I’m writing an article about academic achievement instead of studying for my midterm, but that is entirely beside the point.
For a long time, I equated happiness and success with academics. I felt a deep-seated internal pressure to do well academically. My brain could read about all the activities that my body couldn’t do, and school was my outlet.
I would read books, memorize trivia and enthusiastically spout it off at random intervals to my parents’ friends. I would crouch behind the kitchen counter and listen as my mom drank wine and commiserated with her book club. Then I would regurgitate these conversations to my peers and talk about adult topics — such as taxes, nature conservation and minivan maintenance — as if I had a thorough understanding.
In third grade, I tried to memorize the Webster Children’s Dictionary. I kept tallies of words in lined paperback notebooks. I checked out towering stacks of library books and liked to read passages aloud. I particularly liked the books from the back of the library that talked about elephant copulation.
I thought that if I could woo my peers with my knowledge, they wouldn’t be so hung up on my cerebral palsy body. In the larger community, for folks with disabilities, there is a lot of pressure to prove yourself and to demonstrate that you can keep up, that you deserve your seat in the classroom.
I did all of my homework and most of friends’ homework. Needless to say, we all received stunning marks on our sixth-grade progress reports, and Mrs. Brasil was none the wiser.
But it turns out that pint-sized, wild-animal trivia buffs aren’t the most popular on the playground. Kids are more interested in playing pick-up basketball than in hearing about how turtles can respire through their anus.
In high school, I began to equate grades with my sense of self worth.
In college, full of scholastic gusto, I took 20 units and subsequently tanked a couple of classes.
I didn’t want to accept the tutoring that the Disabled Students’ Program offered. School had been an area where I had never needed help. And when my life outside the library got tough, I didn’t want to show weakness.
When my friend suddenly died, I didn’t go home for the funeral. I had a final to study for. The campus’s Tang Center told me to take a break, accept incompletes and go home. Instead, I pushed forward and burned out.
Learning, which had been my outlet, suddenly felt inaccessible.
I had a drive to study, but I lacked fundamental, conceptual knowledge of things such as basic algebra. I felt like I had essentially memorized my way through most of science and math in high school.
And now that I was faced with chemistry titrations and integrals in my introductory college classes, I couldn’t mask the apathy I felt toward my major. For two years, I had studied molecular environmental biology because I thought it was a respectable subject.
In my gut, I realized that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.
In December, another good friend of mine died.
And as I rung in the new year while dressed in black, I decided to make a serious change.
Cross-legged on the carpet one day, I realized that science was a square hole and that I was a round peg — I would just create splinters in myself.
Even though giving up on a biology major made me feel like I was starting over, I couldn’t force myself to spend more time with a subject I didn’t love.
Two hours later, giddy from a phone appointment with the academic counseling people, I dropped all of my science courses, signed up for a reasonable amount of units, changed colleges and switched majors.
I realized I didn’t need to pursue a path designed to make me successful based on society’s standards, because I had nothing left to prove.
Last week, I got back an essay from my summer history course. The red mark at the top had a minus attached to it, but I broke out into a big smile because I realized that I had tried my best.
At the end of the summer, I will declare my major in history, and I’m stoked. History gives me perspective and makes me feel connected with all the stories that came before mine, even though history is written by the winners.
I still put a significant amount of effort into school, but that end-all-be-all pressure isn’t there. My knowledge is for myself, my education is a process, and I don’t need to overcompensate to prove I deserve my seat at the front of the classroom.
Failure is a necessary step toward success. Many components in our student lives are way more important than academics. So take classes, but also take care.
Jasmine Leiser writes the Thursday column on lessons learned from first-time experiences. You can contact her at [email protected].