Three point five eight. Three point eight three. Two point six four. Three point nine eight. And the coveted four point oh. When did these numbers begin to define our identity, our place in society, our self worth?
In the US, high schools assign GPAs and class ranks to students as a method of communicating to colleges who the top students from the school are. In Texas, where I’m from, some colleges even guarantee acceptance to students who graduate in the top ten percent of their class. In theory, this is a great reward to students who have done their best, turned in honest work, and made difficult sacrifices to get the best education possible. But in reality, it turns the high schools into war zones, with the top performing students all pitted against one another.
This has to stop. We mustn’t define our worth based on how we compare to others, because we are all equal in dignity and worth. We are all human, and we are all worthy of respect, love, and a healthy understanding of ourselves. We all matter. We are all important, in our own way. We don’t have to be the best at everything. We don’t even really have to be the best at anything. Our value comes from our humanity, not our grades, our athletic performance, or anything else. We all seek to make our lives matter, but pushing to the top of the high school food chain is not the way to do that.
I’m writing this as a survivor of this overly competitive, heart breaking system. In February of 2012, I was informed of my GPA and class rank for the first time. They were giving them out during lunch, and I had the last lunch, so I had to wait, eavesdrop on the whispers of people who had received texts from their friends, glance into my purse at my cell phone (which was definitely off, because those are the rules) every few minutes, and tick off the numbers by process of elimination. By my lunch, I knew that 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19 and 20 had already been claimed. So I was either 1 (impossible) 2 (ha!) 3 (not likely), 7, 12, 13, 16, or (gulp) less than 20.
My tummy tossed and turned as I waited in line, and heard more of the numbers I coveted crossed off the list. Finally, it was my turn. “Tinley,” I said. “Carissa.” The parent volunteer recognized me, and skimmed the first few pages, expecting me to at least be in the first 50…I wasn’t. I wanted to cry. She picked up the list in alphabetical order, found me, and finally smiled. Then, she reached for the back of the pile (!!!!) and pulled the last page.
“Congratulations,” she said, as she handed me a sticker with the number 2 on it.
But only for a moment, until I realized that just one person had done better than me. At that moment, one of the proudest moments of my life became one of the most shameful, as I determined that the next time I got my sticker, I’d be 1.
I was never 1. Throughout high school, I beat myself up, struggled, blamed myself, blamed others, picked up destructive habits, and generally just didn’t handle things well. I didn’t come to terms with the understanding that 2 was pretty rocking until I stood up at graduation, in front of my entire graduating class, and gave a speech.
It’s ridiculous that students are under this kind of pressure, for a few points that don’t effect them post graduation. I’ve never met a professor who cared that I did well in high school; they want to know that I can perform now. I’ve never been asked about my high school class rank on a job or internship application; they want to know about my current college GPA, my leadership roles, and my past experiences. Numbers can get students in the door, but once they’re there, they have to show that they know something, and if they’ve spent the entirety of high school weighing how to get the best grade, rather than figuring out how to write a paper, do algebra, and give a presentation, they’re not going to get past the entry way.
At the end of the day, every person has dignity, whether they have a four point oh or a one point two. Our intellectual abilities do not qualify or quantify our human worth, and every high school student out there right now needs to know that. There is no reason for a 10th grader to pull 2 all nighters in a row just to get his work done on top of his commitments to the football team, marching band and local youth group. Sleep. Eat. Breath. Enjoy your childhood while it’s still here.
For me, learning that my value is inherent and not dependent on my performance was a huge relief. Suddenly, I wasn’t competing for the rest of the world to see how smart I was—I was excelling for myself, and no one else. The first time I got final grades back in college, I didn’t have a four point oh. And I was so proud of myself. I had read every reading, shown up for every lecture, studied for every test, and learned a mountain of new things. I knew that Allende was democratically elected in Chile, and how to conjugate the perfect imperfect tense in Spanish. I knew how to write a good essay, and that the Supreme Court has given Americans a lot of liberties in the realm of free speech. I knew things I never knew I wanted to know. And that felt better than the highest GPA I’ve ever had.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with striving for greatness. Just that we needn’t compare ourselves with others quite so much. So for those of you who haven’t tasted the poison that is your class rank and GPA, I challenge you: Don’t go pick up that sticker, or piece of paper, or whatever it is that your school gives out. If you’re already doing your best, it’s not going to make any difference in your life. Just keep up the good work.
Written by Carissa Tinley, a current WYA NA Intern from New York University.