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Being a high school overachiever left me unprepared for the real world

Jul. 5, 2017
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The path of success was supposed to be steadfast and simple for the “academic elite.”

Those with GPAs high enough to rival mountaintops, those whose dedication to their classwork was unrivaled by all of their peers—the kids that would stay up until the latest hours of the night and into the morning as it dawns, just to go over a concept just one more time and prove to themselves that they were everything that their teachers, parents, and peers had made them out to be: corporate ladders were designed for us, the high-rolling group that had a fire in their bellies for success and a hunger for not only success but power. 

Ever since childhood, the separation between the “smart kids” and the “dumb kids” has been organized by color and shape, classrooms and concepts, and the ability for one to conquer and succeed where the other crashed up against their shortcomings.

via: Tumblr

I remember the way that I would patiently wait for the day at the start of each new school year where our ability to read and write was tested. Like obedient puppies, students would be called by name to the back of the room to sit with the teacher as she drilled words through our brains and out of our mouths, watching with seasoned eyes to see who would stumble and who would surpass the rest. I remember the way I felt the pounding in my chest and the sweat across my palms and down the blue satin of my dress as I slid myself into the chair across from my proctor, eager to show her everything that I knew. I wanted to feel the way her voice lifted when she told me I had done an exceptional job. I chased the high of feeling satisfied and successful, ahead of the pack.

Our names went on the board, color coded and organized by those who had proven their intellect and those that continued to fall short.

“Reading groups,” they called them.

“Boundary lines,” as I remembered.

From those early kindergarten days to the late hours just before our high school graduation, I remember the way that the colors divided us. Test after test, character evaluation after character evaluation, each child was weeded out and slotted into their “proper place.” Though it started as childhood innocence and the ease of being friends with those that you spent more time with, it grew into the adolescent perception of perceived differences: refusing to sit at lunch with those in “Regular” English instead of AP. My group of friends, originally formed by way of convenience, became a carefully selected group of those with just as much ambition and drive as myself. Those who had fallen short so long ago continued to do so, as if the cavern had become too deep to climb out of, so why bother in the first place? And no high-achiever was willing to brave the embarrassment of taking a “Regular” elective as opposed to another dual-enrollment course. How awful it would feel, to the children who’ve always been told how superior they are, to be caught dead in a room with the “Regular Kids”? None of us dared to feel “Regular.”

How could we? What would it mean for us if we were to go against the hours of tutoring and training we experienced to learn that each of us were superior to the rest of the masses? Who would we become if we lost our badges of intellect? These tokens of our worth were our prize possessions—stamped and sewn into every fiber of who we were and who we would become, like delicate flowers preserved to be pressed into a book cataloguing those who had earned their place and those who had not. 

And who knows why our ambition persisted: was it the benevolent love of the teachers and school board as they corralled us into another difficult class to earn another dollar for the school or raise that “B” rating to an “A”? Or the look of guilt stretched across the faces of our parents and friends when we received anything below a “B” on a test—was that the true trigger on our desire to keep going?

On graduation day, the class of us that had been so long divided by rank and caste, AP and Credit Recovery, was finally a whole in subtle shades of navy blue: from tassel to torso. 

The “brightest” of us sat onstage in front of the meticulous straight rows, like kings and queens before the commoners, with gold sashes across our necks.

Our final badge of honor.

Our final Reading Groups. 

Our final Boundary Line. 

We were made to feel superior, the gold honor sashes tightened around our necks like nooses, though we did not yet recognize them as such. In the pit of my stomach, looking around at the faces and hearing the names that I knew I would someday forget, I felt suddenly smaller than I had in a long time. 

In high schools across the nation, there were so many just like us: so many “smart” kids with dreams and goals, passions extending beyond the boundaries of public education, and ambition defining them straight to their cores. 

We were not the “elite.”

Here, in this small school, we just happened to be the first to graduate and first to get tied down to the realities of the real world. But out there, without a world of people telling us how special we are or what potential we have, we’re just—“Regular.”

And that is a reality I have yet to learn how to face.

How do you exist without an identity you have spent your whole life accumulating? How do you face the reality of going to a smaller college than the one you’d always dreamed you’d attend? How do you understand that—no matter how hard you work or the connections you make—there are simply not enough resources for you to immediately go after what you want? How do you grapple with the idea that there is, and always will be, somebody better for the job?

In all honesty, I don’t think you do. I think you simply learn to deal with the cards that you’ve been dealt, and to take each day as it comes instead of pushing yourself to live for a future that doesn’t exist. I think you have to remember that the character traits people remember are not necessarily the ones that matter the most. I think that you become a better human the moment you start taking steps forward as opposed to taking steps back.

I think you become more intelligent the moment you stop looking for the “Boundary Lines” and try crossing over to the other side instead.

Many of us find our bubbles and get comfortable inside of them. We feel safe when there is nothing outside trying to penetrate in, where we can sit and stay and be safe. But I will tell you that I have never learned more in my life than when I took a class in a room full of kids in my grade whom I had never seen before—not once in my entire time in the education system. I have never felt more out of place in a classroom than when I heard words that were foreign and unfamiliar, but exciting enough to keep me engaged. I have never felt more at home than I did with a group of kids who I believed that I had absolutely nothing in common with.

In order to live a productive life, you have to be committed to learning something each and everyday. You have to have the capability to expand your mind enough to understand the differences and similarities between all types of people from all different walks of life. You have to stop being afraid of what’s going to change if you seek to stay the same.

Because the reality is the only real way that one can be “Regular” is forgetting to grow when they need to grow, forgetting to stop and appreciate what’s around them once in awhile. Forgetting to live for the little things, like moving a navy tassel from one side to the other, or watching your mother’s face light up when you show her your diploma. Life is a cumulation of the big things and the small things, for each and every single one of us.

No “Boundary Line” necessary.