The Disillusionment Arc: an evolution of students’ perceptions of Payton through four years

By Nora Sun, Editor

In an attempt to characterize Payton’s unique school culture, I asked students and alumni to talk about their high school experiences thus far. 

“I don’t feel intimidated—I feel like I belong,” said Labib Azam ‘25. Six other freshmen interviewed by the Paw Print agreed. 

“I expected Payton to be a lot more competitive,” another freshman said, expressing relief and surprise at the willingness of classmates and teachers to help him. 

Meanwhile, Emily Sands, an alumna from the class of ‘21, had a vastly different experience. “During my time at Payton, I, and many others, noticed that Payton’s environment is very competitive,” said Sands. “I’d be surprised if you managed to get through Payton without comparing [with classmates] who got the least amount of sleep last night.” 

This type of comparison “can really contribute to imposter syndrome, and I definitely felt at times that if I was sleeping seven hours or wasn’t stressed to the point of crying I somehow wasn’t doing enough,” another alumna from the class of 2021 explained.

What caused such a stark contrast between the freshmen’s and alumni’s experiences? 

To find out, I asked Payton students and alumni the same simple question: What do you think about Payton culture? After interviewing two dozen people, I began to notice a pattern I named the Disillusionment Arc.

The Disillusionment Arc

A Hero’s Journey for Payton’s Students

This graphic was inspired by Movie Outline’s depiction of the Hero’s Journey.

Joseph Campbell describes the Hero’s Journey as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” As students in all phases of the Disillusionment Arc talked about their Payton experiences, their stories revealed that the cruel antagonist driving the young hero’s story is our school itself. 

Freshmen cross the threshold blissfully unaware, walking into Payton with rose-colored glasses on a red carpet of congratulations from their middle schools and their families after being lauded as not only the top of their class but the peak of the whole city. Payton welcomes them with open arms and a fuzzy bear mascot, but there is always an undertone of warning: “Everyone at Payton is very talented,” the principal reminds mildly on the welcoming night in April. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help!”

In the second quarter of our hero’s journey, the sophomore year, the grizzly maws of competition begin to close around our unsuspecting hero. They inevitably look to their friends who seem to be doing fine and think this innocent thought: So I’m not doing as well as them, but perhaps it is because I am doing more than them? Then, when they compare their accomplishments and inexorably become insecure, they add even more to their plates. Little do they know, their friends are thinking and doing the same. Furtively, the cycle compounds. 

In the third or fourth quarter of our hero’s journey including the climax and the grand twist, the secret behind this gilded world our hero ventured into is finally revealed: We, the students of Payton, all struggle, and when we struggle, we compare. However, none of us will admit to this because we’re all clinging to the belief that we are the smart one, a belief so cemented into our identity by our prior experiences that we are not anyone without it. 

In fact, no other belief better defines Payton. Every racist incident, every US News ranking, every microaggression, and every trophy case was born from the addictive thrall of superiority that is quintessentially Payton, yet millenia older than us. After all, doesn’t the very fact that we are a Payton Grizzly mean that we are better than someone? Maybe a Jones student or a kid at our neighborhood high school or a high school dropout? 

Then resolution comes crashing down in the form of a CPS ex machina called graduation. Gowns are donned, caps are thrown, tears are shed, and then it’s over. It is a sudden end to deafening static. Our hero returns to the world outside of Payton. 

And so our hero’s journey into Payton, a region of supernatural wonder where they encounter these fabulous and mysterious forces and return with power in prestige and college acceptances, concludes. But where is Campbell’s decisive victory?

In the Hero’s Journey, the climax precedes departure from the special world, but, in the Disillusionment Arc, the climax lags behind our hero’s graduation from Payton by months or even years. The victory occurs when, one day, our hero looks back to their high school days and finds cheap paint peeling off of Payton’s golden facade. Our hero reflects and compares, but this time Payton itself is the victim of this comparison. Placed side by side with their new college, they find that Payton, with its stubborn belief of superiority, was actually quite ordinary in its failures. 

This victory is called disillusionment. 

VIGNETTES OF LIFE IN THE DISILLUSIONMENT ARC

A vertical timeline of students moving through the grades and becoming more cognizant of and affected by Payton’s undercurrent of competition. Thank you to everyone who contributed a quote. 

FRESHMAN

“Payton has a sense of community that I haven’t felt at any other school I have attended. I feel that everyone is connected by a common desire to learn and understand. That sense of community is furthered by teachers who encourage respect for  our peers; it helps me feel like I truly belong here. Payton is much more casual than I expected. I expected Payton to be super competitive and everyone to be fixated on grades and extracurriculars. Teachers and students are a lot more laid back, which diminished the stress I first had when thinking of the Payton high school experience.” – Anonymous ‘25

“Honestly, I’d say everyone’s much less competitive than I expected. Payton’s the best in the city, best in the state, you hear that stuff all the time, and you have to be the best to even get in, much less succeed-but it’s quite surprisingly chiller than I’d have expected for a school with all this prestige.” – Anonymous ‘25

SOPHOMORES

“Sometimes, I feel intimidated with how smart many of the kids are when at my school I was one of the smartest.” – Anonymous ‘24

JUNIORS 

“I’m not taking many APs this year while my friends are taking a whole bunch of them. I took Honors Bio instead of AP, and it sometimes feels like I’m the only one who made that choice out of all of my friends. I feel kind of isolated because of it.” – Anonymous ‘23

“There’s a lot of pressure to get good grades and usually any grade below an A (on assignments or a class average) is seen as bad. For example, people will talk about how bad they did on one of their AP tests when they got a 4, which I think is not a bad score at all. I think that environment can lead people to judge others for lower grades which creates a more competitive culture. In the past two years I don’t think it was as competitive since freshman year everyone was trying to figure out high school and sophomore year we were remote.” – Anonymous ‘23

ALUMNI

“Comparison can really contribute to imposter syndrome, and I definitely felt at times that if I was sleeping seven hours or wasn’t stressed to the point of crying I somehow wasn’t doing enough. It took me a while to realize that this sort of comparison isn’t healthy and to stop being so conscious of what others were doing.” – Anonymous ‘21

“The student culture at Payton negatively influenced me mainly because of the amount of pressure put onto me as a student from my teachers and peers. There was always this extreme pressure to do well academically, socially, and athletically, which didn’t help me personally become the best person I could be. […] People gradually become more oblivious to the culture that surrounds them when in a cultural bubble mainly because when the culture puts all of this focus on academics, it can leave little room for improvement.” – Anonymous ‘21

“I mean a big thing that I think I started to become aware of while I was still there, but didn’t really hit until I started university was just how toxic Payton could get about grades and work – there were definitely specific classes or instances that were better than others, but for the most part, there’s a very large pressure to take APs that people aren’t interested in, or to pull unnecessary all nighters (or just in general skip meals and sleep) and almost turn it into a competition of how much they were missing to do work.” – Maya Khurana ‘21

“My freshman year I remember thinking the student culture was way more fun than I anticipated and it seemed like everyone was super excited to be at Payton. By senior year, I would have described Payton’s culture differently. I think Payton has a major undercurrent of competition.” – Anonymous ‘21

“Due to Payton’s competitive environment, I got in the habit of not wanting to share my scores with anyone. Even amongst the closest friends, sharing grades can become hurtful very quickly, especially at a competitive school like Payton.” – Emily Sands ‘21

“As someone that grew up on the Southwest side, schools like Payton are a very complex concept to wrap my head around. It also shouldn’t be understated that there is a lot of pressure for kids to come into a school like Payton and be expected to be high achieving students. This pressure often created an academically toxic climate that was hard to deal with at times.” – Francisco Avilla ‘21

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