I think I’ve always been a perfectionist. Even as a little kid. I watched and learned from other people. I was never the kid that just went to the edge of the diving board and tried to do a front flip. I watched people try, again and again. I wanted to get everything perfect on the first try.
Looking back, I don’t know who started it. Did my parents set high expectations of me? Did I come out of the womb with high expectations of myself? It was probably a little bit of both. And don’t get me wrong, I’m glad my parents set high expectations of me. It was me setting even higher expectations of myself that got out of hand.
Either way, it was expected that I would get a 4.0 GPA all four years of high school. It’s actually funny because I went to a Montessori school from preschool to 4th grade and they didn’t have grades. We had to do standardized testing every year, but that was all the structure we had (that I remember).
Then, in 5th grade, I changed schools and was introduced to the world of grades. Only no one really explained anything to me, in the beginning. It happened without warning. My teacher sat me down one day and said, solemnly, you have a 76% in Science.
I stared at her blankly and did not understand for the life of me why she was so sad about this.
It was later explained, either by her or by a classmate, that a 76% meant I had a C. And a C was bad. A C was average. I was not average. I was supposed to be perfect.
All of a sudden, there was this system. My homework was worth something. The system was point-based, and to be the best all I had to do was get an A. This was not a difficult task. Most of the points came from simply doing homework and turning it in. I didn’t have test anxiety yet because I hadn’t taken many tests, so I did fairly well most of the time and didn’t worry when I didn’t do as well.
By the time I got to high school, I was a pro at the system. It was easy to get straight A’s, but it was time consuming. I was playing sports, too. In middle school, I did swim team and played soccer. By the time freshman year rolled around, I had to pick one or the other.
Being a club swimmer came with its own set of challenges. I had practice twice a day on Tuesdays and Thursdays, practice every weeknight, and a three-hour practice on Saturday mornings. I regularly started my day at 4:50am and didn’t get home until 6:30 or 7:00pm. I was up doing homework until at least 10 or 11pm, sometimes midnight. I had no social life, aside from the lunch hour at school and the time I spent hanging out with other swimmers.
But still, I got a 4.0.
I had absurd amounts of homework in high school. Absurd. Don’t even get me started on the amount of homework kids have in elementary and middle school these days. Half of it is just busy work. Here, fill out this bullshit worksheet so we can make sure you actually read the chapter. And you want to know what the crazy thing is?
I was so terrified of the idea that I wouldn’t be perfect, that I would lose that perfect 4.0. There just wasn’t enough time in the day to get everything done. A group of friends and I would copy each other’s homework if we didn’t have time to finish it, and we would occasionally cheat on tests because we just had to get 100%. My English teacher always said that it’s the A students you have to worry about when it comes to cheating, and she was 100% right.
We didn’t cheat because we were stupid. We cheated because that’s how you beat the system when you don’t have enough time to get all your work done. We were the smart kids, the valedictorians, the ones who gave speeches at graduation.
And I’m not saying all 4.0 students cheat. I’m sure there are plenty of kids out there who were better than I was, and who somehow found a way to get everything done and never copied someone else’s homework. Good for them!
But I’ll tell you what. The system still beats all of us in the end.
Because we grow up in this world where everything is graded, everything is part of this system, and that’s not real life. We grow up thinking that if you make a mistake, you lose a point, and you’re average. If you make a big mistake, you lose a lot of points, and you’re a failure. In the real world, you have to be able to make mistakes otherwise you’re never going to grow. You’re never going to take risks.
There are worse things in the world than bad grades.
You know what’s harder than getting into college? Paying for it.
There are a lot of scholarships to be had, but they don’t cover the cost of everything. While we were all taking AP tests, some kids were working part-time after school. I started working part-time in high school, teaching swim lessons, but it was only a few hours a week–hardly anything. Maybe the kids that worked on the weekend while we wrote college essays had the right idea.
You know what’s worse than getting bad grades? Being unhappy.
I took Spanish in high school and continued taking it in college. I was originally going to minor in Spanish, but I finally got to the point where I walked into a 400-level Spanish Lit class and had no idea what was going on. It was the first day. The professor was speaking 100% Spanish, 0% English, and he also kind of mumbled so I really didn’t understand half of what he was saying. I realized in that moment that I actually hated Spanish classes and I did not care how much being bilingual would help me in my career.
I dropped the class and replaced it with a business class that term.
I have no idea why I took Spanish classes as long as I did. I felt like I just had to keep going until I was a fluent speaker, but somewhere along the way I realized that wasn’t going to happen unless I went to some Spanish-speaking country for six months or a year and actually immersed myself in the language and culture. I improved my Spanish more while working at a restaurant and speaking Spanish with a few coworkers than I did in all of my college Spanish classes.
I think part of it was not wanting to quit. Quitting is the same as failing, right?
Dropping that Spanish class was a breath of fresh air. I was enjoying taking Psychology classes and I couldn’t minor in both Psychology and Spanish if I wanted to graduate in 4 years. Now, I could focus on the Psychology classes that I actually enjoyed. I was paying for college, after all, so shouldn’t I be doing what I want?
But it wasn’t even about doing what I wanted. It was the system, making me feel like I had to do all of these things because it was the smart thing to do. It was exhausting, always trying to check all the boxes and make sure I was doing the right thing. I lashed out in my own way, tried to rebel against being a perfectionist, but I could never bring myself to do anything really crazy.
My husband and I have been talking about possibly buying a trailer in a year or two and traveling all across the country in it. Living in it! Maybe we’ll have to quit our jobs, maybe we’ll be able to keep our jobs and work remotely. Maybe it won’t end up happening, maybe we’ll find a new dream that we pursue instead.
But this idea of just packing up, getting rid of all my things, living in a trailer with no permanent address is so unlike me that it’s crazy, right? No, I don’t think it’s unlike me at all. I think it is very much like me. I think this desire to live a truly minimalist life, to wake up somewhere new every week, to live my dream now instead of working hard to have enough money to live my dream later, is exactly who I am. I just lost this part of myself somewhere along the way when I became trapped in this system, in all this structure.
Screw the system.
Teach your children that they are worth more than a grade.
Tell them that it’s okay for them to fail. It’s okay for them to forget their homework and face the consequences.
You don’t have to write their college essays for them just so they don’t fail.
Let them learn. Let them follow their interests. If they don’t want to go to college, ask them what they want to do instead.
And let yourself fail.
Let yourself dream. Let yourself imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t stuck in this system. Imagine what you would do if you made the rules.
And then do it.