How Does an Introverted Teen with an ‘Old Soul’ Succeed?
By Akil Pinnock, with Sierra Smith
Sierra Smith, 18, of Springfield, MA and senior at Commerce High School, is nearing graduation, prom, and the traditional end of high school festivities. She looks like many high school seniors. Distant, not wanting to be bothered and possibly a little cold.
A sporadic attendee of the Community Journalism program, you can tell that, although she doesn’t come off as the most talkative and approachable person, Smith may have a little something to say if you dig a bit.
“I know I didn’t wanna go to a 4 year college so I’m staring at STCC (Springfield Technical Community College) for nursing then I’ll transfer out, hopefully to Westfield State (Westfield State University). Hopefully— if I get in,” said Smith.
Like many, Smith is starting on a more economical route, going to a community college to pursue her Associate’s degree, then continuing towards her Bachelor's at nearby Westfield State University, allowing her to save money by commuting from her current home rather than paying for a dorm.
“They have a good nursing program there,” said Smith.
For now she works as a Part-Time CNA at Glen Meadow retirement home to gain prior experience in her field.
“It’s hard, but it’s doable. It’s definitely doable, especially when you have responsibilities. You gotta find a way to just maintain it and balance it out. Just get enough sleep I guess.” Said Smith.
It takes a lot of maturity and responsibility to have a job like that as a high school senior, but Smith’s cool, unbothered demeanor would make one think otherwise.
“The health field is where most of the money’s at,” said Smith.
Although Sierra factors the typical financial burdens facing Commerce students into her decision making, she is motivated by more than money.
“Well I been around it all my life basically. My grandma, she had her own business where she had a house full of people and would come take care of them but I was never old enough to work there until I actually got old enough and she didn’t have the business anymore.”
Smith deeply wants to work in the health field after growing up seeing the woman in her family work in nursing.
“My moms a CNA so I don’t know, it’s just convenient I guess.”
After working in food service for Dunkin Donuts and then Six Flags, Smith wanted more for herself than to work the job of an average teenager.
Young people are usually told to have Plan B’s when it comes to their goals but Smith doesn’t have one. Smith is putting all her eggs in one basket and is adamant about about her career path.
Outside of CNA work, Smith has an affinity for hair and makeup. Mostly makeup. She had been thinking of doing makeup on the side but isn’t pursuing this skill.
Smith comes off as a mature 18-year-old girl who has it all together, but her poise and patience seems like it was developed over dealing with adult like experiences at a young age.
Maybe these traits developed because she never really adjusted to her surroundings after repeatedly switching schools.
As a Freshman, Smith started off at a prep school for a month before transferring to Commerce. Shortly after, Smith was accepted into a more academically challenging charter school she had been on the waitlist on since she was in Kindergarten, then came back to Commerce the middle of her freshman year.
Sophomore year she ended up leaving again, then returned again to Commerce, where she’s now graduating in June.
“I feel like I’ve always had to catch up all time,” said Smith.
After 2 consistent years in the same school, Smith finally seems comfortable.
“One of my first regrets is leaving that school, I should’ve just stayed,” said Smith.
When she left the first time, Smith felt she missed experiences with her friends in Commerce, but she felt obliged to accept the charter school opportunity she waited a decade for.
“I was a rebel, I just didn’t understand at the time that (the private schools) were good. I just didn’t wanna be there,” said Smith.
Ironically enough, when Smith did come back to Commerce, her friends prior to leaving were no longer her friends when she returned sophomore year.
“Say if I had just stayed in Commerce all four years, I woulda been one of those seniors who could leave early, probably got scholarships because it’s pretty easy to get by here, you know it’s lenient, but I’ve always just had to catch up. Always behind, always had to make something up,” said Smith.
Smith’s moves in and out of Commerce contributed to her lack of enthusiasm towards the senior prom, which she’s not attending.
“It doesn’t excite me cause I haven’t been in this school all four years”, said Smith, who also attended the prom her freshman year.
Despite her struggles to build bonds with her private schools peers and to maintain her ties to her public school friends, Smith maintained solid grades throughout her four years.
“If I could do it again, I would,” said Smith.
“I’ve realized that what sounds easy isn’t always easy. I thought it would be easy just coming back here and picking up where I left off but no I actually had to make up for everything that I missed and that was kinda hard,” she explained.
Smith takes on full accountability for for both her success and shortcomings in academics. “I just realized that everything is on me. The decisions I make is on me,” said Smith.
Growing up as one of 6 children in a crowded home helped to push Sierra away from the blame-shifting that afflicts many teenagers. She may appear quiet, but she just learned not to seek attention, even amid the supposed control social media holds over teenagers.
Speaking to Smith sometimes feels as if you’re speaking to someone who’s seen and done it all. She used to frequent parties but is no longer a fan of attending them.
“They’re played out.” Said Smith.
She also takes an uncommonly advanced point of view on relationships. She claims to be “so jaded” after a recent breakup.
Smith doesn’t want to be in a relationship. At least not anytime soon. She feels when you’re committed at a young age you’re wasting all your youth.
“You kinda have to let go of toxic people because, next thing you know I’ll be 20 and I’ll be still on the same... stuff. Where did my twenties go?”, said Smith.
It’s often said that the social aspect of high school has more of an impact on one’s life than what you’re learning in the classroom.
“I think just like anywhere else, like being around people... I don’t know, I’m very observant,” said Smith, referring to how her interactions in high school with people helped her see what’s real, and who’s genuine.
It isn’t surprising that Sierra scrupulously avoided “the drama” that consumes the social life of many students. She says she easily could have gotten into the kinds of conflicts and fights that were somewhat common in Commerce.
The city and its public schools have a poor reputation, and the constant news narratives of violence and crime that plague the city reinforce this reputation.
Sierra said that the violence in the city is no longer reflected in the school. In her eyes, there’s no violence at all in the school. Smith and her classmates agree violence was an issue freshman year, but it has slowed over the years.
“Everyone’s friends with everyone, kinda,” said Smith.
In a city and school system struggling to repair its reputation, Commerce stood out for years as students’ last choice for its violence and lack of resources. Or, as Smith put it, for “being trash”
But Smith, echoing many of her peers, says this is no longer the case.