Stepping Stones

Harry Cheung

Published Winter 2021

Silence falls over the auditorium as a lone boy steps in front of the microphone. Stared down by the audience like a pack of hungry wolves, he nervously grips his only ally, a set of hastily made cue cards. It is orientation day, and I am about to deliver a speech to become a future student council representative. Hundreds of students stand before me, as eager as I was to leave behind their past and start anew in their first year of high school. I wanted nothing more than to believe that everything was going to be alright. Yet even amidst cheers and applause from the audience, it was clear to me that something was very wrong. That day, those doubts would begin a slow but methodical assault that would permanently seal my fate.

High school is a crucial rite of passage for any teenager to traverse, not just for necessity, but to determine your future in life. It is a place of trials, learning, and growth, but also the revelation of a cruel society that only values what you can offer to the status quo.

Before Waterloo, I came from a prestigious high school that is consistently ranked by the Simon Fraser Institute as one of the top schools in the province every year. When your school has the funds and subsidies to afford the brightest teachers, the newest classrooms, and the latest equipment, these students can often go on to become very famous or successful. It is no surprise that the school receives hundreds of transfers every year; everyone wants to attend a reputable school famed throughout the province for its success.

I am friends with a vast number of students there who are downright obsessed with their grades. When you live in a city filled with affluent upper-middle-class families, it’s hard to miss the connection between the students and the absurd amount of privilege wafting throughout the school. Their parents will spare no expense to ensure their precious jewels succeed in a school brimming with limitless potential. Private tutors? Expensive field trips? High-end gadgets? Consider it done. Though they are ambitious, motivated, and extremely talented, the relationships I have with my former colleagues are strictly professional for good reasons. In the academic cult known as Utopian Secondary School, not one day passes without someone shrieking about how the latest assessment dropped their 98 by a single percentage. With their comfortable and luxurious backgrounds, I find myself more often than not shaking my head in disgust because I know that they don’t live in the constant fear of being unable to achieve the heights that everyone else expects you to meet. You’re spoiled to the core. I get it.

After all, they need that small margin to get an acceptance for a competitive STEM or business program at a major university. Though a few deviate and pick alternatives such as college or the military, the majority of students usually choose from the same set of first-rate and second-rate universities: Waterloo. UofT. McMaster. Western. The ambitious ones shoot for UBC or one in the U.S. Everyone wants to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or any career with a six-figure salary because those are the lucrative jobs that offer stability and high income.

Unbeknownst to my peers, I am an imposter. As an only child, I am the one chance my parents have of making sure their efforts to immigrate to Canada was a worthwhile endeavor. We are far from well-off, so they work tirelessly to pay the bills and make ends meet while I must study and ensure their efforts don’t go to waste. The only time we reconvene is at the dinner table, and most times, not everyone can make it. We sit down and eat in silence.

My parents want me to be successful in life. In blunt Asian terms, this means getting a good degree, finding a well-paying job, and escaping the lower-middle-class hell we’ve been stuck in for years. They want to mold me into society’s ideal version of an obedient servant.

But that’s not what I want. I don’t want to confine myself to a desk for eight hours a day, five days a week, living on a paycheck. I want to object, to refuse a destiny that so blatantly goes against everything I hold dear. But I can’t say no because I was never given much choice in the first place. Not right now, anyway. I desperately cry out for help, but no one comes to my aid.

With almost no options left, I am trapped. Everything suffocates me all at once. The ridiculous standards set by my peers. The expectations of my waiting parents. The society that wants me to conform to its norms at all costs. The doubts that manifested within me so long ago have become a psychological monster that threatened to tear me apart.

As a last resort, I retreat towards my only salvation: my fascination with world-building and storytelling. Drawn into a world of possibilities, I tried to read as much literary fiction, historical works, or even video game plots I could find. I spent countless hours escaping the nine-to-five grind to embark on a grand adventure to worlds unknown and slay dragons, conquer kingdoms, or wield magic. Between the work, stress, and deadlines, the mysterious realms became a fortress of solitude from the constant assault of an unforgiving reality.

But I am not an Italian plumber destined to save the princess in another castle, a knight fighting to save a magical realm from a great evil, or even a wizard prodigy attending Hogwarts. Despite the namesake, I am just an ordinary teenager who hates having to grow up. Dreaming about a better life will never get you any food on the table or a roof over your head. It only awards you with a cold hard slap from reality. And so, with the help of countless supportive teachers, I dove into the last alternative that almost no one would ever expect: the classroom.

I immersed myself in learning as much as I could about humans and society. This time, I wasn’t looking for the highest marks; I was looking for the solution to create a world without conflict, one with equitable standards of living, and one where I could decide the kind of legacy I wanted to create. I refused to drown in my prime while there was at least a glimmer of hope.

I explored the ancient civilizations of long ago and of their uneasy cooperation to survive what the vast world had decided to throw at them. I learned about various world issues and humanitarian aid efforts working to alleviate crises around the globe. I imagined what it would be like to play politics and be the leader of an influential country, speaking to an assembly of UN delegates on the international stage. I combed through the teachings of famous philosophers such as John Locke and his beliefs in the fundamental human rights of life, liberty, and property.

I always hear the grown-ups say we are lucky to be living in the 21st century because our development and progress have allowed for dramatically improved standards of living. While that is true, today’s young people are inheriting a world riddled with systemic issues left and right. And unfortunately, our world leaders still foolishly believe sending thoughts and prayers will solve the wealth divide, the gender gap, the climate crisis. It has been without a doubt that these past few years have been disastrous. Police brutality. Stagnating wages. Climate change. I can only watch helplessly as the world around me begins to collapse at an accelerated pace.

As much as I wished for change, the world does not revolve around anyone. Was it even possible for everyone to have the bare necessities and successfully pursue their dreams? How could we convince our governments to work together and equitably help those in need? And what about people like Jeff Bezos who seek to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of others? As the questions endlessly piled up, the number of realistic answers to a broken world remained pitifully small. The future I desperately sought seemed increasingly out of reach.

Eventually, the coping mechanism that has kept me sane for so long begins to crack. Unlike fairytales, there are no happy endings. I grow jaded and cynical. I still try to look for the best in people, but sometimes, your best isn’t enough. Something always goes wrong. No matter how hard you try. For some reason, I keep fighting. At this point, I’m not even sure if it is out of desperation, stubbornness or sheer resilience. The odds are slim, but I keep searching anyway.

Silence falls over an empty school building. The pandemic has shut down everything, including the education system, but life moves on. We quietly go our separate ways. The vast majority of my graduating class leave to study at top universities, save for a few niche interests.

I have gone under the radar and cut myself off from almost everyone I knew. Except for a select few, I haven’t breathed a word about my program or scholarship to anyone.

In light of this assignment, I dug out a similar essay I wrote for my high school AP English teacher several years prior. On the last page is a comment written in a bold blue pen that reads, “I think you must form deep attachments, Harry.” Since then, I have written enough essays and articles to fill several dozen binders. After all this time, I think I can finally give a response.

My highschool experiences are bittersweet. Regardless of my resentments, I have been blessed with an education that many others could not hope to receive, yet I am directly complicit in the injustices that lurk within our society and education system. I haven’t learnt to make deep attachments because I can’t. Someone else will always need help. I have to keep fighting. Not just for me, or my friends, or my family, but for everyone. For a better life. For a better future.

No one else has the power to control what kind of legacy you want to create during your lifetime. Your future is ultimately decided by you, your outlook on life, and the choices you make. If anyone in your life, whether it be your friends or family, thinks they have the right to dictate how you should spend the rest of your life, kindly tell them to screw off on my behalf. — Harry Cheung

Cheung is in their 1st year of Geomatics at the University of Waterloo. You can find him on Instagram at @harryzc68.