Protect Me from What I Want, Otherwise Known As: Academia Doesn’t Really Care About You

By Kara Hendrickson

Protect Me from What I Want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Protect Me from What I Want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Oh well, Cs get degrees, you know?”

It was just an offhand joke made by a friend in my undergraduate German class after seeing the grade on a paper he hadn’t particularly cared about, but it felt someone had slapped me in the face. No, I didn't know that Cs got degrees. I had never even considered the possibility that anything less than a sparkly clean, straight A transcript would earn me a very expensive piece of paper on graduation day. I learned later that it earned me an empty, plastic diploma cover on graduation day and the very expensive piece of paper in the mail eight weeks later, but I digress. The comment was a revelation.

It was as if the clouds had opened outside the classroom window and G-d himself was yelling, “Hey, dumbass, you don’t have to be perfect!” at me through the glass.

But I did, even if everyone else didn’t. I needed to be.

I’m not sure where I picked up the mentality that I had to be the best at everything I tried. Perhaps it was a consequence of being the eldest child with a needy younger brother who was the object of my parents’ attention, an effort to get them to notice me during their messy divorce. Whatever the case, somewhere along the line, I latched onto academic success as a source of self worth. I judged myself by the grades I received, the praise of my teachers.
Nobody ever told me not to, which was as good as saying, “Yes, keep doing it!” Elementary, middle, high school and college all hounded me with the conception that my record needed to be flawless. You’re never going to get into college and you’re never going to get a job and you’re going to die hungry and ALONE if you don’t get an A on this geometry quiz, you know, right? The earth is literally going to explode into a fiery ball of death if you don’t get 5s on all of these AP tests, take some responsibility, please! You see everyone else’s grades on the roster that was just passed around? You're never going to get anywhere unless you Beat. Them. Down.

I didn’t realize how damaging this was until I was in my twenties, drudging through graduate school. I was a chatterbox in class and all of my professors liked me, but when it came time to write my final essay, I would spend weeks agonizing over it. Hours upon hours, sleepless night after sleepless night, shut up in my bedroom, for a single paper that I would inevitably get an A on. Panic attacks became more frequent, I burst into tears in public, I disengaged from friends for weeks at a time. I loved my classes, but they were clearly making me miserable.
It wasn’t easy unpacking my emotional attachment to academic success. I learned to accept help during the process. And ultimately, I came to see that I will never be in a situation where it matters whether my presentation got a 98 or a 78. No HR person interviewing me for the job of my dreams is going to ask me to pull out my professor’s comments on this one essay from this one semester in this one year. It doesn’t matter if a friend receives a B and I get a C. It doesn’t reflect on who we are, what we are worth.

Despite being well aware of all this now, I still struggle with not letting my grades get to me. And that’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect. A job or a teacher’s admiration isn’t worth sacrificing your mental physical wellbeing. Your value is not and never will be determined by your GPA. As a wise Jewish Canadian once said: YOLO.