My Happiness Skyrocketed When I Lost My 4.0 GPA
Because letter grades should never define your worth
“Stay in school and study hard so that you don’t end up like me.”
My mom got pregnant with me at 16 and would repeat this phrase often when I was younger. Along with some other bangers such as “Don’t grow up and get with any broke, good-for-nothing guys” and “friends will carry you but never bring you back.” Even at a tender age, I understood these directives for what they were: projection and a deep-seated fear that the trail of bad decisions that led to me and later, to my younger sister, would enact an unbreakable cycle of teenage pregnancies and perpetual suffering.
She didn’t need to waste her breath. I had eyes, and I could see what anyone who comes from a low-income household does: unless you’re naturally blessed with raw talent or godlike athleticism, education is the only way out.
A Childhood of Being the “Smart One”
Growing up, I was always the “smart kid.” I received good grades, won awards for academic excellence, and was the point person from whom everyone ferociously copied the homework before the first period — because I was the nerd who actually did the homework.
There was even a period when my English teacher would insist that I read my graded essays out loud for the entire class so that they could “learn what was expected of them.” I dreaded English class because of this. I didn’t write to be read by my peers, and besides, you’re never going to be the popular kid if your teacher trots you out in front of a classroom full of other students like some prized pony and essentially forces you to declare, “you all suck. Do better.”
One time, I faked a stomach ache so I wouldn’t have to read my essay, and she punted the task off to another classmate who hadn’t done too well and made her do it. She gave me the stink eye for the rest of the day. And I wanted to sink into a hole, fill it up with water, then drown and die.
Still, my performance at school mattered to me. I wasn’t the prettiest girl in my year. Not the funniest. Not the most athletic. And certainly not the most popular. Doing well at school felt like the one thing I had going for me. God (if there is one) didn’t give me beauty or rhythm or wealthy parents, but he sure as hell gave me brains.
Academics became a defining part of my life. I staked a large portion of my identity on my ability to perform many mind-numbing tasks, regurgitate facts I never needed to use afterward, and receive rewards in the form of meaningless letter grades. I was a well-trained dog, performing educational tricks for periodic displays of validation.
Nothing Changed Until Everything Had To
Nothing changed with the transition to university.
All our professors warned us on the first day: “be prepared for your grades to drop by 10%. This isn’t high school. Things are going to be different now.”
Only, things weren’t different, far from it. My GPA didn’t fall. In fact, given the specificity and my vested interest in my degree program, I was performing better than I ever had before. My overall GPA was 3.99 (thanks to a professor that “didn’t believe” in A+s), and mid-third year, I had passed four consecutive semesters achieving a 4.0 GPA. And I was *happy.* ‘Happy’ is not the right word, but we’ll use it as a placeholder for now because I convinced myself that happiness is what I felt then.
In the extended summer break before my third year of university, the pandemic started, and I experienced a cataclysmic internal and external shock.
A haphazard shift to virtual learning marked the tail end of the previous semester, which I didn’t hate because I’m an introvert, and I live in Ottawa, where, even in March, it’s cold and snowy as hell. On the contrary, I relished the opportunity to stay indoors. My grades didn’t suffer (yet), and since I was my grades, I didn’t suffer either. Then, suddenly, at the beginning of April, shit got real.
A Global Pandemic Unravelled My Entire Identity
The borders to my home country closed, my roommates and friends in the city moved back home to be with their families, and I was completely and utterly alone. I spent 150 days without physical human contact, spiralled into a semi-major depression and spent every waking moment either eating or wishing for a benevolent being to strike me dead. Not pretty.
Unsurprisingly, I carried this energy forward into the new academic year, and for the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I hated school. I hated every moment of virtual school. The awkward Zoom meetings made my heart race and my tongue feel like lead in my mouth. Sitting for hours on end in my room at my desk, pouring over mountainous stacks of academic papers caused my head to spin and my lower back to sing in protest. And to top it all off, I was sad. All the time.
The vigour and excitement that I previously felt while studying dissipated, and my grades this past semester reflected that. I submitted half-assed research papers worth 35% of my final grade for two classes because I couldn’t muster the will to work any harder than that. I received a hearty 78% on both assignments. I was devastated, but I deserved it. In the end, my 4.0 streak was broken, and my overall GPA dropped to 3.98. I got my first A- ever. I know what you’re thinking: bitch, what? Are you seriously whinging about an A-?
Yes, I am. Only the truest of overachievers will understand, but when you’re constantly reaching for perfection, and that perfectionism becomes a defining part of who you are, anything less than that feels like a personal attack on the core of your being. You feel worthless and empty.
After receiving an A- (objectively not a bad grade), I reached out to my best friend in a tizzy, crying hysterically. Mind you, she is a medical student, so the shit that she studies is about 50x more intensive than what I do. The conversation went as follows:
“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I got a pretty bad grade, and I feel kind of shitty about it. I don’t know what to do.”
“Well, what class was it? And what’s the grade?”
“I got an A- in my PoliSci class.”
Silence. An extended pause, then a heavy sigh.
“If you were anyone else, I would hang up. Why do you think that’s a bad grade?”
“It’s just the lowest that I’ve ever received, and I feel really disappointed in myself.”
“That’s fair, but just because it’s your lowest grade doesn’t mean it’s a low grade. Have you considered that you’re maybe setting an impossible standard for yourself? It’s okay to be regular like the rest of us.”
After the conversation wrapped up, I mulled over what she said and felt like an idiot. And then I thought about it some more and experienced an overwhelming sense of relief.
Somewhere between my mom’s jaded advice and my non-existent sense of self, I began to attach an unhealthy significance to my performance at school. It became less about learning meaningful nuggets of information and more about maintaining an idealized version of myself that I had crafted when I was six years old.
School warped into a measure for how worthy of a person I was. And the drop to an A- felt like an attempt at a backflip that ended in a faceplant onto the cement floor. It hurt like hell at first. Only, instead of breaking my neck and possibly a few teeth in the process, I stood up, shook off the dust, and suddenly saw the world a bit clearer.
This opened the floodgates for real, visceral happiness and a keen understanding that arbitrary letter grades can’t and shouldn’t control your self-worth. I’ve made peace with my A- and the fact that it’s okay not to be perfect at school or in any other aspect of your life. We’re only human and should cut ourselves some slack. We deserve that much.
Of course, I still have so much unlearning and reconditioning of deeply entrenched beliefs to do, but I’m at least aware of toxic thoughts and patterns now and am working to address them when they arise.
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Originally published on Medium