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"Pushing My Limits" by Kiwon "Glen" Chung

“Hey kid, don’t be scared. It's just a machine; it won’t bite,” the nurse reassured me with a smile.

“Ok,” I replied, trying to look confident, hoping the frantic beating of my heart would still. “I’ll try not to panic.”

The MRI was an intimidating sight: it’s large, white encasing resembling a coffin more than it did a medical device. My head was still throbbing a bit: I had gotten a concussion from an incident at hockey practice a few days before. I thought I was all cleared, but my dean and the coaches were insisting on getting me checked out. I had always gotten nervous at the prospect of enclosed spaces, so this would be . . . daunting, to say the least. The door had an intimidating sign that read, “Caution. X-Ray radiation,”as though that was supposed to put patients at ease. My mind started to spin. My palms began to sweat and my heart started to pound.

It was a cold Saturday afternoon when everything happened. Earlier that morning, as I would for any other game day, I woke up at 7, brushed my teeth, turned on my “Game Day Hype” playlist, and took a long, scalding shower. I met up with my two best friends, James and Jason, to go get breakfast. We were playing Middlesex (our rival school) that afternoon and the whole school was hyped up. During lunch, the seniors dragged a gigantic Zebra doll (Middlesex’s mascot) into the main quad and lit it up with a flamethrower. The whole school went crazy, and everyone was anticipating the varsity hockey game, which was the main event of the night. As the game approached, I was more jittery than ever. It was my debut game as the starting goalie, and it felt like all eyes were on me, waiting for me to either shine or slip up.

Bang! I had made the initial save, and the puck ricocheted off the post. I hurried back to the post, completely blind to what was happening in front of the goal crease. Moments later, one of my teammates stepped on a mouthguard and slipped. He had 50 pounds on me, so when we collided, I went flying into the air. My head hit the ice so hard that the crowd on the other side of the rink heard the sound. My whole body went numb for a split second, obscure shapes hovered around me like clouds, and the space kept on shrinking and shrinking. Finally, I stood back up on my feet. I was in a completely different dimension for about 15 seconds, and, to this day, I can’t decipher what exactly happened.

I don’t know how I managed to get through that MRI either. I was only barely able to control the terror that enveloped me when I was placed in the metal tube. What I do know is the words “Room 305” that marked my dorm room never looked so sweet afterwards. In fact, the next few days were pretty great, as I was able to stay in my room most of the time, and I didn’t need to go to class if I wasn’t feeling well. What could go wrong?

Turns out, a whole lot. The first class I had when I was finally cleared to leave my dorm was Chinese. I walked into the classroom expecting Mr. Wang to ask me how I was feeling. Instead, he demanded my homework and emphasized that I had 9 missing assignments, all of which were in his words, “unexcused.” I was shocked, confused, and a little angry. Didn’t he know I had a head injury? The next class was Science, and it was even worse. Apparently, our class had a chapter test that day, and Dr. Stach insisted on me sitting down for the exam like everyone else.

He asked, “Glen, when did you get out of the hospital?”

“Umm.. about three days ago,” I answered.

Dr. Stach replied with a stern, unsympathetic look on his face, “Well, you had three whole days without classes to make up for your work. Am I right?”

Dumfounded, I explained that while I had been in my room for three days, I had barely been permitted to even glance at my computer screen, let alone study, and I could barely see with the thick sunglasses that were forced over my eyes to protect them from the sun. After an intense back and forth, Dr. Stach grudgingly postponed the test one day for the entire class. Not nearly enough time: now I had to finish all 9 missing Chinese assignments and study an entire chapter of biology, in one night.

With this impossible hurdle in front of me, rather than even attempt to clear it, I just shut down. My head was still aching from the lingering concussion. . I said to myself, “If I’m going to fail anyways, I might as well get a good night's sleep tonight and retake the test some other day.” I showed up the next morning knowing absolutely nothing about the chapter, and it reflected in my grade: a dismal 35%. Punishment was swift: an email landed in my inbox from Dr. Stach a few hours later demanding to meet with my advisor and I. The second we sat down for the meeting, the first words that came out of Dr. Stach’s mouth was:

”Glen, I expected more from you.”

I was hurt, angry, and a little ashamed, even though I really didn’t need to be. Why couldn’t my teacher understand that I was suffering from a serious head injury? It wasn’t like I chose to hurt myself, and concussions took a great deal more than three days to heal properly. Finally, I realized that this course wasn’t worth putting both my physical and my mental health at risk. The next day, I emailed my dean explaining the situation. We met and discussed it together, and he allowed me to drop the class. It wasn’t a decision that I made lightly: this was my only major honors class, but I was convinced it was the right thing to do, both for myself and my grades.

You might be thinking: why didn’t I just push through my injury? The internet and news is full of it: stories of people, students and athletes alike, miraculously pushing through injury in order to get an A or win a gold medal. These stories are seen as uplifting and inspiring. But no one ever stops to consider the physical and mental tolls these so-called “inspiring” feats impose on people. Even if I had managed to stay up all night and get a decent score on my exam, it would have meant potentially hurting myself further and delaying my recovery, which would have only led to more missed assignments and test scores. The world was shocked last month when champion US gymnast Simone Biles decided to step back from the Tokyo Olympics in order to focus on her mental health, but I wasn’t shocked at all. In fact, I sympathized. People should not be forced to put their health and safety at risk just because they are expected to, or because that is the only way to achieve greatness.

Today, I’m all healed up from my concussion, and I’m more aware of my own needs and when to be gentle with myself. In the end, I made the choice that was best for me, and I have become a more mature, empathetic person because of it.

Glen's passions are playing hokey, attending environmental marches with his friends in NYC, and writing in his free time!

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