Why I’m glad I chose to join Castilleja as a “new nine”


Avery Neuner

Avery Neuner ’24 in middle school, before coming to Castilleja.

My first memory of Castilleja is not the Tie Ceremony, my first lunch or even my shadow day, like it is for most students.

The first memory I have of Castilleja was at the age of five.

The memory is hazy and bright, and the moment fades farther away as I get older. What I do remember is that it was a sunny spring day. I must have been there for an alum event with my mother. I held a cup of lemonade and a cookie and held tightly to my mom. The Circle was empty except for two students who were standing at their lockers in what I now know to be Goode Court. They were both wearing vivid red polos and cornflower blue skirts. I know that most people do not wear the uniform that perfectly nowadays, but for the next nine years, the image of prim uniforms and sunny Palo Alto warmth was the image that I had of Castilleja.

People ask me all the time: “Avery, why were you a new nine?” Given that I have a long family history of students and teachers at Castilleja, I find that this question is a very good one. My answer is simultaneously complicated and simple: I didn’t want to go to Castilleja.

Now that I’ve thought about it, that sounds bad, but I want to be clear that I came to Castilleja out of my own volition. My parents did not make me, but, when my mother asked me in the fifth grade if I wanted to go to Castillja, I told her that she was crazy.

Frankly, I told her she was crazy mostly because of the commute—I take some pride in the fact that I have the single longest commute of any Castilleja student. However, I also thought she was insane because I’d spent my whole life making friends in Santa Cruz and she was asking me if I wanted to leave that all behind.

After three years, she asked me again, and I replied yes with little hesitation, which should tell you enough about what public middle school is like.

The first time someone asked if I regretted my choice, I had to take a moment to think about if I did. I thought about the friendships and memories my peers made in middle school and the alien feeling I and pretty much every new nine inevitably has when they get here.

However, I came to the conclusion that I don’t regret attending Castilleja for three less years than most of my peers. I would be remiss of me to not acknowledge my commuting was a huge factor. My commute is a two-hour round trip, and I think if I had suffered through this commute for seven years, I would want to rip apart the dull interior of my car. I’d probably also be much meaner to and more tired of my parents who graciously drive me to school.

Secondly, despite the inferior education, there are experiences that I’ve come to appreciate and miss about public school.

I miss the big school environment. I went from 300 some kids in one grade to 60. There’s something about the experience of being completely anonymous that I miss. It’s a little lonely to walk into school with a veritable stream of other people just as small as you in a huge building. I always felt like a very small fish in a big pond. But like all big lonely feelings, there’s a sense of wonder and odd comfort to it.

I miss combination locks. It’s a weird thing to miss since, overall, opening unlocked lockers is much more convenient. However, our combo locks were built into our lockers and part of me misses having to open it. I miss the muscle memory that came with combinations that you don’t need to consciously remember anymore. I miss the soft click of the lock and the following clank that came with undoing the latch. I’m a sucker for predictability.

I get sheer, unfettered joy I get from the stories I can tell from middle school to Castilleja students. This might seem cliché, but American public middle school is something you can only understand through experience. I have stories of my friends setting fire to aerosol deodorant in the locker rooms, scaling the fences to get into the school and trying to see if my friend would actually fit in his locker (it was his idea, and to answer your inevitable question, he did fit).

A more serious reason is that I am decidedly less burnt out in general than my peers. Castilleja is the kind of competitive environment that can slowly leech life from you. It can be intensely joyful and way more fun than I ever expected high school to be, but we’ve all seen our peers’ dead eyes at 8 a.m.. They are a different kind of dead eyes than the kind a habitually gray public high school facilitates. They are the kind of dead eyes of someone who has been pressed into the ground by pressure in six or seven classes this week.

I can confidently say that seven years of that kind of pressure would press me into a pancake.

I spent most of my middle school experience at home, blissfully without the insane pressures of extracurriculars or intense homework loads. Most of my class time was spent doing said homework or slowly but surely devouring the entirety of Bookshop Santa Cruz’s collection. Though I’ll always be grateful for a challenge, I look back at middle-school Avery, and I’m a little bit jealous of the person who had never worn a blue skirt.

I love Castilleja. I love the teachers who engage with you and want you to succeed. I love that my peers are interested in and contribute to discussions about classwork. I love the breadth of fascinating extracurriculars I can participate in. But Casti is a bubble that I don’t think will ever feel quite real to me.

Except for the pizza. I will always relish the feeling of nostalgia that Casti’s pizza brings me. I eat it willingly and with joy because, despite the fancy private school experience, it seems school-lunch pizza is universal.