I Was a Terrific Student and a Terrible One


It’s Possible to be Both

I was a great student. I never spoke out of turn, I always did my homework, turned in my assignments on time and just generally never caused any trouble. I was every teacher’s dream. But I had a secret the whole time: I hated school.

I don’t mean hate school in the rebellious “I hate learning” sort of way, I mean I hated the structure. I hated the mind-numbing repetitiveness that permeated the place. I did my work mostly out of fear. Fear of getting reprimanded by teachers and parents and fear of losing any claim to a good life if I didn’t get good grades (I had this mindset since elementary school).

The Pressure to Out-Achieve

School and grades have a large impact on our lives whether we like it or not. However, for a kid like me, who was so afraid of not succeeding—of being left behind—it became a destructive thought-cycle that was relentless at times.

I started to become hyper-competitive with myself and others. If I wasn’t top of the class, I was doing something wrong. There’s nothing with wanting to excell and push yourself, but when yoursuccess becomes contingent on someone else not doing as well, then we have a problem.

Traditionally, I was a straight-A student. The only Bs I received on a report card were in high school for a Calculus class and even then only for a semester or two. I was obsessed with As. It got to the point that on some assignments—even if I got an A or high B—my teachers would comment on it. They usually said something to the effect of “Good job, but you can do better than this.” Looking back, it’s mindboggling. Mindboggling how much influence we place on an arbitrary letter grade. Because like I said, if I hadn’t truly believed that those little letters on my report card would determine the course of my life, I would have been the worst student.

The Audacity to Learn and Grow

I suppose the rebellious side of me was stifled for fear of ridicule. I hated most assignments I was given, and couldn’t stand homework, but I did it all. I hated how school seemed to destroy any love for a subject I previously had. I’ve always loved learning and have been an independent learner, seeking out knowledge of my own accord. For me, the assignments and syllabi were stifling. They didn’t allow me to learn the things that were important to me.

I understand the debate for general education. Yes, everyone needs a firm foundation that includes basic English, mathematics, science and social studies. My problem with these subjects wasn’t the subject matter, it was how they were taught.

Everything taught in school is seen as a small cog in the larger scheme of the societal machine. You learn the things you need to so you can pass the exam; you pass the exam so you can get into a good college or grad school, etc.; you get into a good school so you can get a degree; and you get a degree so you can get a higher-paying job. So you see, everything about school, from the moment you walk in on your first day, is about where and how you will fit into society. Either as an obedient lackey or a rebellious heretic that is doomed to fail. The only thing is, reality doesn’t always follow this narrative.


The Square Pegs in the Round Holes

If I’m Henry Ford, I’m going to hire the worker who’s going to assemble those parts on the assembly line exactly as instructed. Someone who isn’t willing to do that isn’t profitable for my business. We see the same pattern in our schools today.

We inform, we do not really teach. We indoctrinate, but we do not really educate. Teaching in schools is done in such a way that we are fooled into thinking that our minds our expanding, that we are learning how to think. In reality, much of what we see is really a grade-school teacher or professor presenting the class with a wheelbarrow of facts, which students take their shovels to and hope to regurgitate as much as possible for the exam.

I was never given the autonomy over my learning that I craved. It was always done on the timetable of someone who had never even met me who had written a textbook thousands of miles away. But I never spoke up about my discontent because of my fear of failure. I was trapped in this dogmatic system that didn’t satisfy my creative or intellectual needs, but was forcing me to stay silent about it.

We Often Don’t Reward New Thoughts

Ever notice that some of the loudest kids in class were also some of the smartest? You wouldn’t be able to tell by their grades, but they usually thought with such an unhindered creativity that it simply had no place in the land of color-in-the-lines and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. These were the kids who were always being told to be quiet, always being sent to the principal’s office. They saw the system around them and they questioned it.

One of the most regrettable failures of the school system is stifling creativity. Out-of-the-box thinkers simply don’t have a place in a system that is designed to create a certain type of citizen, with certain values.

It’s no fault of their own, but teachers simply don’t have the time or resources to entertain every tangent one of these firecracker thinkers might have. It would hinder the whole school process. So, what do we do? We tell them to sit still, be quiet, take notes and not to ask questions that don’t pertain to the lesson.

It’s sad to say and some might be offended by this, but oftentimes the students who perform the best scholastically are not necessarily the smartest, but the ones who conform the most willingly. I was a great example of this. The only difference with me is that I had all these thoughts and impulses, but refrained from vocalizing them due to stigma.

The successful students, the summa cum laude, they are the dedicated doctors. The reliable managers and the associates. They are streamlined right into our workforce system, because that’s exactly what school is modeled after. They thrive in the established system and are deemed the most successful, when the entrepreneur in the back row is doodling to keep himself from falling asleep.


So What do We Do?

It’s easy to criticize, it’s hard to come up with solutions. Simply put, I advocate a system based less on grades, rote memorization and performance on standardized tests and more on individual student interest and passions.

I’ll go into more detail in my next post, but I want to hear from you guys first. What are your thoughts on the education system? Did it work for you or did you find holes in the system? I’m open to diversity of thought and opinion here so let me know in a response or note!