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B is for bad. B is for below average. B is for bile rising in my throat I stare at the hated letter, smugly dark on my computer screen. Taunting me, a visible, unchangeable reminder of my failure. Base, bitter, broken.
If there was an R grade, that’s what I should have gotten. R for realization, R for reality check, R for regret. Realization: I screwed up. Reality check: this is for real, forever. Regret: I let this happen. I could have done something to avoid this, and I didn’t.
Senior year of high school, aka hell on earth. College applications loom over everyone. Pressure from parents and teachers increases exponentially, even as motivation begins to trickle away. Senioritis, they call it. This plague attacks 17-year-olds, decimating grades, GPAs, expectations, futures.
A few people seem to hardly suffer from this affliction. There are those who are too far gone to care—the ones who never had any motivation to begin with. At the other end of the spectrum are the kids with enough motivation for an entire class. They are the valedictorians, the grade-skippers, the straight-A-plus-plus students, the future Harvard graduates.
Then there are the rest of us, ranged along our neatly alphabetized spectrum of six letters. I’m near the top. I have straight A’s, and even though I may not be the best outright, I’m one of the best. I’m recognized as one of the smart kids, but although I would never admit it to anyone for fear of losing that status, my grades don’t come effortlessly. Easily, yes, but I do have to study. I’m not one of the lucky few who can spend their entire high school career coasting on a wave of perfect scores and unopened textbooks.
In spite of everything, I made it through the fall with my GPA intact, my applications submitted promptly, and high hopes for next year. Spring semester, however, was another story.
I’ve been through the mill of college applications, of course, along with the rest of my grade. En masse, we fed our hopes and dreams into that gaping maw and waited anxiously. The lucky ones got theirs back, bigger and brighter than ever. The rest of us had the tattered remains of our futures handed back to us in shreds, accompanied by a distant apology of questionable sincerity.
Rejection, waitlist, rejection again. Time after time I was told “no”. Told, despite words hastening to reassure me otherwise, that I wasn’t good enough. I got into good schools, but not the good schools. The top Ivies, including my secret dream college, remained crushingly out of my reach.
At last it was over. I had three piles of letters that would determine my fate. The nights spent pushing myself until I fell asleep at my desk, the constant worry and stress, the endless recalculation of my grades…over. My whole life thus far had led up to getting into college, and I had at least managed that, if not as well as I might have liked.
Then the senioritis really set in. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. All I wanted to do was rest, hide, give myself a break from the daily struggle that had consumed so much of my life. The thought of school was sickening, but I still had half a semester to go.
I did it, I wanted to scream. I got into college, just like you wanted. Nothing I do now can change which ones rejected me. I didn’t know if my silent cry of desperation was meant for my parents, my teachers, or myself.
Every day was torture. I wanted to be anywhere but where I was, do anything but the mundane busywork I still had to do. I started slacking off, even as I hated myself for doing so. A homework assignment turned in with a few blank answers, a sleepless night spent mentally yelling at myself for being so lazy.
At last came the torture of final exams, but the light at the end of the tunnel was finally visible. Soon it would be over, high school would be behind me forever.
Waiting for final grades was a process only slightly less stressful for a self-destructive perfectionist than college admissions. Amazingly, I dragged forth A’s in the first three of my classes that I checked, and I started to relax ever so slightly.
Then, shock. Like a punch in the stomach, knocking the breath out of me, leaving me staring in wordless horror.
B for blew it. B for believe it, because now you’re stuck with it. In my world, anything other than an A may as well be an F. All my life I’ve had straight A’s, and now this at the very end. the first B of my life.
Failure. The word bounces around in my head, stirring my numb thoughts, stabbing them with a relentless barrage of criticism. Somehow, they must have known. All those colleges I got rejected from, somehow they could see my mediocrity. They were right to reject me. I’m an idiot. I’m worthless.
I don’t know how long I sit there before I hear footsteps and my dad walks in. One look at my stricken face tells him that something awful has happened, but he says nothing. Only raises an eyebrow questioningly, waiting for me to tell him.
“I—“ I breathe, try again. This time I manage to choke out the hated, unfamiliar words. “I got a B.”
He looks at me silently, and I start to panic. I imagine being dragged down to face the rest of my family, seeing their disappointment and feeling it resonate deep within me.
“So?” my dad says, after what seems like an eternity. With that one syllable, he has taken all my distress, my shame, my horror, and tossed it aside like it’s nothing. With that one word, he turns and walks away, leaving me to wallow in my misery alone. How could he be so callous? How can he be okay with the failure I have become? He must not care. If he doesn’t care about my grades, that must mean he doesn’t care about me.
I spend the evening alone in my room, trying and failing to come to terms with the loss of my straight-A status. The B, my final grade, stares accusingly at me from across the room. Threatening me with visions of rescinded admissions offers, a future spent working a minimum-wage job and taking night classes at community college. I can’t bring myself to look at my other grades, dreading what I might see.
Academics have consumed my life, become my life. Without that, without my straight A’s, I don’t know who I am anymore.
It’s not until past 3am that I finally realize what my dad’s casual dismissal of this catastrophe meant. As I myself have thought so many times, nothing I’ve done since admissions decisions were released could change what has already been decided. One more semester of straight A’s wouldn’t change Harvard’s mind. My own previous statement echoes back at me: I’ve already gotten into college. The desperate scramble for acceptances ended a few months ago, except it seems I didn’t quite get the memo.
I think about my peers, the ones who got into schools of the same caliber as I did. Not all of them have straight A’s, I realize. A less than perfect GPA has not destined them for a life of shame and failure.
My epiphanies come faster. Once again I find myself staring at that B on my computer screen, but now I feel differently about it than I did just 12 hours ago.
B is for breathe. B is for the break I've never had.
It’s over. In a way, I’m off the hook now. I’m no longer a straight-A student, and therefore no longer being crushed under the unrelenting pressure to stay that way. I’ve gotten my first B, paving the way for others in the future. With that first shocking B over with, I no longer have to obsess over perfection. Like the schools that rejected me, a lifetime of perfect grades is now beyond my reach.
Naturally, I still wonder. What would it have been like to have finished high school with straight A’s? To have been valedictorian? To have pushed myself that extra bit senior year?
I wonder, and although my thoughts are still tinged with regret for what I have lost, I don’t obsess. Instead, to my surprise, I feel a slowly growing sense of relief at having escaped. Sure, my GPA suffered a little at the end, but my sanity and my social life are probably the better for it.
I am approaching a huge point of transition in my life, a time of discovery, exploration, search for identity. What better time to untangle my identity from my grades? They are, in fact, separate entities.
I am not my GPA.
I am not my SAT scores.
I can be so much more than the letters and numbers that I have let define me for so long.
I am not perfect.
But that’s okay. I don’t need to be perfect to have a future, a career, a life. And I will have these things, I’m sure of it.
B is for beginning.