a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.
Joan Didion, Goodbye to All That.
We entered art school at fourteen, and though we were young, many of us saw the end of our lives right then and there, staring us down on the path ahead of us.
When I entered art school at fourteen, I was enamored by the energy surrounding me. I
wore a tank top and green pants with my favorite pair of Docs, but it did not take me long to
notice that everyone else owned this outfit as well. We were held in a building with high ceilings
and large windows; bits of the world could seep inside the place. Down the hall, I could see kids
rehearsing for a musical, and I could hear the orchestra playing up the stairs.
Many of my peers were similarly struck by these glimpses of stardom, because, in art
school, we felt like we had the potential to do big things. At only fourteen, we could start a band,
write a play, and shoot a film. We had the accessibility of New York City and the convenience of
talent at our disposal.
I remember being astonished by the seniors when I was a freshman in art school. These
were girls I followed on Instagram that worked at overpriced vintage stores in SoHo, and
modeled in their free time. The kid next to me had famous parents, which is how I learned that
nepotism seemed to always come with expensive pairs of sneakers, and my Docs were, once
again, lame in comparison. These girls were seventeen and infinitely cooler than most of the
adults in my life, and quickly became my idols. They were so close to being a New York City
success story, and being in their proximity daily made me fourteen and closer to a success story
of my own.
Now, I enter art school at the age of seventeen a few mornings a week, and I wave hello to
the security guards, and (if I’m lucky) I have enough time to stop at the Starbucks across the
street. My teacher occasionally looks away from his work, checking to see if one of his students
has entered the premises.
It’s a couple of years later, and the ceilings are not any taller than they were a few years ago.
The windows are still there, but they need to be cleaned, and there isn’t much natural light– it has
been raining the past few days.
There was plenty of sunshine throughout my high school experience, but entering art school
was rigorous. I was fairly prepared, as my childhood laid out a crippling workload for most of
my young life. I went to acting classes when I was nine because it was something to do, and
there were classes a few blocks over. I signed with an agent because they saw me perform in a
drama class when I was eleven– because New York is the kind of a place where rigor can come
I had been in love with art school, but it was a young love, and with that came the naivety,
oblivion, anxiety, jealousy, and absolute euphoria of it all. Art school was something I could run
around and tell people I was a part of, and my family members in the Midwest would be excited,
and when I told people I had auditioned for the shows and movies they were watching they
would congratulate me– but only for a second before telling me it was “such a shame” that I
didn’t book it. And, because I was in love, it was harder to see the anguish of it all because at the
end of the day the music was absolutely deafening and the art my friends made was
drop-dead-gorgeous. I had pals that were TikTok famous, and that had to count for something,
When I look past the days in the rooftop garden and the orchestra’s afternoon symphonies, I
can see that when I was fourteen and entered art school, I was convinced I hadn’t done enough. I
was one step past thirteen, sure that I would never succeed because I hadn’t booked a role in two
years. Because I am now seventeen, I know this was a ridiculous expectation to have set for
myself. I had already made it further than many artists ever had the chance to travel, and entering
art school was only my first step in the marathon of becoming a “real” artist. But, in art school,
everyone was as good as I was, and we were all similar in the sense that everyone had piles of
homework and hours of rehearsal; it was just the way life was.
Many of my peers are self-proclaimed “gifted-burnout kids”: children who grew up
talented, but struggled to maintain the titles they received when they were only six or seven in an
elementary school honors program. Generation Z is an existential group of adolescents, many of
whom feel like they have the rest of their lives planned out. Maybe it’s because we all chose
career paths when we applied for an art school with a predetermined major at thirteen.
We live in a world where many teens feel the need to accomplish a lot at a ridiculously
young age, as though we don’t have the rest of our lives to win a Pulitzer Prize or land a gig on
Broadway. Maybe it’s because we are a generation named after the last letter of the alphabet; it is
logical to think that the world will end with us. The reality is that instead of looking at the course
ahead, many of us feel we must turn and look behind ourselves, trying to predict who is going to
win, and who is going to finish last.
There is something to be said about peaking in high school, as lately, it’s become the norm.
Generation Z has dared to dodge around suburban house parties and being on the football team–
as there are always internships to compete for, competitions to enter, followers to gain, and roles
to be cast. The average Ivy League applicant has more than ten extracurricular activities to list on
their Common Application, leaving little time to do much else.
In my experience, my peers overcompensated in the free-time that they do have. In a society
in which we are expected to achieve mature things at a young age, other elements of maturity
trickle in faster. When teenagers crave a quick solution to their mature struggles, they turn to
mature solutions, and therein lies the catch. These success stories may have just as quick of a
turnaround, as almost ten percent of my art school’s graduating class have left before reaching
their senior year.
At first, I was intimidated by the people surrounding me, as I was sure my peers would be
my competition. Having unlimited talented people at my disposal implied that my own talent
was disposable, and could expire in any instant. However, another benefit to attending a school
of gifted kids is that we are all united in a common struggle– being artists. We had come together
as music ensembles, theater companies, and art collectives to work on things together, something
I did not really think about when entering art school.
I am seventeen and I am about to graduate art school. And, even now, I’m hesitant to admit
that I am not the star of my school play, I barely pass my gym class each marking period, and,
honestly, it’s a miracle when I make it to school on time. I am no longer an actor outside of
school. Instead of rushing between auditions and classes, I have learned the necessity of taking
care of myself. I spend time with my friends, building human connections while I have the
chance. I have great grades, read books, and write poetry that I (mostly) enjoy reading. My day is
full of tiny victories, like when I perfectly cook a waffle in the morning, and when the boy I sit
next to laughs at my jokes.
Love looks different to people as they age. When talking about New York, Joan Didion said
that there is “no love like your first love,” and in part, I think that is true. I don’t think I can ever
look back at art school and not see the classroom symphonies, the excitement of being the lead in
my school play last year, and getting to say I know a girl that is going to win an Oscar some day.
But, maturing means recognizing flaws, taking off rose-colored glasses, and having to stare
down the misshapen, ugly hues, all while noting the obstacles in our path. My art school is
nothing without the people it produced, and the things we learned from being there.
I have not, by any means, peaked in high school. While I do know plenty of stars and
success stories, I am learning to look at the road ahead, and complete the metaphorical marathon
I started a few years ago– because, even if I do not come out in first place, it’s pretty cool to be
able to say I have the stamina needed to run 26 miles. Art school was exciting to enter, and
possibly even more exciting to finish.
Generation Z is full of ambitious adolescents: a culmination of the generations before us,
carrying the burdens of each in overstuffed backpacks and packed calendars. More importantly,
Generation Z is passionate, and rises to the challenges they face with bigger solutions. We see
each other accomplish great things, and, in turn, we realize that those things are achievable for
I’ve learned to take my time, soaking in the things I love, rather than rushing through
without really savoring the good parts. I have realized that while my peers and I are at the end of
the alphabet, we are the beginning of a new Renaissance or artistic movement, full of part-time
artists and Twitter poets. I know now that it is unfair to assume that things will end with us, as
we start new projects each day when asking questions, challenging others, and creating things
that have never been made before. In my art school, I continue to meet new people with handfuls
of ideas, looking to grow from what we experience. Sometimes, those ideas are complete
bullshit, but other times, they’re pure magic.
Now, we are seventeen, preparing to leave art school. Some happy, some somber– all of us
changed. We have entered our second semester, getting ready to say goodbye to the place where
we developed ourselves as artists and, more importantly, as people. The front steps will never
forget the weight of our footsteps, the tears and triumphs, and days of rain and sun. A few years
ago, I would enter the school building thinking that these would be the greatest days of my life–
but now, I’m not too sure. I am looking forward to crossing the finish line.
Dylan Rae Sherman is a 17 year old writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Dylan writes in various mediums, with a focus on writing stories that reflect girlhood in the 21st century. Dylan will be attending NYU Tisch in the fall as a dramatic writing BFA student, with an anticipated double major in journalism at the College of Arts and Sciences
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.