Addressing perceptions of success in our community

Vivien Sweet

In her essay “On Self-Respect,” Joan Didion writes, “…the day I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it.” Though the particular unisex fraternity she mentions — the oldest academic honor society in the United States, and perhaps the most prestigious — may be unfamiliar to some, I have no doubt that that feeling Didion describes hits close to home for many.

With her narration of her rejection from Phi Beta Kappa, Didion calls to mind the genre of failure: a degenerate state in which, in the given moment, seems to encroach upon every single joy I used to find in schooling. It is the guilt that reminds me that the effort I put in and the uncontrollable factors tossed aside, no academic work I produce will amount to anything meaningful. Alternatively and surely worse, the work I do produce will prove detrimental to both the ways that others perceive our character and our inward perception of ourselves.

While writing this, I am taking into careful consideration that I happen to be stuck in a peculiar bout of poor academic achievement, or, in plainer terms, a month of middling grades. The ubiquitous joy the holiday season brings notwithstanding, I have suffered a conspicuous mental lapse. I can’t focus on my studies, or, rather, I choose not to. I doze off in class the instant the room’s lights dim; I pore over a history text for hours, then forget its significance the moment my pen touches the in-class essay the next day.

What followed the subsequent drop in my semester grades was essentially a loss of “self-respect.” Though this lapse manifests itself differently in each individual, in my case and a handful of others, I have, consciously or not, deliberately removed myself from the posts I promised others I would fill. Even though I am an usher for my church, I have not consistently gone to Sunday service in weeks. Nor have I worked at the library—despite the two-hour work week minimum — as often as I should since November. (Just don’t tell Ms. Aponte; I’d like to keep my job.)

Why should a handful of subpar grades trigger such a withdrawal from the duties I am obliged to perform? I could argue that, because my academic performance has decreased remarkably, I needed to throw every ounce of myself into my studies, and to do that I must’ve had to reel back my extracurriculars. But overcommitment simply is not the problem; had it been, I would have discontinued some of the most time-consuming activities at the beginning of the school year before my academic downfall. 

The truth is, though I would never dare admit it aloud, I have unknowingly placed too much of my self-worth in my academic accomplishments. Admittedly, there is much to be said about the nature of my upbringing, the people I have chosen to surround myself with, and the level of difficulty of my courses — all of which have defined my understanding of success. But just as crucial is the fact that something is fundamentally wrong with the way in which the overwhelming majority of the students at this school value their peers in relation to one another. 

Whether or not it was a deliberate choice, the environment the collective student body has manufactured ranks individuals based on if they’re in PreCalc AB or BCH, if they double up on history or science, and which clubs they are the leaders of. 

I know that, unlike both of my parents, I will not graduate in the top two percent of my high school class. And, like Didion, it is highly improbable that I will ever be elected to Phi Beta Kappa. But I can say with confidence that I would not exchange the relationships I have formed with the members of my church, the kids I tutor in piano every Saturday morning, or the teachers who mold my view of the world everyday for a 4.0 GPA. The power of interpersonal connections is an indispensable phenomenon. And though I seem to have recently lost sight of this, returning to the communities who cherish my personhood wholly without giving a second thought to my semester grades has been the best decision I’ve made. 

As a new decade looms on the horizon, I plan on making a concerted effort to earn back my self-respect. Because, as Didion knew, “Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”