I was five when I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but when you’re born into a first-generation Korean-American family, even at five, you learn to hold your tongue about your ambitions. Instead, I confided in my grandfather—curled around him in his library, I told him what I was afraid to tell my own parents. He looked at me sympathetically as if he knew there would be so much that I’d have to endure to even have a chance at writing, and whispered, “There needs to be someone in this family who is in love with what they do.” I wrapped my arms around him; I think I cried.
I’m sure somewhere throughout my academic career I convinced myself that my writing was inconsequentially a part of who I was. Somewhere along my timeline were moments that led up to it: my third grade teacher putting “incredible!” at the top of all my writing, the speech I wrote in sixth grade that my teacher called “irrefutably beautiful” before I even knew what ‘irrefutably’ meant, the essay contest I won at the beginning of my junior year of high-school. I’m sure five-year-old me unknowingly learned to tie the voice in my writing to who I was. I’m sure I expected to grow into my identity as a writer like toddlers expect to grow into their parents’ clothes when they play dress up, even when they’re so small that the sleeves hang off their arms and trail on the ground behind them.
But on my seventeenth birthday, I lost my first writing competition—a mandated essay given by my school’s junior year English teachers. It was only then that I became solemnly convinced by the itchy feeling of lost ambition that the dream that I intended to grow up into didn’t fit me right around the shoulders and didn’t hug me in all the right places and left me a forgone version of myself. I wasn’t upset because I lost, as I explained to my English teacher shortly after, I was upset because I seemed to have deceived myself for years that this dream that I held so close to my heart was not mine to hold. I was upset because I felt as though a piece of me died: the only piece of me that I loved unconditionally.
Naturally, most people responded to my unsettlement by insisting that this one loss was not a reflection of who I was as a writer: it didn’t invalidate my writing or my love for my craft. Instead, to everyone else, it was just what it seemed to be—a loss. Friends and family couldn’t
comprehend why I was so upset, and truthfully, neither could I. It was only after taking a step back from the situation that I realized that the root of why I was so torn up was because somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that my writing was directly correlated to my worth. So if my writing wasn’t enough, I wasn’t either.
Suddenly, as I walked the halls of my academically competitive high-school, I realized that students from all across the board tied their worth to marks on papers and numbers on scantrons. In the same way that I believed my writing had a direct correlation to my worth, my peers held the same mentality about the numbers on their transcripts. And so did I. I became overtly cognizant of how unhealthy and unstable that attitude could be, but I could not abandon it. Even as I talked to peers throughout many different grade levels, they remarked that they felt the same way, but there was nothing they could do to change it. Having your worth determined by numbers and letters seemed to be a frightening standardization that most students are all too willing to accept as the general norm. As public school education becomes more competitive in the coming years, it will only get worse.
When I entered high-school, my ambition for writing was still there, so I’m confident that age didn’t distort my vision at all. Instead what I’ve come to realize throughout my years of public education is that the moment I began losing faith in that dream was when I started to see myself as a reflection of my grades rather than my passion: two-dimensional numbers on transcripts. The grade at the top of my in-class essay was more important than the writing that went into it—somehow the words on the page seemed to matter less than the single letter at the top of my paper. Who I was as a writer and a student became determined by people who only knew me for forty minutes a day, five days a week, and I let their impression of me and my work become a direct reflection of who I was. In retrospect, it’s no wonder I began hating what I saw in the mirror. It’s no wonder that so many students feel the same way.
School administrators nationwide tell students that their grades do not define them and that they’re more than the letters written on their transcripts. But they also recognize them as seven-digit student IDs and judge them by what can be valued on paper. Even the most well-rounded students get processed through the mass machine of public education and come out the other side two-dimensional. We insist that a set of numbers doesn’t define our children—we’re wrong.
Adam Grant, the author of “What Straight-A Students Get Wrong,” remarks that grades have little correlation with “creativity… and teamwork skills,” yet students still equate their worth to them, “[creating] an academic arms race,… [where]… students… strive for meaningless perfection.” The root of this problem has nothing to do with misconception—students are, for the most part, overwhelmingly aware of the fact that, in the long run, their SAT and AP exam scores won’t matter. The genuine issue is that it isn’t enough that in the long run, they won’t matter, because in their current state in their existing classrooms, they view their worth as directly correlated by those types of exams. The now is more critical, more consuming than the long-term consequences. Grant even illustrates the concept that in the workforce, more successful people are actually the students with lower GPAs and exam scores, and their high-scoring counterparts usually cannot find the strength within themselves to excel in real-world scenarios. We raise our children through a public education system that has almost no correlation between working in their schools and working in the real world. However, even if students know all this, and I’m afraid most of them do, they are still compelled by the notion to aim for the unobtainable. Because it’s not just their grades on the line, it’s their self-worth too.
Ideally, students would earn grades reflective of the time and effort they put in, but in reality, students who employ lucky guesswork on multiple choice exams are essentially equal to the students who know how to do the accurate work to complete problems. Because there’s no difference between these types of answers or students, students see their efforts as meaningless, or worse, fruitless, convinced they aren’t doing enough if they don’t have grades to show for it. Schools put awarding work ethic, and effort in the backseat behind the actual grades students earn, encouraging them to believe that how hard they work isn’t what matters—at the end of the day, it’s all about the number.
Stanford columnist Annie Jia references psychologist Madeline Levine’s quote that when students “‘feel… they’re only as good as their last performance, [they develop]… the inability to construct an internal sense of self.’” When you base your self-perception on your own and other people’s merits, you’re disappointed continuously, ceding to the same malicious mindset of many students. While academic competition is healthy and constructive for most school environments, the same competition can become debilitating and destructive for students if they don’t understand that their grades are not a determinant factor of their worth. The institution of this mass mentality leads kids to believe that if their grades aren’t as good as their peers, neither are they. Numbers only define this spectrum of self-worth; it doesn’t take into consideration students’ moral standing, personality, work ethic, or character.
When you don’t know the boy in your physics class, but know he has a C; when you’ve never spoken to that girl in history class, but you know her last quiz grade, understand that it’s easy to hang a number over someone’s head to measure their worth; it’s hard to look at people as more than that. Students do it all over the nation, and if we raise a generation so number-obsessed, aren’t we raising a generation that will never be satisfied with their worth or their accomplishments. Aren’t we raising children who invariably go through a cycle of believing that they are not good enough if they don’t have the numbers to show for it? Changing how you see people doesn’t require changing the world—it requires changing yours. Though schools determine students’ merit by grades earned and classes taken, I remind myself that students must be more than that. Because in the end, students aren’t two-dimensional reflections of a number, a letter, or a transcript, but products of passion, ambition, and heart: things that cannot be measured on paper.
Sara Jhong is a high school junior at Great Neck South High School on Long Island, New York. She has won awards from previous writing competitions in the past and greatly enjoys the Parallax Journal.
Displacement by Sumin Seo