification, contempt, or, as in my case, friendship. To many, they are nothing but inhuman grade collectors. But to me, and to those who truly matter to them, they are, perhaps, even more human than you or I.

There exists, though, a trend among these students. This trend, which I have concluded emanates from the very fundamentals of their psyche, is no less than a psychological complex. I have named it after the very group of students they populate; thus, the AP Complex. In a very tight nutshell, the drive these students possess and the external or internal pressure they have faced have permeated their emotional lives in ways many would not expect. Foundationally, they have faced extreme amounts of pressure to excel. Be it active from their parents or guardians, passive from familial reputation, or from within themselves, this is, for better or worse, a key component of who they are. Pushed from the moment they entered school to stand out, to achieve perfection in all things, their formative years were defined by that which many would consider impossible. And yet, for the most part, they did not crack under the pressure. They achieved everything they aspired to, if not more. But in the same movement, in their own mind, they have not achieved anything. It is this deep-seated sense of inadequacy that is crucial to the understanding of these students, and lends itself to the development of an AP Complex.

Inadequacy, in this case, stems from their conscious and subconscious drive towards perfection. These students will be the first to admit that they are compulsive about their academics; it’s certainly not something they can hide. However, I have noticed that there also exists a much more worrying expectation of sublimity, in that they view emotional perfection as the only legitimate feeling. This unrealistic prospect, along with their natural introversion, lends itself to self-doubt, detachment from themselves, and emotional immaturity.

Most of these students feel very alone, and some have even convinced themselves that they would prefer to be alone at all times. This is due to the vicious cycle that originates with their complex. As they reach the age where relationships of all kinds become vital, around the onset of adolescence, they begin to reach out for others, as we all do. But unfortunately, their preoccupation with academic perfection poisons these early friendships. They misinterpret their own emotions and become increasingly frustrated at the one thing that they just cannot seem to grasp. In many cases, at the same time the students feel the most alone and the most misunderstood, their grades are the highest. As they believe that their efforts in the classroom are more pressing than their efforts elsewhere, they take this as a sign to withdraw themselves. Along with the standard feelings of pre-teenage awkwardness and deep insecurity, the introversion takes shape and the facades are constructed.

Once they reach high school, and have outgrown most of their awkwardness, the introversion and the detachment remain. However, they have not yet lost their desire for companionship. And so, as in their early adolescent days, they reach out. Some find naught but betrayal. They are hurt again and again by those they considered close. They tell horror stories of supposed “best friends” and “crushes” that fill you with sadness. The constant backstabs, the eternal doubt and anguish; it becomes no wonder they are so wary of closeness. There is an analogy about the troubles of human intimacy known as The Hedgehog’s Dilemma. It equates humans to the spiny hedgehog in that, during the winter, the hedgehog must find warmth or risk freezing to death. To do so, they search around their burrow for other hedgehogs to share warmth with. Of course, hedgehogs are covered in spines, and so the closer they get to one another, the more they stab and hurt each other. It is up to the individual hedgehog to decide which is more painful: the stabs, or the cold. The AP kids who have been betrayed by others decide that the cold is preferable to the well-remembered quills of their fellow hedgehogs, and so they pull away to begin their prolonged death from hypothermia. In other cases, the student reaches out and begins their search for companionship. They encounter many people without ever becoming intimate for fear of betrayal. They, speaking metaphorically, had heard tell of the nasty quills, and so after a short search, decide that there are none around them who provided enough warmth for them to ignore the pain. And so they opt, like those who have been openly betrayed, to freeze.

This conflict is, of course, not specific only to AP Kids. Everyone faces betrayal and failure in high school, and everyone has to choose between the cold and the quills. The specificity of that choice in relation to AP Kids comes from their aforementioned inflated expectations of themselves. They had grown used to success in all of their endeavors, in all that they view as worthwhile. Certainly they had been taught to second-guess their work, but they had never before faced what they viewed as total failure. Their inability to connect with others on a deeper level as soon as they tried frustrated them. It compounded their insecurities, and blinded themselves to their own feelings. Their warped perceptions of what healthy relationships are supposed to look like leads them to a variety of defense mechanisms. These mechanisms define the three classifications of the AP Complex, and consequently, the three classifications of AP Kid. Each of them is defined by a specific defense mechanism they implement, and marked by different levels and types of motivation and ambition. They all share, though, the intrinsic lust for perfection and the wearing of many masks.

Class I is what many would consider to be the most “put together” of the classes. Ambition is much like a bow and arrow; in order to hit your target, you have to aim high enough and in the proper direction. Class I’s are the master archers. It is these students who were blessed with discovering their passion in life early on. Their efforts were always directed towards something tangible and long term, with college and hard work simply being a means to an end. Class I’s are approachable, friendly people whose seemingly extroverted nature wins them numerous acquaintances. That is, however, the key word: acquaintances. In actuality, these students are masters of masks and facades. Their friends see only that which they allow them to, and so, a Class I’s friendships are purposefully superficial. As the metaphorical hedgehog, they sit in the far center of a large group, gaining bits of warmth from numerous sources, but avoiding the quills altogether. This dynamic allows them to excel at their schoolwork and generally avoid the “big questions” about themselves. They derive just enough warmth and comfort from these companions to be stable, and so, they can contentedly pursue their academics with little fear of freezing. The issue arises when it is time for them to move on and for their support circle to disband. They are cast back into the cold world they sought to avoid, and are forced to confront the issues that they had so conveniently evaded.

This sudden influx of existential contemplation can be harsh and unexpected. It causes old insecurities and doubts to resurface, doubts that success and comfort had quelled, for the most part, during their tenure as high school students. By this time in others’ lives, they usually have asked themselves “who am I?” Even if they don’t yet have a concrete answer, they condition themselves to the question. In a Class I, the question is so alien to them that it itself causes more anxiety than any answer they would ascertain. However, most Class I students are exhausted of that anxiety. They have micromanaged their lives to such a degree that continuing to do so is far more painful than self-exploration. Therefore, even as they are somewhat frightened of exploring a new frontier of themselves, it is a source of untold excitement for them. Their efforts in school have given them ample opportunities, and their passion gives them direction. Although their coming years may be fraught with a level of doubt and discomfort, it will also be blessed with fulfillment and well-earned pride. The lies they told others about themselves and the masks they wore were born not out of malice, but out of necessity and confusion. Soon, their masks will give way to openness and honesty, and their superficial relationships of the past will be replaced with genuine codependences. After all, there are few challenges they cannot overcome. Their plight is a self-solving one, as they are their own solutions. I can say with much certainty that these are the people who will succeed in the world, both physically and emotionally.

My certainty in their eventual and seemingly inevitable success makes it all the more unpleasant to discuss Class II. In the same way that I would be astounded if a Class I student faced unfulfillment, I would be amazed if a Class II student did not. I say that with no spite or resentment, but unfortunately, these students can be best described with the following metaphor: when a large enough star reaches the end of its lifespan, it detonates in a supernova explosion. The fusible material collapses inwards upon itself as gravity overcomes the resistance, and the resulting conflagration annihilates anything with the bad luck to be in its way. What is left after this collapse is an inconceivably dense, lifeless, orb of matter known as a neutron star. Although the matter in the core is measured in hundreds of millions of degrees, the surface is as cold as the vacuum that surrounds it. The Class II student is, by the time they graduate, this neutron star; they are cold, distant people, incomprehensible to all those who do not inhabit their personal fabricated reality.

In the same way as the Class I, these students were always pushed towards perfection in their academics, and as with all AP students, this impetus gradually pervaded the remaining aspects of their lives. Unlike the Class I, though, this drive manifests itself not as a justification of superficiality, but as additional hedgehog quills. Whereas most AP students’ extreme motivation is, in a way, endearing, the Class II’s is nothing short of worrisome. I never had the opportunity to get close to this type of student, as it is inherently impossible. However, what I have learned from reports of others and my own distant observations, these students’ lust for perfection is more conscious. They are dangerously competitive with their academic peers, cruel to their “friends” without even realizing it, and fundamentally emotionally unstable.

These are all quills on the backs of the Class II student. The issue therein arises with that, in order to maintain their personal desire for flawlessness, they actively underestimate their imperfections. Instead of withdrawing themselves from others, they construct a reality in which their flaws are nonexistent and potencies infinite. Their acquaintances become “best friends,” their obsessions “true loves,” and their threats of violence “demonstrations of care.” Slowly but surely, they build a wall of lies. If the Class I lies to and is superficial with others, then the Class II lies to and is superficial with themselves. They convince themselves that others warm them and that their own quills cannot harm. In our reality, some of the greatest cruelties I’ve heard committed by high school students have come from this Class. Most strikingly, they are blind to these perfidies. They were not done out of malice or sadism, but out of an ignorance of what a proper relationship is. They become pathological liars. These people have irreversibly changed close, personal friends of mine, and yet, I have a great deal of pity for Class II. Their psyche is as a broken leg that was never set, and so has “healed” into a twisted, barely recognizable position. In their agony, these students told themselves that a bone of theirs could never break, and so learned to walk on what was left. They cannot be blamed for the original breakage, but what has come since is no fault but their own.

I now fear that the only remedy is a metaphorical surgery. Their reality is intrinsically fragile, as one can only ignore themselves for so long. Inevitably, someone will confront them about who they are in a way that cannot be simply written off. Their carefully constructed defensive reality will be shattered, and they will be, as with the Class I, cast back into the cold they had told themselves they were avoiding. However, I have sincere doubts that this surgery is survivable; only time will tell as to what will become of this Class of student. Nevertheless, their selfishness and weakness has hurt many during their formative years, and those people will not soon forget the betrayal. The Class II’s web of self-deceit has fashioned a person who suffers from borderline sociopathy.

Whereas Classes I and II are very black and white, successful and unsuccessful, Class III is a fascinating grey middle ground. They exist at the very top of the academic achievement ladder; they are the aforementioned valedictorians and salutatorians and Ivy Leaguers. Studying into the wee hours of the morning, checking and rechecking, doubting and redoubting. More so than the other Classes, they have been pushed and forced to succeed, praised only on perfection, if at all. They live regimented lives of rules and regulations, of strictness and censorship. That which is not essential to achieving the next level of honor roll is cast away, by both their families, and eventually, themselves. Due to their preoccupation with school-based achievements, they had little time to explore their own passions, and thus, do not believe themselves to have any. Their passion, their obsession, then, becomes schoolwork. Whereas the Class I student views college as a means to an end, i.e., a way to do what they want to do as well as they can, the Class III students consider their college to be the “end.” However, as amazing an achievement getting into Harvard or Princeton may be, without a rudder to guide the wind in their sails, it is nothing more than another institution. The majority of their effort has been put towards the achievement a gaseous, abstract goal.

Interestingly, these students will be the first to admit that disconnect. More so than anyone, they are aware of their lack of passion, and are fearful of its consequences. They doubt their own motivations in life. That is a key word for the Class III: doubt. Beyond the extents of the Class I, who is anxious rather than doubtful, and the Class II, whose reality offers no room for doubt, the Class III student is wracked by uncertainty. Their perfectionism has demanded, as have their external pressures, that they constantly check and recheck their work. A’s come to stand for adequate rather than advanced, essays are never quite good enough, and even the best test scores are paled by the so-called “requirements.” Self-doubt, then, is inevitable, along with feelings of inadequacy.

As early as sixth grade, it is possible to see this doubt ebbing its way into their psyche. If raised religiously, they begin to doubt their faith. If they have a crush on someone, they begin to doubt why. When they begin to experience deeper emotions, they doubt both their capacity to do so. Their natural intelligence mixes with constant questioning, forcing themselves to prematurely ask the same questions and seek the same answers that Classes I and II avoid. These questions are not easy, and at the age they begin, there are no answers to them. Few people know who and why they are by the end of college. To seek that same answer before high school has even ended is a fruitless endeavor. At the same time they do this, their lives are inundated with schoolwork and obligations that cut their remaining childhood short. They retreat into the only thing they have any certainty about: schoolwork. They learn to take comfort in its dullness, in its inanity, in its relative simplicity. Unlike passive existential self-interrogation, schoolwork can be improved through sheer will and application of effort. It is something that is easily quantifiable; it comes with rubrics and study guides and review books. As stressful as it can get, it is also consistent and reliably challenging. Although they at times resent the monotony, they also revel in the straightforwardness of it. It is one of the few things they only casually doubt.

The doubt, though, remains. When it comes time for them to create friends and build relationships, a whole new range of qualms and insecurities sprout. They are told, as everyone is, that friends are important, that emotional intimacy and mutual benefit are necessary for fulfillment. And so, they venture out to seek out their fellow hedgehogs, to gain warmth, not out of any acute fear of the cold, but because they wanted to be “normal.” Early betrayals, though, convince some of them that even perfection isn’t worth the sting of the quills. Others spend so much time being introspective, and so wallow in contemplation of their own existence that they have no time for others. Either way, the result is students who, in a combination of Class I and II, build facades for others to behold and gradually begins to take some sense of personal comfort in that very portico. To those who are fooled by it, they seem “friendly enough, if a little shy.” To those who can sense the lie but not see through it, they are cold and withdrawn: inhuman, even. Although the Class I appreciates the effects of their lies, they do not take comfort in their deceit. They enjoy the byproducts of superficiality, from what causality avoids rather than actual superficiality. The Class III, though, enjoys the actual transparency. For them, friendships are just one more thing to think about, one more variable in their already overly byzantine lives. They are exhausted of the existential anxieties, of the duplicity concerning the origins surrounding their motivations and, most of all, of the constant, ceaseless doubt.

On one hand, they detest the monikers bestowed upon them by their peers. These labels are shallow, based only on the students’ academics and external traits. No one wants to be branded only as “the guy who’s going to Harvard” or “the girl with all the perfect scores.” And yet, at the same time, the Class III student appreciates the excuse it offers; in their minds, this near dehumanization justifies their introversion. However, when people who truly care about them come along, people who are aware of the fasciae and want to wash it away, a Class III doesn’t know how to react. They themselves are so withdrawn, and their emotions are so underdeveloped and underexplored that they have tremendous difficulty accepting others’ amity. Over this, they feel guilty, and as annoyed as they get at these people for reaching out, they become far more upset at themselves. Their guilt turns again to doubt, this time concerning their very capacity to feel. They convince themselves of their own despondency, of their “love” becoming “affection” and their “hate” becoming “aversion.” Growing to either resent those who fight for them, or fortify their facades in order to fool them, their doubt and loneliness condense until it is accepted as simply unavoidable.

Despite what they may believe, though, hope is not lost. Beneath their introversion, many others and I see their still thriving compassion. I, for one, am certain that their doubt is a product of external stimulus rather than any objective truth. I have, over this year, seen in their actions and in their eyes the extent of their humanity. The Class III students think they lack something intrinsic within; I maintain that there is excess. The solution for their dilemma, then, is not to be found within themselves, but through others. Introspection has won them only strife and doubt, while those that they have allowed “in” have brought them true happiness. I do not suggest reckless trust, as the bite of the quill is real and common. But them continuing to crawl into their hole for the rest of their lives is one of my greatest fears. They may be unsure of where their arrow of ambition will land them, and they may always be cautious around others, but even pain is preferable to stagnation. I articulated earlier that I am unsure of how and where they will come to rest; it is, after all, up to them. While Class I and II’s futures are somewhat set in stone, Class III stands at the crossroads. One path leads to the farce they have wrapped themselves in. The lies of omission and the existential uncertainty will eat away at them until they become what they fear most of all: unequivocally ignorant. The other, brighter path leads to, all triteness aside, salvation. As they remove their masks, so too they remove the veils. Fear will no longer govern their lives, and the doubts they face will be replaced with honest pride in themselves. For now, they may feel as robots or third person spectators of their own lives, but that too will pass. The answers to their questions, about who and even why they are, were previously out of reach. Now, though, as they receive their diploma and Pomp and Circumstance plays, those answers are attainable, and I believe they will be surprised at how optimistic they are.

It is said that friendship resembles a window, in that it’s easy to overlook. After all, glass is clear and passive, only offering us an easier look into a world that would otherwise be obscured by wall. How often do we truly gaze at our windows, in appreciation of the glass rather than the view it offers? I would hazard to say rarely, if ever. Yet, sometimes, and seemingly at random, the sight we see beyond the window is so strikingly sublime, so utterly transcendent that we have no choice but to thank the window, simply for not being wall. In truth, friendship is as a window because your perspective influences its reality. Each of these Class’s perspectives concerning friendship and emotional intimacy is warped; each are unique in their own spikey, hedgehog-esque way. Despite this, though, they have persevered. Even Class II, who no one can be sure about, has survived their time as an AP Kid. For better or for worse, that label now too has fallen away. Before them lies the opportunities they have earned, the answers they have sought, and the comfort they so deserve. For above all else, and before all else, every AP Kid is an AP Human. And for me, and for those who truly care about them, that rings true. I can only hope that they ask themselves the questions they want, find the answers they have sought, and learn to be open and honest with themselves and others. One way or another, these students are the future; I for one hope they let us join them.
This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright 2012, 2013 by Alex Holzman aka alexh

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