Down the Rabbit Hole: Letting Your Grades Define Your Self-Worth

At my tiny private high school, every student excelled in at least one or more areas. There were many students who were skilled artists, natural born leaders, and gifted athletes who, on top of these talents, often had stellar grades to complement their extraordinary abilities.

If you didn’t possess any of these particular talents, you usually had a charismatic personality to make up for it. The best students were well rounded—they were key members of their sports teams or clubs who simultaneously boasted high grades. These students were also usually affable and well-respected among students and teachers alike.

As far as I knew, these students were all prodigies who were naturally gifted with their abilities, and I simply wasn’t. At least that’s the way I saw it.

My grades definitely weren’t anything to brag about, and I was far too shy to consider leadership. I was not artistically inclined and only average in terms of athleticism. To top it off, I felt out of place because I wasn’t at all interested in talking about grades like everyone else seemingly was—the reasoning behind this disinterest was the fact that I was always embarrassed by my grades.

Whenever a teacher handed back big papers or major exams, people would immediately begin to compare their grades with one another. As soon as I got my graded papers back, I would tuck them away in my folder to look it over in privacy later on. Luckily for me, no one would ask me what grade I received—I assume my classmates knew I wasn’t the brightest, based on how I’d rarely ever answer questions correctly when called upon during class, or how poorly I’d do on peer reviewed assignments and quizzes.

My school’s attitude toward grades created a culture in which students compare themselves to one another constantly. Some thrived in this environment, and others, like myself, certainly did not.

I always found ways in which I was inferior to my peers. I would try to find at least one other person who I could match, but I never could. If there was someone who wasn’t the best in math or science like I was, they excelled in art, and thus I was still inferior to them because I wasn’t as creative.

Then, if there was someone who didn’t particularly excel in any one subject, they were popular and had a large network of friends. It didn’t matter how I looked at things because I was always convincing myself that I was less smart, less talented, and less popular than whomever I was comparing myself to.

It was difficult to navigate high school at times because I loathed discussions about college—such conversations only became increasingly more common as the years went on. After each assembly about AP courses and making sure we’re on the right track to graduate and go straight to a prestigious university, I’d leave at the end and keep to myself. I just didn’t want to hear it.

When my friends held a sleepover to finalize college applications, I went, but I was honestly very disinterested. As they eagerly applied to UCs and private schools I’d have no chance of getting into, I sat there and wrote a personal statement that I felt no college would even read since my grades weren’t good enough in the first place.

I had nothing to put in the sections where you essentially list out the things that make you an extraordinary high school student.

I was severely lacking in every area—in grades, SAT scores, GPA, academic achievements, and extracurricular activities. On top of this, I didn’t have any standout interests—any personal interests or hobbies I had couldn’t be translated into a useful skill that would woo college recruiters. At the very least I chose to major in English, because I thought to myself that choosing anything would be better than going in undeclared.

I retained this mindset for all four years of high school. I became very distant during my senior year, realizing that I probably wouldn’t have to see any of my classmates again after we graduated. I’d become practically invisible among classmates by avoiding talking about grades with others, and keeping any conversations about college to a minimum.

It was my goal to achieve this kind of invisibility with my classmates, because it meant nobody could criticize me (whether that criticism is to my face or otherwise) for having mediocre grades and abilities if they knew nothing about them. The only thing I looked forward to was graduation and an opportunity to leave the school that put such an emphasis on my grades.

It’s not that I was excited to attend college—I just wanted to disappear and never have to look back.

I didn’t have to exercise any effort to maintain invisibility when college acceptances started coming in. My classmates frequently talked about which students in our class had the top ten highest GPAs, and they speculated about who will be the valedictorian at graduation. There was even drama as some students enviously watched other people get accepted into the colleges they dreamed of going to, while they themselves didn’t make it in.

Teachers were interested in which colleges their brightest students were getting into, and I would overhear people talking about how difficult it is to choose between two or more of the prestigious schools they had been accepted to. As for me, I simply couldn’t relate and had absolutely no interest in any of the college talk.

Graduation was one last event where students’ academic achievements were celebrated, and this time in front of a huge audience of friends and families. Although I know that the valedictorians, salutatorians, and everyone who received academic awards were all thoroughly well deserved because of their hard work, I just felt ashamed that I would never be able to match that talent.

Once I received my diploma, though, I felt so relieved and free. I left the venue soon after the ceremony was over, and after I had taken some pictures with family and friends. I was ecstatic because I could finally move on and get a fresh start somewhere nobody knew me.

However, that excitement didn’t last for long. That summer after graduation I was forced to choose between attending the state university I’d gotten into (and accepting three Parent PLUS loans as a result), or rescind my SIR to the school and go to community college instead.

I was devastated. Now, I would be forced to take the least desired route for any student coming from my high school. I told myself I was a failure, a loser, and a disgrace.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I went to community college, I thrived in all of my classes and found great relief in the anonymity of everyone’s grades. There was no way of knowing how other people were doing in the class, unless you asked them—and no one there was enthusiastic about grade talk.

Additionally, I had a math teacher who taught me elements of high school math in a way that I actually understood, and in an environment where I felt no fear of being judged for answering a question incorrectly. Community college wasn’t as bad as I initially thought it would be, and I ended up getting the best grades and the best GPA I’d ever had. This was the fresh start I’d been after.

I know now that worrying away my high school years and putting myself down constantly was completely unnecessary.

When I went to college, everyone there was focused on being the best for themselves, and not for others. Not knowing how my classmates were doing academically—and knowing that they probably wouldn’t even criticize me if they did know—allowed me to focus on myself.

I was encouraged to embrace my individual strengths that make me unique, instead of being led to believe that my grades will make or break me as a person. I learned to be gentler with myself if I didn’t receive the highest grades. After having this eye-opening experience during college, I only wished I had learned these lessons sooner so that I could have spent less time letting my grades define my self-worth.

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Down the Rabbit Hole: Letting Your Grades Define Your Self-Worth

At my tiny private high school, every student excelled in at least one or more areas. There were many students who were skilled artists, natural born leaders, and gifted athletes who, on top of these talents, often had stellar grades to complement their extraordinary abilities.

If you didn’t possess any of these particular talents, you usually had a charismatic personality to make up for it. The best students were well rounded—they were key members of their sports teams or clubs who simultaneously boasted high grades. These students were also usually affable and well-respected among students and teachers alike.

As far as I knew, these students were all prodigies who were naturally gifted with their abilities, and I simply wasn’t. At least that’s the way I saw it.

My grades definitely weren’t anything to brag about, and I was far too shy to consider leadership. I was not artistically inclined and only average in terms of athleticism. To top it off, I felt out of place because I wasn’t at all interested in talking about grades like everyone else seemingly was—the reasoning behind this disinterest was the fact that I was always embarrassed by my grades.

Whenever a teacher handed back big papers or major exams, people would immediately begin to compare their grades with one another. As soon as I got my graded papers back, I would tuck them away in my folder to look it over in privacy later on. Luckily for me, no one would ask me what grade I received—I assume my classmates knew I wasn’t the brightest, based on how I’d rarely ever answer questions correctly when called upon during class, or how poorly I’d do on peer reviewed assignments and quizzes.

My school’s attitude toward grades created a culture in which students compare themselves to one another constantly. Some thrived in this environment, and others, like myself, certainly did not.

I always found ways in which I was inferior to my peers. I would try to find at least one other person who I could match, but I never could. If there was someone who wasn’t the best in math or science like I was, they excelled in art, and thus I was still inferior to them because I wasn’t as creative.

Then, if there was someone who didn’t particularly excel in any one subject, they were popular and had a large network of friends. It didn’t matter how I looked at things because I was always convincing myself that I was less smart, less talented, and less popular than whomever I was comparing myself to.

It was difficult to navigate high school at times because I loathed discussions about college—such conversations only became increasingly more common as the years went on. After each assembly about AP courses and making sure we’re on the right track to graduate and go straight to a prestigious university, I’d leave at the end and keep to myself. I just didn’t want to hear it.

When my friends held a sleepover to finalize college applications, I went, but I was honestly very disinterested. As they eagerly applied to UCs and private schools I’d have no chance of getting into, I sat there and wrote a personal statement that I felt no college would even read since my grades weren’t good enough in the first place.

I had nothing to put in the sections where you essentially list out the things that make you an extraordinary high school student.

I was severely lacking in every area—in grades, SAT scores, GPA, academic achievements, and extracurricular activities. On top of this, I didn’t have any standout interests—any personal interests or hobbies I had couldn’t be translated into a useful skill that would woo college recruiters. At the very least I chose to major in English, because I thought to myself that choosing anything would be better than going in undeclared.

I retained this mindset for all four years of high school. I became very distant during my senior year, realizing that I probably wouldn’t have to see any of my classmates again after we graduated. I’d become practically invisible among classmates by avoiding talking about grades with others, and keeping any conversations about college to a minimum.

It was my goal to achieve this kind of invisibility with my classmates, because it meant nobody could criticize me (whether that criticism is to my face or otherwise) for having mediocre grades and abilities if they knew nothing about them. The only thing I looked forward to was graduation and an opportunity to leave the school that put such an emphasis on my grades.

It’s not that I was excited to attend college—I just wanted to disappear and never have to look back.

I didn’t have to exercise any effort to maintain invisibility when college acceptances started coming in. My classmates frequently talked about which students in our class had the top ten highest GPAs, and they speculated about who will be the valedictorian at graduation. There was even drama as some students enviously watched other people get accepted into the colleges they dreamed of going to, while they themselves didn’t make it in.

Teachers were interested in which colleges their brightest students were getting into, and I would overhear people talking about how difficult it is to choose between two or more of the prestigious schools they had been accepted to. As for me, I simply couldn’t relate and had absolutely no interest in any of the college talk.

Graduation was one last event where students’ academic achievements were celebrated, and this time in front of a huge audience of friends and families. Although I know that the valedictorians, salutatorians, and everyone who received academic awards were all thoroughly well deserved because of their hard work, I just felt ashamed that I would never be able to match that talent.

Once I received my diploma, though, I felt so relieved and free. I left the venue soon after the ceremony was over, and after I had taken some pictures with family and friends. I was ecstatic because I could finally move on and get a fresh start somewhere nobody knew me.

However, that excitement didn’t last for long. That summer after graduation I was forced to choose between attending the state university I’d gotten into (and accepting three Parent PLUS loans as a result), or rescind my SIR to the school and go to community college instead.

I was devastated. Now, I would be forced to take the least desired route for any student coming from my high school. I told myself I was a failure, a loser, and a disgrace.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I went to community college, I thrived in all of my classes and found great relief in the anonymity of everyone’s grades. There was no way of knowing how other people were doing in the class, unless you asked them—and no one there was enthusiastic about grade talk.

Additionally, I had a math teacher who taught me elements of high school math in a way that I actually understood, and in an environment where I felt no fear of being judged for answering a question incorrectly. Community college wasn’t as bad as I initially thought it would be, and I ended up getting the best grades and the best GPA I’d ever had. This was the fresh start I’d been after.

I know now that worrying away my high school years and putting myself down constantly was completely unnecessary.

When I went to college, everyone there was focused on being the best for themselves, and not for others. Not knowing how my classmates were doing academically—and knowing that they probably wouldn’t even criticize me if they did know—allowed me to focus on myself.

I was encouraged to embrace my individual strengths that make me unique, instead of being led to believe that my grades will make or break me as a person. I learned to be gentler with myself if I didn’t receive the highest grades. After having this eye-opening experience during college, I only wished I had learned these lessons sooner so that I could have spent less time letting my grades define my self-worth.

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