Sofia Olssen

Central Lafayette Area


Favorite subject your senior year: AP Comparative Government and AP Literature

If applicable, list some activities you were part of during high school: Blueprint, Mock Trial

The Evolution of “Essential”

After nearly 18 years of being a Lafayette resident and passing through Lafayette Elementary, Stanley Middle School, and finally Acalanes High School, the district is now more of a second home. A conglomeration of classrooms that provided a kind of comfort different from the solace that I receive from my own bed. Over the past four years, I adapted to the new environment of the fated Acalanes hallways; I confronted my first AP classes, where I encountered teachers that I grew to love and experienced all the thrills of high school with people that I now trust with my life. While facing the trials and tribulations of adolescence, I began to formulate my own set of ideals, and every teacher and friend helped to build my perspective.

I started senior year with a fairly definitive set of priorities: college applications were my end-all and be-all, followed closely by maintaining good grades in my unfortunately wide array of AP classes, and, of course, spending time with my friends. During my first semester of senior year, my focus was on all things school- or college-related. I cut back the number of hours I worked at Diablo Foods, the local grocery store where I have worked since the summer after sophomore year.

On more than one occasion, fellow students or their parents have been a bit taken aback by the fact that I bag groceries; the words “blue collar,” “minimum wage” and “customer service” seemed foreign to them. I never thought much of this, as the Lamorinda Bubble is well known for its affluence and occasional air of superiority, but I too am a victim of my community’s culture – I did not mind taking a few weeks off from my normal 2-3 shifts per week in order to work on my college applications. Schoolwork seemed so much more important back then, but I wouldn’t be writing this article if I still felt the same way.

Between the demands of school, social gatherings, and an actual job, my surroundings had trained me to believe that a very narrow definition of “success” and the social pressures of status were far more important than bagging groceries at a supermarket.

This basically sums up my inadvertent Acalanes School District education regarding what I view as essential. First thing’s first – college is a defining aspect of who you are and where you are going in life. No matter how much I truly believe that this is not true, years of social pressure still encourage a voice in the back of my head to speak up and tell me that if I pay more for college, I will get a better education. I was implicitly taught to believe that if I wasn’t trying the hardest or excelling to the fullest extent of the gradebook, I must be doing something wrong. I worked for years, pushing myself in college-level courses and stressing about grades and standardized test scores. However, this is not to discount my experience in Lafayette schools – I am incredibly grateful to have received such an incredible education. But at the same time, I believed that getting a 5 on my AP tests and hanging out with my friends every weekend were things that undoubtedly qualified as essential.

Then, within a matter of weeks, outlandish clickbait headlines turned to breaking news segments on local TV networks. A few extra hand sanitizer bottles in the classroom morphed into school closures for the rest of the year. Now, my AP teachers are struggling to adapt to distance learning – I, on the other hand, can take my AP tests in my pajamas at home and be done with the exam within 45 minutes instead of two hours. In order to really dismantle my own personal definition of “essential” activity, hanging out with friends and driving around town (the most popular activity amongst teens in suburbia) is now practically outlawed. Prom dresses became passé, while personal protective equipment evolved into the most popular new accessory.

Within a matter of days, the activities that I viewed as essential and the priorities my community told me to keep were entirely deconstructed. Despite the fact that I’ve historically been a very academically motivated and focused student, I now feel comfortable getting assignments done in five minutes rather than 50. Although I had previously done at least three to four hours of homework and studying a night, I seem to have lost that motivation. I no longer feel a sense of guilt when I turn in an assignment late or am scheduled to work during the school day. When school was first cancelled, I started picking up extra shifts because the thought of a little extra cash in my pocket on the way to college didn’t sound too bad. But after working a few weeks into the quarantine, I realized how much I had underestimated the importance of my job.

As it turns out, during an actual global pandemic, school—the activity that once defined my entire life—was one of the first institutions to close its doors. Not only my high school or my middle or elementary school, but schools everywhere – even colleges and universities. As I said before, it’s hard not to feel like this pressure cooker community defines success by where you get your diploma from, and most people seem to be under the impression that a typical four-year college is essential to achieve success. Well, in a surprise twist, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I won’t go as far to say that school is not essential, because the student in me would never allow it – let’s just say schools aren’t open, but grocery stores are. As a teenage grocery store worker, I am essential personnel. My job, where I bag groceries, unload carts, and help customers out to their cars, is now what makes me essential. Teachers and students across all levels of schooling have been forced inside, and no one is entirely sure when things are going to return to normal. Meanwhile, I can still go to what used to be my “after-school” job.

In summary, I started senior year under the impression that college was the very definition of essential, but now the label of ‘essential’ has adopted an entirely new meaning. Attempting to excel as a student used to be my top priority, but since I no longer have the comfort of a classroom, I have placed new importance upon my job because I know that is where I am most needed. It is not that I am the best grocery store bagger there has ever been (sadly, colleges don’t offer any Best Bagger scholarships) or that I am an irreplaceable or indispensable worker; instead, I am “essential” because I am helping people get what they need. Surprise! Everyone needs food, but literally no one needs to take an AP class.

So, to my teachers, I am sorry that my school work may not be up to the standard that I usually hold myself to, but my motivation disappeared along with most other signs of societal normalcy. However, if you ever need your groceries bagged, come into Diablo Foods. There’s a good chance I’ll be working.