I was recently asked what word I would use to describe myself. After some thought I settled on determined. Not too strong as to evoke bossiness, but not weak. A balanced word. Defined by Merriam-Webster, determined means: “having a strong feeling that you are going to do something and that you will not allow anyone or anything to stop you.” This word seemed to represent me well. I have always worked very hard to fulfill what I believed to be success. I was then asked if others would characterize me this way, and I quickly answered yes. Everyone knew I worked hard. I studied to achieve the best grades, and I have completed every piece of homework ever assigned to me, and on time. But this question left me wondering what other words people would use to describe me. Hard-working? Studious? Stuck-up? Prudish? Entitled? I was determined, but what else was I?
I definitely wasn’t humble. I have worn my success on my sleeve ever since I can remember. Pride has filled my face as teachers commended my work, quietly feeling successful but also superior as my writing was read aloud and I was clapped on the back. I congratulated my friends who also succeeded, as, unknown to us, we created a pact of upper middle class white elitists, patting each other on the back for all of the great and wonderful successes in our short lives.
As I entered middle school, I began to judge others. On the classes they took, the clothes they wore, and the way they did their hair. My friends and I rose on a wave of success, good grades, and perceived popularity. My determination grew. Grew out of wanting to be better, to be the best. I approved of others if they were in honors classes – that was the only way to separate the associables from those better left to themselves.
So I rode this wave of superiority and prejudice up and up, until I couldn’t see anyone but those who rode up with me, the friends and acquaintances I respected for their diligence and work ethic. Those I would deign to communicate with. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had become the epitome of privilege, along with those who happened to score well on standardized tests. School was my forte, where I felt the most comfortable, because I was always at the top.
As I entered high school, I lost some friends. They fell off the wave as different priorities started to shape their lives and I kept rising. School has always been important to me, and it has been the biggest part of my life for roughly four years now. But as some of my friends drifted away, not taking as heavy a workload as me, I began to re-evaluate what I had previously seen as truth. These people, whom I had befriended because they were just like me, weren’t like me anymore. I was still determined, but I was now determined to get into a good college, and make lots of money after I graduated, and nothing could get in my way. But my friends, who were a part of the unapproachable group of upper middle class white girls who had dominated the halls of middle school, had fallen off the wave. And I peered over the edge. What I saw wasn’t a group of people clamoring to rise, wishing they had reached as high a point as I had, but people who were completely content where they were. While I was surrounded by notebooks and ten-pound textbooks, they were laughing with friends and holding red plastic cups. And I envied them.
I envied the freedom they held in their shoulders. Their laughter and the tilt of their heads. I was surrounded by books, blocked in by stress, and the water of my wave had been supplied from late-night tears of wondering if I would ever be good enough. I looked around and realized there were many fewer people on the wave than there were years before. And I wondered what happened. Why had so few people kept up? Where had their priorities gone? And I looked over the edge again. Everyone had their own wave. My goals weren’t theirs anymore. No one had fallen off my wave; they had instead been riding their own.
But even as I envied their freedom, I judged their choices. Those red plastic cups weren’t going to help them get into a good university. They weren’t going to secure a high-paying job or a good future. So even as I recognized that my wave was not everyone’s, I still thought mine was the best – the only – way to reach success.
Then I entered a required World History class. I dreaded it because I had always opted into honors classes, telling myself honors was the way to be around people who would push me to do better work. I believed the students of standard classes just weren’t up to my caliber. I was angry receiving an A-, but I was around people who were thrilled to get B’s. I was reaching toward perfection, but others were reaching toward what I saw as mediocrity. However, being around people who weren’t always so caught up in their desire to be the best made me realize that school isn’t everything. What I see as success is not someone else’s view of it, and it took me a while to understand that my way isn’t the only way to the top.
I came to the realization that I don’t care what word people use to describe me. I used determined, and I’m sure I would get myriad answers if I polled the student body. I am determined, but I’m also many other things, and there are many things I used to be and still am, to a degree, that I don’t enjoy being. I will catch myself sneering at someone who is happy receiving a B- on a test, but who am I to belittle their grade? I don’t want to be the stuck-up middle-schooler who judges others on grades, appearance, and income, without even knowing it. I want to support others as they rise, and I want to rise with them, because life is not a competition where I succeed when others fail.
I will always set aspirational goals for myself, because I know what I’m capable of and how far I can push myself (remember, I never said I was humble). But I have tried to stop judging others, because maybe I’m just not a red plastic cup kind of person, and I’m okay with that.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.