I got good grades in High School. I didn’t understand how important this was to my self-esteem until I got to college and stopped getting good grades.
Now, I had always maintained, even from an early age, that I hated grades on principle. I despised “track systems” and “advanced classes” that placed certain students into elite groups of “smart kids with bright futures,” leaving the the rest of the kids to hope their Summer community service trip to Guatemala would be interesting enough on paper to get them into a good college.
I stand by these opinions. Grading is a system where every student is held to an arbitrary standard of excellence; a system that is absolutely prey to the prejudices and whims of specific teachers, prejudices that include blatant examples of racism and sexism (there’s plenty of literature on that subject); a system that is designed to categorize certain students as smarter than others, as though the ability to write a timed essay about A Tale of Two Cities or remember what years Rutherford B. Hayes was president are the only metrics of intelligence and ability that we should care about. Grading is elitist and exclusionary, and it shuts out anyone who doesn’t conform to a rigid, arbitrary standard.
And yet, I was always railing against a system in which I technically profited. I happened to be one of those students who could write that essay about Dickens’ fascination with redemptive story arcs; I could memorize dates and spit them back out. And even as I watched what getting Cs and Ds did to the self-esteems of my friends – my artistic, interesting, brilliant friends who simply thought about things a little differently than their teachers did – I continued to covet my As, my teachers’ assertions that I was “going places”, that I was a Good Student with a Bright Future.
So why was I also miserable? I was an anxiety-ridden mess throughout High School, and chastised myself brutally whenever I messed up. I felt an enormous, unspoken pressure to succeed. So neither I nor my D-average friends were happy with ourselves – the very existence of grades prohibited us from ever relaxing or enjoying our fleeting childhoods. We were, at all times, preoccupied with these artificial constructs of either failure or success.
Then I got to college, and through a combination of untreated mental health problems (including severe depression), social stressors, and general poor workload management, my academic performance began to slip. My scores dropped. And as my scores dropped, so did my regard in the eyes of my professors. My feedback became terse and unhelpful. “Study harder,” a Latin teacher once told me when I tried to reach out to him for help. “Just study harder.” That’s all he had for me. As far as he was concerned, I was just another lost cause.
I internalized this feeling. You are worthless. You can’t cut it. You won’t amount to anything. You’ve failed everyone who has ever believed in you. You could disappear from this campus tomorrow and no one would even notice your absence. You contribute nothing. In part because I was taught that my worth as a person depended on things like SAT scores, and what college I went to, and what my GPA was. And all of this fed into – and was fed by – my depression. Academic pressure and depression are, I believe, as symbiotic as honey bees and sweetclover.
Eventually, I was so depressed I stopped bothering to show up to my classes. In the middle of my fourth semester, in which I was on academic probation and in imminent danger of being kicked to the curb, I was whisked off to a psych ward for putting a razor to my wrist and drawing blood.
I’m one of the lucky ones. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from all medical illnesses combined. Campus suicide is a modern epidemic. It would be irresponsible and horrific for me to blame these deaths on teachers or parents – most of whom, I’m sure, did try to intervene in the heartbreaking downward spiral of suicidal ideation. Nor do I claim that only kids with bad grades are prone to depression or suicide – in fact, as I mentioned before, grading is a double-edged sword where even successful students have an enormous burden thrust upon them: the burden of competition, of maintaining their place on the Dean’s List, of not letting themselves slip, no matter what might be going on with them. Lastly, it is important to mention that even people with access to mental health care and absolutely no outside pressures of any kind can still be suicidal. So this is not a post about assigning blame, but rather a call to action for all of us to reduce environmental stressors that are contributing to the problem.
We aren’t intrinsically taught to be on the lookout for signs of depression or anxiety. Mass suffering is going overlooked in our schools, not through malice, but through ignorance and neglect. But mental health awareness – while crucial – is not enough to fix this problem. We need to question some of the basic tenets of our academic system. Instead of building up kids who are struggling, we tell them to just try harder, and allocate the majority of our attention and resources on the students who are succeeding. And then to those students, the message becomes, “You better not screw up this opportunity!” As someone who has been on both sides of this, and known firsthand the damage it does to one’s sense of self-worth, I unequivocally call for an end to grading.
Let’s focus instead on building up our children’s sense of self-worth as much as we possibly can, regardless of how much Dickens they have read. Let’s make good mental health care, not standardized scores, the #1 priority for all students in America. Let’s stop pretending that it doesn’t hurt all of us to be taught from Day One that certain people are measurably better than others. Let’s intervene long before a trip to the ER is necessary.