I do well in school. I do really well in school. I’m not going to cover it up a little bit or try to be modest. It just is what it is and it is necessary for this post.
Since I started attending school, I have always been floating around the top of the class. In grade one, I got the shiny gold thing that told me I was the best at reading ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and reciting ‘one plus one equals two’. This meant that, from the time I was seven, I was labeled as being ‘smart’. I didn’t want that label and I didn’t think it applied to me. It was just that my parents had actually taught me to read before I started school. This label made me feel uncomfortable and trapped. I couldn’t be pretty (so that boys would take an interest) or popular (so that I had someone to sit with at break). I was just smart (which meant that whenever the teacher had a particularly hard question or we got a test back or there was maths to be done, I would be consulted). I didn’t know the answer to the question either. I didn’t think I was particularly smart. I didn’t know why my average remained firmly on eighty percent.
The funny thing was, I wasn’t the ‘top’ in anything. I finished in around seventh every year, yet I was still labelled the same way. I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t do my projects until the night before. The work bored me and so I dragged and dawdled my way through grades one to seven.
I got to high school and even though I knew very few people there, the label followed me. A year ago, at the beginning of grade eleven, I accepted that it was time to embrace the label. I needed ‘smart kid’ marks that year, so that I could get into university. So, I started working hard. I did my homework and I made carefully labelled summaries and I studied. A couple of months later, I got my first term report and for the first time I started to believe that if I kept working, I could start to deserve the label. Second place. That was more like it.
I realised something fascinating and potentially dangerous in those few months. Achievement is addictive, and larger doses are needed each and every time. The eighty six percent in the first term delighted me. In the second term it sent me spiraling into self-hatred. I started pushing myself even harder. I studied for longer. I beat myself up at each and every mediocre result. Term three: eighty eight percent. I told myself I was getting there. I told myself that ninety percent was coming my way. I received my fourth term report after a month of self torture (otherwise known as the final exam period). I have seven school subjects, and staring at me from that page was a ninety seven, a ninety four and a ninety three. I got very little joy from those though, because all I could look at were the two menacing eighty ones next to English and Life Orientation. Those eighty ones that diminished the final average to eighty nine, instead of the ninety it should have been. Instead of celebrating my achievement, my mind kept whispering to me how stupid I had been. How stupid could I be to let my English mark (my home language!) be so shockingly low. The thing about receiving good marks is that the good ones give you little more than empty relief, and the mediocre ones leave you reeling for days.
Another thing about the label is that you can’t dare to ever complain about your marks to anyone. That makes you ungrateful, see? So you suck it up and say “thank you” at every congratulations, even though you feel like screaming that you don’t deserve it.
Now I’m in grade twelve. I’m a month into my first term and it is starting to feel a lot like hell. From day one, I’ve been working myself harder than I have ever worked before. Taking meticulous notes in class, then going home and practicing the concepts. I’ve been spending weeks on projects which will count a fraction of my overall mark. I’ve been doing every bit of homework assigned, then checking it and redoing it again until it is perfect.
Why am I doing this? I’m doing it because I need another hit. Eighty nine and ninety isn’t good enough any more. I’ve set a target, and I know if I get any less than ninety two percent at the end of this term, I won’t let myself hear the end of it.
Now, I don’t know how I ended up being this obsessed over something which is so ultimately trivial, but I have two hypotheses:
- The label got to me and I felt the need to fulfill it. I don’t have any other worthwhile labels to aspire to, and in our culture, labels are extremely important. Maybe I just needed a role.
- I am, at my core, a shallow and competitive being who thrives on achievement. Ouch.
I don’t know what the results hold for me at the end of this term but I can feel that the way I am working is not good for me. I can actually feel my body is struggling under the pressure. My back is aching endlessly and my brain is struggling to clear the fog. Worry not, random reader, I am not going to kill myself with studying. Since I almost had a breakdown this weekend, I have committed myself to at least an hour and a half of rest and relaxation every evening. I also realised that if I don’t rest a little bit, I won’t absorb anything anyway.
There is more to life than achievement. There is more to being a person than a pretty certificate. Sometimes, the competitive workaholic in us takes over and takes a lot of hard (personal) work to draw our real, personal and spiritual lives back into the picture. Remember to speak to your friends and hug your mom. Remember that sometimes you should procrastinate just a little bit and give yourself the weekend off to enjoy life.
Keep safe and don’t do school, kids – it’s dangerous.