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What to Know

November 21, 2010

Eighty-six percent.

That’s fine, I thought.  That’s what I can do.

The pleasant teaching assistant continued handing back the first test in freshman calculus class.

I wanted college to be different from high school.  For me, school felt like a parade of tests and, as a result, a rat race.  I made a career of acing tests since grade school.  That’s what everyone expected of me and what I expected of myself.  In high school, there was a sizable group of eggheads in the same boat.  College bound, competitive, wanting to graduate with the best record.  Some of us were friends, others weren’t.  All-in-all, it seemed a healthy competition.

That’s not to say I got the best education that I could.  By senior year, getting an education felt like a foreign concept.  I studied to ace tests.  I didn’t study to learn anything long-term.  I didn’t care about the subjects.  I cared about the grades.

Starting college, I wanted to change all that.  I wanted to get the best education that I could.  I wanted to learn for the long-term.   Case in point, I took calculus when I probably could have tested out of it.

I pondered my 86.

I can be happy with that.  I learned it and understood it.  I’m getting an education, not a grade.

The TA reached the front of the class and announced, “Jennifer got 100 percent.”

She may as well have shot the starter’s gun at Churchill Downs.

My hair stood on end, my eyebrows ignited and smoke huffed out of my nose.

What the hell is education worth if I didn’t get the best grade?!

I wanted the best grade.  It was my birthright and my inheritance.  My identity.  No one else’s.  Least of all this sniveling Jennifer whom I didn’t even know.  Education was once again tossed in the back seat.

I aced nearly all my tests after that in college.  I took countless practice tests, badgered TAs and professors, stayed up all hours.  I was on the dean’s list every semester.  My nightmares about unsolvable math test problems persisted several years after college.

I wonder whether college might have been different if the TA hadn’t announced the top score on that very first test.  Would I remember more now?  Would I care about it more?  Would I be as successful—at least as “success” generally gets defined?  Would I be happier?

Those are things I’ll never know.

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