I’m a 17 year old homeschooled dual-creadit student who attends my local community college. I have a 4.0 there, and I am part of the honor society and an officer in the Honors Student Organization. I’m not, at least not in by my family’s standards, brilliant, but I am smart. I always try to be a nice person and do good things, but I am worried that I come off as condescending and sometimes bitchy to my class mates. My grades are a large part of my identity because I am so focused on school, and because of that I have a reputation as an overachiever in all of my classes. I use my reputation as, at least somewhat, a defense mechanism. I have never had a boyfriend, had any alcohol,done any sort of drugs, etc. The people in my classes call me a baby because I don’t lie about being extremely inexperienced, and I don’t really mind that. I my be inexperienced, but I am not as naive as they seem to think I am. I use my inexperience as a reason I don’t throw parties when my parents leave me home alone for sometimes up to a week (they both travel for work). I don’t hide my grades from my fellow class mates; in fact, I share them openly. However, sometimes I worry that I come off as condescending because a lot of people make Bs or Cs, which I consider failing for me. I know that considering that a B is failing isn’t healthy, but school is my life and I don’t know how to let it go. I generally don’t understand why people don’t try hard in school and do their best. I understand that a lot of people have a job, kids, or both; but those aren’t really the people I’m talking about. The people I don’t understand are the ones that complain about doing poorly on tests and having to drop classes and then do to festivals on the weekend when they have homework. I also know that sometimes I can see the world in too much black and white and not take into account the environment somebody grew up in. I want to understand them better, but it is so much easier to call them stupid and write them off in my head as a lost cause. How do I learn to think of people as people and try to understand where they are coming from? When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder? How do I not let my school define myself and my life when they are so important to me? How do I/ should I hold back on what my grades are because I may come off as a insensitive and condescending? Why do some people ignore their school and then freak out because they are failing?
Thank you for your time,
– The Overachiever
Because of your natural abilities and great study habits and supportive home environment, Bs and Cs are “like failing” to you. But to others, people who have to work harder than you, a passing grade can feel like the greatest victory! Or it can be a sign that their real priorities & interests are elsewhere, like, maybe they only do enough of the homework assignments to get the concept and then they stop and focus on other things, and their grades reflect that. You don’t know anything about someone else by knowing their grade.
I have five suggestions for you:
One: Stop telling your classmates what your grades are and don’t ask what their grades are. If they ask you about your grade, say “I did well!” or “I feel good about it,” and leave it at that. If they complain about their grades, you don’t actually have to comment or feel any kind of way about it. If you can make this a habit, you will stop coming across as condescending. If you want to celebrate your good grades, find a way to reward yourself for your hard work.
Two: Start a journal or notebook where you keep track not of your grades but of what you learned from each assignment or class and why that knowledge is interesting & important to you. Doodle in this notebook, fill it with quotes and highlighted passages. Write about what you wish you’d done better, and set goals for what you want to do with your next project. Don’t put any grades or talk of grades in this notebook, only things you are learning, things you want to learn, and goals for yourself as a learner. What can you do differently now that you took this class? What will you think about differently going forward? Why are you studying this subject & why is it important to you, & to the world? How can you ask better questions? Push yourself to get the most knowledge out of what you are studying & grades will take care of themselves.
Let’s talk for a moment about what grades are and what they are not. True story: I’m a bright bird like you and grades were very, very important to me as a kid. Then at some point they stopped being so important, for example, when I got straight As in French class and then I went to France and I couldn’t say a damn thing because I didn’t know how to risk and make mistakes and communicate anything important to me. At university, I got Bs and Cs in subjects that I use and think about every single day to this day, courses that moved me and changed my life. Sometimes I could have gotten a better grade if I’d just worked harder, it’s true, and sometimes “not an A” just meant that the course was challenging as hell and was full of other very very bright people. I really struggled with certain kinds of homework and studying, and as an adult I was finally diagnosed with ADHD. I’ll always wonder what my grades would have been like if I’d been treated as a kid.
Now that I am a college teacher, I can tell you pretty much for sure: Grades don’t measure your intelligence or even your knowledge of a subject. They measure your progress within a specific course at a specific school at a specific point in time, and they give the instructor feedback about what you are retaining and how you are applying it. That’s it. Hard work and strong abilities correlate strongly to good grades, but plenty of brilliant, insightful students don’t have the best grades but still learn from their courses. Their learning is just as important and they have just as much value & right to be there as a straight-A student. The second you leave a school environment grades will stop mattering at all, so, what do you actually want to carry with you from all this time you are spending as a learner? Find a way to record THAT – the insights, the lines of poetry, the moments that the universe snaps into sharp relief for you – and let grades be what they are.
Three: Be a beginner at something, in an endeavor that is not academic. Learn an instrument, sing in a choir, work on a theatrical production, or play a sport. Challenge yourself to do something that you aren’t already good at, something that you might even fail at initially, something with a steep learning curve, and something that isn’t graded at all. Extra bonus points if it is something social.
Four: Remove the word “stupid” from your vocabulary as a thing you say & think about other people. It’s an ugly word and it says more about you than it does about anyone you’d ever apply it to. If this is a word that gets thrown around in your family a lot, like, dividing the “brilliant” from the “stupid,” do your best to shed that thinking and to replace it with viewing people positively. That word will only ever hold you back from connecting with other people and from recognizing your own and others’ worth. If you find yourself thinking someone in your class is “stupid,” try a mental exercise where you replace “stupid” with five interesting or positive traits about them. If you don’t know anything about them besides their grades, add that to your mental exercise, like, “Oh wait, I don’t actually know anything about that person.” If you want to know something about them, ask questions, specifically, ask questions about subjects about which they are knowledgable and you are not:
- I’m looking for some new music to listen to. Is there anything you’re loving lately?
- What’s the best place to eat around here?
- Did you do anything good this weekend?
- What’s the best class you’ve taken here so far? Got any recommendations for great teachers?
Five: Make stuff.
Make an app, or a website, or a zine, or a painting, or a song, or an essay, or an article, or a dance, or a play, or a movie, or a music video. If you’re science-y, invent something or investigate a question. Crochet a scarf of a sweater. Make a sign for a protest rally. Whatever it is that moves you, find a way to make stuff and keep making stuff. Seek out learning opportunities and classes that let you make stuff. Make stuff that is janky and unfinished and then make it again, or make more of it. Making stuff means learning how to fail and then fail better. It means taking risks and solving problems. It means applying your knowledge. Sometimes it means collaborating with others, which can be a very useful and beautiful thing. It means that learning is an alive thing that you are using in your life and not just a conversation between you and your grades.
You can tell that something is off about how you + school + your peers are interacting, and you’re asking the right questions. Now is time to learn, but you can also go to festivals. Kiss people if you want to. Look around the world at the young people who are protesting and creating and changing it and resolve to be one of them. Make mistakes. Take classes and try things that are too hard for you. Forgive yourself and other people for not being perfect. Learn to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Realize that other people are universes who have everything to teach you.