I stared at the large 64 circled in red at the top of my test: one point from passing. I folded the paper in half and hurried out of class, too embarrassed to look my teacher in the eye. This was the third time in a row I had failed a test.
“How did you do?” my friend Julian asked as I struggled to get my locker open.
“Um, fine,” I replied. A math and science whiz like Julian wouldn’t understand how hard these subjects were for me.
“By fine do you mean a 100? Or another 92?” he teased.
I shoved my biology notebook into my bag, and then turned to look at him and the lie tumbled out.
“A freaking 94!” I choked out.
“Oh, what a devastation! Your math average is now a 96? How awful.”
I rolled my eyes but felt my heart lurch.
Dreams Collide With Reality
When I was 5, I decided I wanted to be an artist. I imagined myself living in Paris, eating baguettes, and splattering paint across canvases that would sell for millions of dollars.
Then I entered school, where I was swept into the world of standardized testing. My education revolved around grades and percentages.
“Being an artist means you won’t make money,” my mom said. “Be a doctor instead.”
Motivated by her experience as an immigrant and her desire for my success, she continued. “Look at Ree,” she said, showing me my older cousin’s report cards with all A’s and sparkling teacher comments. “She is so smart. She’s going places. Learn from her.” I wanted to please my mother so I aspired to be like Ree. I threw myself into my studies.
I strove for excellence. When Ree was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, I decided that the only colleges I would consider were the Ivies. When she decided to major in computer science, I decided to pursue that too.
A Place to Compete, Not Learn
When I started high school, I assumed I’d continue the path of academic success I had in middle school. Being valedictorian of my tiny 8th grade class earned me a ticket to Stuyvesant, the most sought-after high school in the city. I thought that as long as I continued to study hard, my grades wouldn’t be a problem.
But Stuyvesant’s competitive environment intimidated me. The students competed to dominate class discussions, enjoyed solving difficult math equations, and aced tests. They were the city finalists in track and field and volunteered at homeless shelters on the weekends. They seemed confident, happy, and able to achieve the perfect balance of grades, social life, and sleep.
My first semester was rough. I’d go to school, be bombarded with knowledge, fight with other kids to participate, and then go home to do more studying. Math and science were huge challenges.
Part of my difficulty with math was that my German-accented geometry teacher sped through equations in a monotone that made everything sound exactly the same. And my biology teacher liked putting surprise AP questions into our tests “for fun.”
These struggles eventually manifested themselves in the lowest grades I’d ever received. I felt like a failure. When I got my report card, I nearly choked at my 75 in geometry. I also got a disappointing 80 in biology.
Mountain of Lies
When my friends asked me about my report card, a lump formed in my throat. “A 94,” I’d quickly reply before changing the subject. Maybe if I kept saying 94, my 75 would change into one.
Lying to my friends became a habit. It felt good to see their admiration and to be labeled as a smart kid at Stuyvesant.
For a while I was able to keep the truth from my parents. When my dad saw one of my math tests, he grew concerned and asked if I wanted additional tutoring. I brushed off the test score as just a bad day and told him everything was fine.
In truth, I was too proud to accept that I needed a tutor. I hadn’t needed additional help before, so accepting tutoring felt like accepting failure. Also, I did not want a tutor talking with my father and revealing how badly I was actually doing.
At the end of the year, although I did well in my other classes, the geometry and biology grades brought my average down to an 89. Deep down I knew an 89 was not bad. But the average score at Stuyvesant was a 92, so going from straight As in middle school to a subpar score was devastating to my self-esteem. I told my friends that my average was 93.
I thought about leaving Stuyvesant all the time. I’d often lie awake at night wishing I had gone to LaGuardia, which specialized in the arts, or Eleanor Roosevelt. Both were great schools that had accepted me but weren’t as competitive as Stuyvesant.
But I stayed at Stuyvesant because although the academic rigor intimidated me and I stressed over my grades, I loved everything else. I loved my friends, the size of the school, and the drive of all 3,200 students passionately pushing each other, testing the limits of what was possible for high school students to achieve. While I felt far from successful, I still felt proud to be a part of that energy.
Release Through Writing
In the beginning of sophomore year, my grades were pretty good, except for trigonometry. Stuck with the same math teacher, I continued to struggle.
Meanwhile, I fell in love with my European literature class. I was fond of the open-ended discussions and personal connections our teacher urged us to make with the texts. He encouraged us to write in our own voice, untethered by structural requirements and page limits.
In these papers I let out all my frustrations. I wrote about why I hated math. I wrote about my family’s expectations. I wrote about me.
My teacher’s feedback was encouraging and constructive. For the first time, a teacher was responding to my thoughts and feelings rather than just providing grammatical or structural corrections. Through this writing process, I realized I needed to confront my anxieties head on.
One rainy day, I finally sat down with my parents and had a proper talk about school. My mother stared at my latest report card. My father, seated in my desk chair, stared at me with furrowed eyebrows.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were doing this bad in math and science?” he asked.
“Because I knew you’d be disappointed!” I replied, exasperated. “I’m in the bottom 75% of Stuyvesant! I stay up every night studying, and you know what? I’m just bad at math! I’m bad at science! I’m bad at everything I’m supposed to be good at!”
They were quiet, watching me work myself into a frenzy. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“All my friends talk about is grades. I lie to them all the time because I don’t want them to think I’m dumb. What’s the point in going to this school if I’m only going to be miserable?”
My mom sat down beside me. “Don’t think your dad and I don’t know how great you are at writing and history,” she said encouragingly. “We’re not disappointed because you did poorly in math and science. We’re disappointed because you didn’t tell us how hard it’s been for you. We could’ve helped you.”
“I don’t want to disappoint you,” I said quietly.
“We don’t want you hating school,” my father said. “We just want you to try your best and find something you like. It doesn’t need to be computer science or engineering. We’re behind you, daughter.”
“Don’t be so rough on yourself,” my mother chided. “That’s my job, remember?”
More Than Grades
After talking with my parents, I began taking steps toward making myself happier. I still studied hard, but I didn’t beat myself up when my grades weren’t in the 90s. I joined the theater club, painting sets and producing shows.
I’ve also discovered how much I love history. My inner artist resurfaced, merging with my passion for history. This motivated me to sign up for a museum program in art history where I made some of my best friends.
I still have to work on convincing myself that my grades don’t define me. I have stopped comparing myself to my cousin Ree. I used to think I had to get into an Ivy like her to succeed. But I’m applying instead to smaller liberal arts colleges where I can study art history and ancient and European history, subjects I am excited to learn more about. Now, to me, success means personal growth, finding what I’m passionate about, and committing to it.