High School Confidential
What’s on kids’ minds as a new year begins? BERGEN wondered—and we found out.
The panel of a dozen experts we convened to explore high schoolers’ experience and views is short on graduate degrees, but on-scene knowledge they’ve got. They’re Bergen teens:
AIMEE Gershberg, 17, Pascack Hills, Class of ’19
ALEXANDER Chu, 16, River Dell, Class of ’19
CAROLINE Martin, 17, Northern Highlands Regional, ’19
CHRISTIAN La Monica, 16, Bergen Catholic, ’19
ERIC Rudzin, 16, Northern Valley Regional at Old Tappan, ’19
HALEY Kresch, 17, Northern Highlands Regional, ’19
JAKE Rosenzweig, 17, Northern Valley Regional at Old Tappan, ’19
JEFFREY Castellano, 16, Ramsey, ’19 KELLY Keenan, 17, Northern Highlands Regional, ’19
LAUREN Losak, 17, Pascack Hills, ’19 MARIO Giordano, 16, Ridgefield Memorial, ’20
NASIM Warren, 17, Ramsey, ’19
What’s been the best part of your high school experience?
AIMEE: The opportunities, because there are so many cool things you can do. At my school we can take a class called Research and Molecular Genetics, where you get to do things you’d normally do in a college-level course.
LAUREN: I think it’s the experiences we get. I take Chinese, and last year I got to go to Taiwan, and I had an exchange student come live with me, which was really cool.
ERIC: I take Japanese. We’re offered an 11-day trip to Japan and China over the summer. When I was in Japan, I stayed with a host family. The culture is very different. Everyone’s a lot more polite. And there are, like, no garbage cans. It’s very clean there.
JEFFREY: Extracurricular activities. I’m involved with marching band, band, chorus, drama and other clubs, and I feel like I’ve made many friends through all of that.
ALEXANDER: I’d say it’s the freedom to choose your classes. You usually have to take specific classes in middle school, but once you get to high school you can choose.
What’s been the most challenging thing about high school?
JEFFREY: Bouncing off what I just said, with all the things I do, high school is a lot more work: homework and essays and taking APs [advanced placement exams]. It’s just balancing it all and then, on top of it, trying to have a social life when every day I have something to do after school and homework and then the college application process starts and then you’re just swamped with everything at once.
Do you feel you have balance in your lives?
MARIO: It’s always like “there’s something I have to do in a month.” But you have three tests the next day so you obviously have to study and then that gets pushed off. Obviously at some point, you have to sit down and say “OK, I’m going to do this right now” and just finish it. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at that.
LAUREN: What I do that helps a lot, and this is going to sound a little crazy, but I made a calendar and sent it to all my friends, and we put everything that we all have planned. I may section off days when I know I’m going to have a hard testing week, but then on that weekend I know I can go out and relax.
CAROLINE: I feel like there’s no such thing as having balance, because there’s no way you can get eight hours of sleep a night, do all of your homework, study for all of your tests, hang out with your friends, go to all your sports practices, go to all your club practices—there’s actually not enough hours in the day. You have to pick what’s most important to you. And sometimes you’ll let the other stuff fall.
We read a lot about bullying. Does it happen in your school?
KELLY: A lot of people see it as a physical thing, but at my school it’s a lot more than that, especially for girls. It’s with social media and stuff. It’s making people feel like they don’t belong, but not in a direct way. It’s making sure someone isn’t included in something and then posting about it. It’s not just going up to someone and being like, “Oh, I hate you.” It’s not as much confrontational; it’s subtle.
JAKE: Nobody thinks they’re bullied and nobody thinks they’re friends with bullies, so everyone kind of lets it happen. When you look at somebody making one of those jokes about feminism or being vegan, people just assume that nobody’s hurt, so nobody even wants to step in because they know the person making the comment will just come right back at them and say, “I’m just joking.”
HALEY: With my close friends, I’m going to call them out because I know they’re not going to judge me for calling them out. But sometimes, with sports and stuff, I’ll hear girls talking about someone else, and I want to say something but I don’t because they’ll start talking about me. So it’s kind of “Am I willing to have someone talk about me to defend another person?”
Top row: Jeffrey Castellano, Ramsey; Nasim Warren, Ramsey; Christian La Monica, Bergen Catholic. Second row: Kelly Keenan, Northern Highlands; Jake Rosenzweig, Northern Valley at Old Tappan; Aimee Gershberg, Pascack Hills. Third row: Eric Rudzin, Northern Valley at Old Tappan; Lauren Losak, Pascack Hills; Mario Giordano, Ridgefield. Bottom row: Caroline Martin, Northern Highlands; Alexander Chu, River Dell; Haley Kresch, Northern Highlands.
ERIC: Within my close group of friends, things are very direct. With me personally, if I’m unhappy with something someone’s doing, I’ll tell him directly to his face. And I find that if someone’s close to me, other friends will defend me. But if it’s at school and it’s people we’re not really close with, I find that a lot of comments like bullying are very indirect.
LAUREN: I think it’s more behind the back, posting it. Whether it’s beauty standards, planning, friend groups—or politics.
Speaking of politics, the political climate in the country right now seems to be filtering into the social norms of high schools. Is there political bullying?
JEFFREY: At my school there is a really big divide. For example, a lot of us in Ramsey were in school for the school walkout, and there were around 60 of us who walked down Main Street. Then there was a lot of clap-back from people that were against it. There are people calling people names in the hallway because of it. People make fun of people for being a Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative. On either side, people don’t want to associate anymore with other people they might not agree with politically.
NASIM: I feel everyone’s opinion should be respected. You shouldn’t be pushing your views onto anyone else. Sure, you might not agree with them, but that doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to make fun of someone.
MARIO: I led a pro-Second Amendment walkout, and I went in front of the student council and I explained where I was coming from. I got a lot of hate immediately from, like, a teacher: “Oh, is this going to be some redneck rally?” I said, “no, I’m saying we need to look at our rights and show that we believe in them as students.” And even as I was putting up posters, trying to put the word out, posters got torn down.
CAROLINE: I went to the Women’s March with my mom and I posted a picture on Instagram of me at the march. In my opinion the post was very “This is me and my mom at the Women’s March minding my own business.” And a boy commented on the post with vulgar jokes that I’m not going to say. It was just saying things like “You’re a crazy feminist.” Then there was a joke about feminists and, um, he called me a Nazi.
KELLY: With our grade, for the boys at least, it’s more toward [that is, against] liberal people. I don’t know why, but they kind of attack you, especially individual girls. I know there’s this one girl in our grade who is a vegan and she’s very liberal. I’ve seen boys just constantly going after her, even though she’s minding her own business. And even on Instagram, people don’t want to listen to each other or respect each other’s opinions. They just want to yell their own opinions at other people.
Let’s talk about drugs and alcohol.
MARIO: So Juuling [that is, vaping with a product that resembles a flash drive and is chargeable in a laptop USB port] is really bad. Really bad.
ALL: [Chime in agreeing.]
LAUREN: I once walked into the bathroom and there was a huge cloud of smoke, and I just walked right out. We were on a field trip with the foreign exchange students and the teacher caught a student and she’s like, “What is that?” He says, “It’s my inhaler.” And he starts pretending it’s his inhaler for asthma. She’s like, “OK” Or another time she walks by and he’s like, “It’s cold outside.” He just blows it out.
HALEY: We’ve had multiple fire drills because kids were Juuling and it got into the vents.
JEFFREY: We’re the generation that’s trying to end smoking. Everyone would agree no one here wants to smoke cigarettes. But everywhere, everyone’s vaping. I think people would rather smoke weed or drink alcohol than smoke cigarettes. Everyone thinks that that’s, like, the worst thing you could do.
MARIO: It’s very widespread. People I wouldn’t think of doing it are. I literally walked into the bathroom and some guys were like, “You have a Juul?” Being on student council, I’d hope others would think more highly of me.
What about alcohol?
LAUREN: Juuling happens more often, but there still are those parties you see on the weekends where kids black out drunk throwing up all over the place.
CHRISTIAN: It’s funny because kids don’t know their limits. They shouldn’t even know their limits. They shouldn’t even try it until it’s legal, but I mean they’re a bunch of idiots.
JEFFREY: I feel like everyone in high school is going to try something. It’s knowing your own comfort levels and knowing that if you’re being peer-pressured, you’re not going to do that. It’s about knowing that you’re around people you know if you decide to try something. But in the end, you’re in high school. You’re going to try things.
JAKE: People think that if the older kids are doing it, it’s OK, and that’s why I think Juuling has become a problem with eighth graders. They’re like, “My older brother’s doing it!” “My older cousin’s doing it!” So freshmen are coming into high school and hearing about their senior friends drinking or going to a party or something and then they think it’s perfectly OK because they’re going to the same school. They don’t understand that they’re much younger and they’re still growing up.
CAROLINE: Obviously, alcohol makes you do dumb things. If there is a girl or a guy who does something stupid at a party while they’re drunk, I can guarantee that 10 people will capture it on video or take a picture. There was an incident in my school where a girl got a little too drunk at a party and there was a picture and her skirt was up and it was on everybody’s phone in the next 48 hours. She doesn’t even remember it.
JEFFREY: People are maturing at a much faster rate because they’re seeing everything posted online. When I was in sixth grade, I barely knew anything, and I see the sixth graders now and they’re talking about, like, drinking and smoking and drugs.
Medicinal marijuana is legal in the state of New Jersey, and recreational adult use is being considered. What’s the attitude about that in your schools?
CHRISTIAN: Everything’s going to go downhill very soon. All these kids are just going to be like, “Can you get me some because it’s going to be recreationally legal?” This whole state is going to reek.
KELLY: I think that it’s not, like, a terrible idea just because in my opinion, at least at my high school, if people want to smoke, they’re gonna smoke weed. It’s really not that difficult to get it. I know a lot of people do it, so legalizing it is really just going to cause it to be more regulated. I think even if it was legal, it wouldn’t be legal for our age. No matter what, kids are going to do it. It’s important to do our best to make it as safe as possible.
JAKE: In general kids, just want to rebel. So if they know it’s legal, especially people who are 21, I just think it can keep it more regulated, as you said. It’s not going to be a rebellious act. Therefore it might just, you know, decrease in popularity or not become such a big deal.
CAROLINE: But if Jake’s right and it decreases because kids don’t want to do it anymore because it is legal, would kids move on to something worse? Is there a lot of weed in your school? ALL: YES! Let’s talk about competition and how cutthroat it gets. What about competition among you and your friends for roles in plays, for class rank, for coveted positions?
ALEXANDER: I’m not sure about sports, but I know for academics, everyone kind of tries to help each other. But when it comes to tests, everyone’s always trying to one-up each other. Who got the better score? Who has a better average? And then when SATs come around, everyone’s asking, “What did you get?”
Do people share their SAT scores?
ALL: Yes. But they lie.
AIMEE: It’s not that they don’t want to share their scores. It’s more that they don’t want to share their goal.
JEFFREY: At my school, it’s very competitive. I’m not even in the top 10, but I still have above a 4.0. Honestly, I don’t care about my rank as long as I’m happy with my grades and how I’m doing personally. If people want to know my rank, I’m OK with telling them because I don’t see it as that big of a deal. I was absent from school that day when ranks came out and people were texting me in group chats because they wanted to figure out who was in the top 10.
NASIM: I don’t know why everyone’s so obsessed with rank at our school. I’ve told people my rank and they all ask, “How are you so high?” People get jealous and I don’t get why. You should be happy with your grades if you’re putting your best effort in.
LAUREN: I think it’s actually competitive by grade; it’s more where you go to college. I have friends who are applying to Cornell but aren’t telling anyone because they don’t want anyone else to apply. If you ask them where are you applying, they’ll say, “Oh, I don’t feel like sharing,” because they don’t want people to be like, “I want to go there too.” People don’t want to compete for spots.
How prevalent is cheating?
CHRISTIAN: My friend had his friend take his religion final for him because he had no idea what he was doing. It was on an iPad, and the teacher left the room and he exchanged iPads.
MARIO: I think it’s more the higher-class kids in honors. There are different honors periods, so the people who take the test first take pictures of a test and send them to friends.
CAROLINE: If you have a test first period, it’s expected that you get attacked with questions.
AIMEE: People that have it in the morning, at lunch there’s like a whole table and everyone just talks about the test and they write down the questions. But if you don’t share, then people will wonder why you’re not telling them.
LAUREN: A lot of people don’t share because why should you have an advantage that I didn’t. A lot of my friends and I don’t talk about tests after we take them.
JEFFREY: Sometimes I don’t get home till 11 at night after rehearsals and clubs. Then I realize I have to write and do math homework. I’m going to have to be like, “Can you send me the math homework?” I don’t do it all the time. But there are nights where literally, if you want to sleep at all, you’re going to have to, like, get a little help.
What stresses you out most?
CHRISTIAN: My parents being able to see my grades and not understanding the system. There are little dashes because the grade hasn’t been put in [the online portal]. They’re like, “You have a zero for this!” I’m like, “Mom, the grade is due in a week.” And then I have to make up a test and the teacher will put a 1 out of 100, and my mom will ask what that is. Do you not understand that I just told you I have to make it up?
JEFFREY: They think a zero means you failed, but the teachers just haven’t put the grade in yet.
CAROLINE: My mom is the complete opposite of that. She’s like, “I don’t want to know the password. It’s all up to you.” She’s like, “High school is your time to figure yourself out. If you decide you’re going to be the kid who doesn’t want to do your homework, then, fine, you’re gonna get those grades and you’re gonna get whatever job you get. It’s your time to choose your path.”
ERIC: Personally I feel like most of my stress comes from myself. My parents kind of taught me to just do what I’m happy with. But I think I’m very self-motivated. I am unhappy with myself if I do badly on something. Having the freedom in high school to do what you want, I try to balance my social life and my school life.
KELLY: My mom is a teacher, so she doesn’t really put a lot of stress on me because I think she realizes you can’t force your kids to do stuff. I don’t really have a lot of stress there. For me it’s just the future in general. And just everything with test scores. My mom was, “Oh, just do your best.” And I went into high school with that mindset. But then I came to the realization that college is really expensive. I want to go to a good college if I want to do all these things I set out to do. You can’t just try your best—it’s got to be “Go above and beyond.”
ALEXANDER: My dad’s a teacher, and I had a class with him this past year. Sometimes he’d say things like, “You got this grade, and these people did better than you.” It’s stressful but it motivates me to do better.
JAKE: Time management is my biggest stress because whether or not I make the right sacrifices is a big internal problem. I want to go out and hang with my friends, but if I know that I have a paper due in the next month why not get ahead—and that’s what kind of stresses me the most, because a lot of times I want to make the more fun choice. But then while I’m doing that, I’m stressing out about it the whole entire time, wondering if I made the right decision.
JEFFREY: Since I want to go into musical theater, not only do you have to apply to the schools and audition, but each school accepts maybe five to 10 guys. Then I have family members who are like, “You’re a smart kid. Why are you wasting your brain like that?” It causes me stress because I know that if it doesn’t work out and I fail, they’re going to be on me. It pushes me to want to do more.
HALEY: I know I want to play my sport in college, so I need to decide which school that will be. But I have no idea what I want to do. Last week I thought I wanted to be a chef. But I don’t know if they have sports at the culinary institute. So it’s stressful because I feel where I go determines the rest of my life.
AIMEE: For me I think it’s probably my peers that stress me out the most. Not directly, but because they all know exactly where they want to go and what they want to be and they have all the scores and everything and they’re doing so well on these tests and stuff. And I’m, for some things, not doing as well as them or I don’t have everything figured out.
LAUREN: I think with each year I was stressed out from different things. Freshman year I was more stressed out about going to a new school, having a certain friend group and looking a certain way. Now I think it’s a combination of two things. Day to day, it’s more of getting the assignments done. It’s more of getting into the school I want and if it’s affordable. I want to go to med school—I’m going to be a child psychiatrist. I don’t want to be stuck going to a school that’s $80,000 a year and then have to go to med school and have to pay that off. But we spend so much time trying to finish our work, trying to get the best grades, that I feel we forget that we’re still teenagers. We shouldn’t be stressing out every single day.
WHERE DO KIDS GO WHEN THEY’RE NOT IN SCHOOL? According to our group, they grab late night ice cream, hang out at The Ridge Diner in Park Ridge, find quick eats at Poke Crew in Englewood and shop at Hazel Boutique in Ramsey.