James Manso is a Scripps Ranch High School senior who is heading to NYU in the fall. He writes columns for the SRCA Newsletter, giving us a look inside SRHS. He’s a busy young man. James is the high school yearbook’s editor in chief, Fashion Club president, Improv Team publicist, and an intern at San Diego Magazine. No wonder he calls his column, “Where the Coffee Never Stops.” Actually, the title is inspired by a nonfiction piece by his favorite nonfiction writer, Joan Didion.

Once, after an eventful day at school, I scribbled in my journal that the high school experience was the pinnacle of teenage frivolity and not to be bothered with. It wasn’t until I was drinking a venti Americano later that day that I realized, although I had rejected it, I wasn’t sure what the high school experience really consisted of. I thought of all the movies I had seen that took place in high school—starting with High School Musical and ending with The Perks of Being a Wallflower—and I had to ask myself: what was the high school experience?

When I think of high school, I think of mass participation: the student section at football games, affectionately called The Cage, led in cheers and chants by our spirit commissioner. I went into the student section on my own at the last home game of my senior year. Everyone was cheering, and there was something to be said about the warmth, camaraderie, and support. In accordance with most of my experiences at Scripps, it was a little loud—and a little smelly and sweaty—for my taste.

There was another day I was particularly unimpressed by the high school experience, and it was the same day I scribbled across the thick pages of my journal. I had decided to participate in our “throwball”—which is dodgeball, but we can’t call it “dodgeball” for liability purposes, so we call it “throwball”—tournament. I was prepared to participate. Against my better judgment, I wore the smallest shorts Sports Authority had and even a top from Walmart—gasp!

After scoring the winning point in our first round, I was met with an entire gym cheering my name, texts from friends at college saying they had seen the win on social media, and one of the vice principals telling me that “I would remember that day for the rest of [my] life.” It didn’t feel right. Not that the setting was wrong or that I felt I didn’t belong…I was literally sick. I had consumed too much coffee!

I had come to the conviction that participating in high school events was juvenile, not because they required an immature mind-set or because it came with a PG-13 rating, but because I felt like I could not be myself and still be a participant. I skipped our last home basketball game to stay home and read Jane Eyre for my book club. I only went in the student section at that final football game because I needed to get yearbook pictures.

Come to think of it, the only way I ever participated in school functions was for yearbook. I went to my first school dance my sophomore year. I wanted to get an editor’s position my senior year so I figured I may as well start overachieving, and I sacrificed my Saturday night to go take pictures. When I finally got to call myself editor in chief, I still found myself taking photos at football games, still taking pictures at dances. And those were only the school-orchestrated functions!

The social scene at Scripps is more free-spirited and expressive than it is outside of school. There is certainly a standard of participation set in order to stay relevant. So, even though prior to senior year I considered myself exempt to these pressures, I started to go to parties more often.

Let me be clear: there is a distinction between attending parties and partying. The circle I belonged to usually meant looking well-composed and mildly judgmental in a corner—we considered ourselves too bourgeois to really participate—content to drive others, while the latter was littering the floor with the red Solo cups I had seen in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Once, when a friend of mine in an opposing circle chatted with me past her curfew in a chaperone-less house, I realized that the two of us had one thing in common, or rather didn’t have one thing in common: neither of us were having any fun.

That was when reality hit me in the face harder than my first semester report card. We were only participating for the sake of making memories, for the sake of saying we participated in high school. I also realized that sometimes we only make friends for the sake of not eating lunch alone. I was stunned by this one when my gorgeous friend, who used to work in television, was told that some friends said she was “too short, too skinny, and too ugly” to wear her prom dress well.

The high school experience is dependent on our own subjectivities, on our choices, and on what we want. My high school experience may not have been full of dances, sports games, or participating in spirit weeks. I’ve filled my senior year with meaningful conversations with my fabulous English teachers from both junior and this year, reading the Brontë sisters, and cherishing the people in my life. The key to enjoying high school is to not force oneself into feeling something unnatural. This is as crucial to your happiness as my cup of dark roast is to me at 5:30 on a Monday morning.

James Manso, SRHS Senior