Illustration by Nora Talbott
Even as the moonlight streamed in through my window and the wood owl ceased its incessant hooting, I struggled to sleep. I lay taut and stiff like Jeffrey Epstein—although my paralysis was due to fear, not rigor mortis—as a thousand desperate ramblings besieged my mind.
Had I gotten an A on my math test? When would my English teacher grade my essay? Please, can I get at least a 7.5% on my World quiz, so I can keep my grade at an A? Oh god, I have the SAT coming right up in five month’s time.
It should come as no surprise that I barely got any sleep that night. I trudged through the following day like a zombie. It took every ounce of willpower to keep my black-rimmed, sunken eyes open – all because I had spent the previous night obsessing over my grades.
It has become a cliché at this point: Every parent and teacher and counselor will tell us, with the same monotone, with an equal lack of conviction, that grades don’t define us.
Of course, our grades are important. The grading system is a tried and tested metric for measuring a student’s understanding of course material. Good grades in high school can set us up for success in college. So it’s perfectly reasonable that we care about them. But far too often, we take this righteous diligence too far.
The reason I sacrifice my sleep to be tormented by my just-shy-of-4.0 GPA is because I fear the consequences of allowing it to slip. I dread that I might lose my worth. This unremitting fixation we have on how accurately these numbers represent our aptitude has morphed our outlook on the people around us. Our frenzied passion has birthed a mangled, cross-eyed mess, which we no longer use to as an indicator for performance, but as a signal fire for value.
A few days back, while debating a question on a test, I was informed I was wrong because, compared to my opponent, I had a lower grade. I was able to laugh this off. This isn’t something which would consign me to a state of shell-shocked catatonia, but the logic behind this argument is deeply flawed.
This idea that a higher grade automatically elevates a student over their peers exemplifies a caustic mentality. Sure, I wasn’t affected much by it, but consider that there exists a student who might be deeply affected; when they find their peers, their friends, their family looking down upon them as some worthless wretch. My worst nightmare becomes their visceral reality.
Since 2013, teen depression rates have risen by 63%. Yes, there are a multitude of factors which affect depression and mental health, but this extreme preoccupation with our grades is surely one of them.
We focus on getting high grades on tests and quizzes, not learning and apprehension. We focus on competing with our peers, not on establishing meaningful relationships with them. We torture ourselves throughout our four years of high school, subjecting ourselves to a condition of perennial stress. Our grades become a brand, seared into our identity. They erode into the more essential aspects of our personality—our character, our compassion, our love for living—all of which augment our chances of enjoying a happy, healthy life.