A Student Speaks: Why Schools Should Encourage & Celebrate Alternative Paths to Success

This is the fifth post from one of my students. Here, a young lady describes the alienation she feels at falling for the traditional narrative put forward by schools regarding how to be successful. She argues that schools need to encourage students to find and choose their own path.

When I think about all the things that I wanted in my life and all that I’ve strived for up to now, I actually only ever wanted to be okay. And by ‘okay’ I mean successful and happy – normal, in other words. At the heart of it, I just wanted to feel that who I was and what I did was normal, and that my life would turn out alright.

Because of this overriding desire to be normal, I followed a path that was never my own. In the end, following this path ended up causing me to sacrifice a large part of myself. Now, I feel I must talk about it – both to try to regain this missing piece of myself, and to put the idea out there that just because things are a certain way, it does not mean that they have to remain that way.

In my time at school, I have been privileged to have been offered a very good education. Along the way, however, I have come to feel that there is a very deep and very serious problem with the education system. The problem is this: I feel there is a specific story that is being perpetuated in not just schools, but in society in general, and it is this: the idea that there is a single path to success.

This idea begins by defining success as the achievement of high marks in schools and numerous awards, and then continues to post-school life where the achiever ends up at a good university and then in a high position in their career, earning a wonderful salary and living a very happy, successful life. And, of course, if I depart from the trail and try to go my own way, or if I fail or rebel, then I risk being miserable and unsuccessful. While the narrative isn’t wrong, the degree to which it has been perpetuated, has made it dangerous.

From my own personal experience and from what I've observed around me, the 'good-grades-good-uni-good-life' fairytale has been socially internalized to such an extent that we believe it is an unbreakable formula for success. Those that don’t conform to this are seen as somehow “less”. This, of course, results in an overall hierarchy in society where people are judged according to how close their lives are to the narrative: the more money we earn and achievements we receive, the higher we are on the hierarchy, thus the more “important” or “worthy” we are.

And the less we conform, the less we are worth.

In my country, the white blazer has, in many ways, become the symbol for the narrative on a school level. The white blazer is awarded on the condition that a student receives full colors in at least three of the four disciplines of Academics, Sports, Culture or Service. It is a way of rewarding a student who is able to excel in multiple aspects of school life. It is also used as a way to motivate younger students to follow in their footsteps and strive to achieve to that same level? But the white blazer has also resulted in the idea that there is one, unbreakable formula for success. The white blazer becomes something that we are made to feel that we need in order to be successful. In a way, the white blazer is a straight-jacket which binds you to the formula put forward by the traditional education system.

This year, I was offered the opportunity of receiving a white blazer, after having achieved full colors in the disciplines of Academics, Culture and Service. After much soul searching, I chose to decline the white blazer, as I felt that I did not support what it stood for. It was not an easy decision, and one which I’m sure many people still don't understand. However, the whole ‘white blazer’ episode spurred me to think hard about the state of society, and how I have come to experience it through the education system.

I believe that we have lost sight of what it really means to be educated. For a long time, I equated being educated to getting high marks. It became me wanting to do debating or to do well academically, or even to help those in need, for the awards that I would receive, rather than for the enjoyment and the value of these activities in and of themselves. I felt that achieving these awards would somehow make me more worthy as a person. When it came round to the colors and academic assemblies, I received my awards with more relief than pride: Relief that I had managed to stay in the Top 10 of the grade, or relief when I had received half-colors for debating because it meant that as a person, I was good enough. And I believe that for many of us young people these days, it's the same: there is a desire for the marks and the awards and the achievements, as we believe that these are necessary for us – but rather, it should be about growing as individuals, about identifying and honing those things we love doing.

Since Grade 10, I suspected that tying my self-worth to my achievements was a damaging thing to do, but I never fully came to terms with it. When the exam periods came around, I would become so crippled with fear that I might fail and do badly in the exams. What was worse was that I had considered anything below an ‘A’ to be a failure. Because of the small margin of error that I allowed myself to have during the exam season, I became terrified of exams and I would constantly be on the verge of tears because I felt that I had to do well, but at the same time I worried about what would happen to me if I didn't.

I know that it is even worse for those who get low marks at school. We have learned to equate our intelligence with our ability to write tests and exams, and those that are not good at writing tests and exams, they are labeled as ‘dumb’. Even if they are incredibly good at other things, they are called ‘slow’ or even ‘stupid’. Slowly, we start to internalize this and to believe it's true. It ends up affecting us for many, many years after we leave school.

I realize that by tying my worth to my marks, I sacrificed a large part of myself in the process, in hopes that I might fit the narrative better. I sacrificed my own happiness and, in many ways, my own individuality as I felt like I couldn't be who I wanted to be. It became so bad, and I became so driven by my insecurity that I no longer saw my own friends as people that I could trust, but rather as threats or people that I had to “beat” so that I could get my good marks. In that way, I alienated myself from my friends and I made myself feel very alone. Eventually, my fear of doing badly actually caused me to do badly, and I had no one to confide in because I wasn't able to allow myself to trust my friends and concede to the fact that I was not coping. What made it all even worse was that when I looked around, it felt as if everyone was coping and “had it together”, which made my own feelings of panic feel silly. I felt that it was wrong to not be able to cope.

I don't believe I'm alone in this feeling. I look around at my very brilliant and intelligent grade and I believe many of them feel the same way. I've seen people push themselves to try and fit the image of the student who is excelling and has their life together. I've seem my one class look for a memo before even attempting the work they were given. I've seen how my one class is so reluctant to put their hands up in class for fear of asking a stupid question or getting a wrong answer. And I've seen the people just give up because they think they're failures. It breaks my heart because they don't see the brilliance and uniqueness in themselves that I, and the people around them, see. I have spoken to many of my friends about this, and I have seen a sadness appear in their eyes that tells me that I am not alone.

I believe that the overall status quo – and and how it as permeated into the education system – is bad because it has made us feel that we have no choice but to conform. All of us want to feel that who we are and what we do is okay. We crave it from others and we crave it from ourselves. If we see that society and the people that we love laud and accept a certain kind of person, we would most likely want to be like that person because it would mean that we, too, would be accepted. We believe that there is no other way to gain acceptance and to feel okay with who we are.

David Wong said that “there are two ways to dehumanize someone: by dismissing them, and by idolizing them.” Schools do both of these things. They dehumanize students who don't achieve by dismissing them as ‘failures’. They also, however, dehumanize those who do follow the success-via-high-marks-and-achievements narrative by celebrating them with awards. As a younger child coming into the school, I saw all of this, and because I saw how these students appeared to benefit from the white blazer, I had a desire for that too. Now, I’m afraid that, like me, many will opt for the white blazer path without realising how dehumanising it can be.

This is why I chose to decline the white blazer: I reclaimed my humanity by reclaiming my choice. This, for me, is what I have been fighting for and hoping to achieve. The idea I want to put out there is that we have the right and power to make our choices. We have the freedom to choose our own path. For a long time I believed that the white blazer was something that I wanted and that it was something on my path. I did not realise, nor believe that my path could be any different because I believed that there weren’t any other paths would lead me to being okay. Now, I have come to realise that getting good marks and many achievements may be one path, but it is not the only path. It is also not my path; I have my own. By declining the white blazer, I am reclaiming my choice and saying to myself that I can not conform and it will still be okay.

Choices, I believe, are worth celebrating. And it is what I believe schools should start encouraging more explicitly. I never believed that I had a choice to decide what path I wanted to follow because I had always felt like I had to follow what society and schools deemed as normal and acceptable. Knowing that I do have a choice and that my choices can be different has made a big difference in my life. Knowing that my choices are valid and important also helps me realize that I don’t need external validation to feel okay either. More than anything, I want us to believe that we have the power in our lives, and this power comes in the choices that we make. I want us to believe that, while a certain system exists, if we don’t agree with it, we have the power to opt out of it and be the people that we want to be. That, ultimately, will make us feel okay.

Thank you for your time.

Image: https://flic.kr/p/avZwdj



One comment

  1. This young student makes an excellent general point. Society and schools do favour the traditional stereotypical path to success. In schools we generally educate for university – sidelining those very different but wonderful alternative paths.


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