Rainbow Scales and Special Leaves


Some thoughts on childhood, stress, and college.




Recently, I’ve been living for these text posts that I see on my social media feeds all the time. They’re like concentrated shots of relatable content that I can take less than five seconds to swallow. Sometimes they burn on the way down. Sometimes they leave an aftertaste. The really good ones leave me breathless for hours from laughing – or crying. Maybe it’s because I’m a lightweight when it comes to the truth.


The other day I saw a post about children’s books that really messed me up. Specifically, it was a tumblr post about feelings of anxiety that people got as children while being read books like The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister and The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The post basically boiled down to the idea that children are often taught to feel guilty if they don’t want to share – especially the gifted ones, who are encouraged to share more than just their toys with the other children. It got me thinking about how a lot of my childhood was about mandatory selflessness. I was always expected to help the other students with their work when I was done with mine. I was told to be a role model for the other kids, the shining example of what happens when you play by the rules and read every day. It was no different for me at home, where I was the big sister who was expected to lead by example, to help my younger brothers and sisters with everything from doing their homework to tying their shoelaces.


“Sharing is caring.”

“Be the example.”

“You have to be a role model for the other kids.”


These are the phrases that ring in my head when I think about elementary school and middle school. I have to wonder if other Harvard students grew up hearing similar phrases. I have to wonder if saying these things to children is actually good for them.


It seems to me that asking any child to serve as the example other children should follow is putting an incredible amount of pressure on them. Now that I’m looking back, is it really any wonder that I felt so much pressure to succeed as a kid? That I would cry over anything less than an A- on a school assignment?


Thinking about these childhood pressures led me to thinking about how they have transferred, grown, and morphed into stressors and responsibilities, obligations and ties that bind me to the people and circumstances around me. I came to the realization that the thing that motivates me, and the moving factor behind so many of my insecurities, is the fact that I feel like I have to please other people. Not shocking, but definitely something that’s been affecting me since I was little and something I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.


On the other hand, would I be where I am today if I hadn’t put so much emphasis on success as a kid? I’ll never know, but what I do know is that stress grows into an angry beast that holds my breath hostage when an essay doesn’t feel good enough. Going to a meeting and being the bearer of bad news feels like entering the den of a hideous monster when I’ve had a bad day. Going to section when I haven’t fully understood the readings feels like getting shoved on stage without a stitch of clothing and no idea what my lines are. I don’t think any of that is how it should feel when I’ve worked so hard to get to Harvard.


I know I’m not alone with anxious feelings surrounding obligations at school, and I know it’s not just a Harvard problem, but a college problem. In 2017 the American College Health Association reported that 61.4% of respondents had felt overwhelming anxiety within the last year. 57.4% had felt overwhelmed by everything they had to do within two weeks before taking the survey. About 47% had felt that academics were traumatic or difficult to handle within the past year, and about 29% felt the same way about their other social relationships.


The equinox is approaching, and I, in all of my melodramatic writer glory, have been writing a lot about my feelings surrounding getting more balanced and being more “normal.” I have to say, writing about how I want to fix my life was not nearly as comforting as reading those statistics was. I’m not abnormal in these feelings, hell, I’m not even unique.


Honestly? That’s amazing. Now I feel like I can focus less on how feeling trapped by my obligations makes me feel alone, and start focusing on the things about me that really do make me unique and special, a Rainbow Fish in my own right.


I’ve written before about how important I think it is that Harvard students get the mental health care they need, and I still stand by that. But when all else fails, I just hope we can remember that even when we’ve given away all of our rainbow scales, and are down to our roots because we’ve given all of ourselves to the people we love, we are still Rainbow Fish and Giving Trees, and we are inherently, incredibly, and enormously special and worthy of love.


Alaya Ayala (alaya_ayala@college.harvard.edu) leaps at any opportunity to preach about being rainbow.