Corrupt Competition Culture #3: Less Than Your Best

A student's search for happiness while battling everything school has thrown her way.


Jess Daninhirsch, Claire Majerac, Samantha Podnar, Alok Shah

Student stress and anxieties aren't always visible, but they are always there.

“Congratulations, you passed the test. You are going to be placed into the Gifted Opportunity for Advanced Learning Program.” “You’re gifted.” “You’re smart, this will be easy.” This is the type of rhetoric I was fed throughout my first nine years of public schooling. And I fell for it.

I have nothing against the GOAL program. In fact, I’m rather grateful for it. I was the fourth person in my grade to join GOAL at Peebles Elementary, in first grade. I have very fond memories of GOAL classes and IOs (Individualized Options). In high school, GOAL is no longer as involved and woven into students’ weekly schedules. As you move on to middle school and high school and are now in school with more people, you notice how many people are labeled just like you are, how many more people are in GOAL as well. As hard as it is to admit, you start to feel less special. 

Throughout elementary and middle school, things came easy to me. I was smart enough to understand things quickly which meant I didn’t need to study all that much. I was just naturally good at many subjects. I was a straight-A student. I often felt I was the smartest kid in class. However, I am a complete and utter perfectionist. I wanted to do the best I could, and luckily that was easy for me for a while.

Being told I was gifted implied to me that I was supposed to be better than most people at everything. That’s not true. I may be really good at one subject and not so much at another, letting someone else have a turn at the top. That may be hard to swallow when you’re in this type of corrupt competition culture, but in reality, you do not have to be good at everything.

Also, being labeled as gifted made me blind to see the points of view of my fellow peers who were not labeled as gifted. I didn’t realize that they could have been jealous of the opportunities that I was given. I thought they were just unwilling to apply themselves. Who knows, maybe they would have enjoyed learning the things that I was?

All of this meant that I was never taught how to actually study, how to problem-solve, how to learn. That didn’t really matter up until ninth grade. Then, as soon as I entered high school, as you might expect, everything was harder. The subject matter, the teaching styles, the workload. I suddenly lost the ability to focus and work. Every time I had an assignment that I couldn’t understand immediately, I would shut down. I would ignore it, copy the answers from somewhere, and forget about it as soon as class was over. If I tried something that I wasn’t immediately good at, I would give up because I thought it just wasn’t for me. My perfectionism turned into striving for a high grade, not learning how to get the answer the right way.

I felt as if I had something to prove. But to whom did I have to prove it?”

In high school, teachers expect you to have learned how to learn, so they don’t teach you that now. That’s where I went wrong. That’s a skill that everyone has to have mastered at a very early age, and I never fully mastered it. Now I struggle. 

North Allegheny has, as we all know, a very competitive atmosphere, as do many high schools around the country. Competition has existed since the dawn of mankind, fighting for the last bison on the field. The culture nowadays, however, could be referred to as “mental bulimia.” It’s not about actually learning the subject matter for future reference anymore. It’s just about how much information you can shove into your brain and regurgitate out onto a test, forgetting about it the next day. You never even learned. 

No matter how you were labeled in elementary school, it either won’t matter in high school, or your way of learning was already set. You didn’t have time to ask for help, or else you would miss whatever you were supposed to be learning.

I no longer feel like the smartest kid in class because there are so many outstanding students in the district that felt the same way. I took all honors classes in ninth and tenth grade because I felt that if I didn’t, I would fall off the leaderboard. I would be looked at as if I weren’t smart or willing to apply myself. 

I felt as if I had something to prove. But to whom did I have to prove it?

The answer is absolutely no one, not even myself. My parents are the most supportive people in the world. They never pushed me to do better in school; that was completely self-inflicted. In the real world, the truth of the matter is no one cares if you took Honors or Academic Biology, or whether or not you got an A or a B.

This self-induced pressure on me caused my mental health to start to go by the wayside. I got stressed and distracted so incredibly easily, but I didn’t acknowledge it. I had to push it aside so I could get all my work done. That inability to focus, however, started to get in the way. Last year, my grade was slipping in the class that I put most of my energy into. So I got a tutor. At first I thought I would never need a tutor; I was a good student, for goodness’ sake! My grade started to go back up, and I realized that there is absolutely no shame in asking for help. In fact, that’s the smartest thing you can do.

At the end of the year, once the stress was behind me, I had time to actually acknowledge the fact that I did nothing to take care of myself. I made it a point this year as a sophomore to recognize whenever I needed a mental health break, I would take one. And I am proud to say that I have not had any major breakdowns this year. That is an accomplishment of which to be proud. Last year I had more than you could count on two hands. 

The thing about competition is that there has to be a worst of the best. Not everyone can be number one. And what’s hard to understand for some is that being the worst of the best is actually still pretty good.”

Speaking of accomplishments, sure, that is something colleges like to consider. However, life shouldn’t be just about accomplishing things to impress a school. You should work on achieving personal goals that are good for your mental wellbeing. Yes, some of my proudest achievements are ones that would look good on college applications, but they weren’t driven by the thought that it would get me into college. They were self-driven because they made me happy.

The thing about competition is that there has to be a worst of the best. Not everyone can be number one. And what’s hard to understand for some is that being the worst of the best is actually still pretty good.

Not everything in life is about school and competing to be at the top of the leaderboard. It’s important to find things outside of school that make you happy and keep your mental health strong.

Currently, at least in North Allegheny, we are in a brand new situation. For the last nine weeks of the year, we have changed to a pass/fail system. If you receive lower than a 60% grade, you fail, but as long as you get a 61% or higher, your final grade for the nine weeks is translated to 100%. This was designed to decrease the stress of learning from home during the coronavirus pandemic. However, I believe this is a great time to focus on actually learning. You no longer have to chase grades. As long as you do your work, you will be successful, and you will have more time to learn. Now is the chance to learn for the sake of learning, rather than an obligation.

There is a phrase that I heard a lot when I was little. “Never settle for less than your best.” Over the years, I have put more emphasis on the word “your.””

Something I found to be very interesting was that when asked if I wished things had been different, if my situation growing up were different. I immediately said “No. Not at all.” I am grateful for every opportunity and breakdown and struggle and accomplishment.

There is a phrase that I heard a lot when I was little. “Never settle for less than your best.” Over the years, I have put more emphasis on the word “your.” I no longer want to live in a world where I compete to be the best student just to get into college. I want to live to satisfy myself and no one else. I’m still a perfectionist by nature, that I can’t change, but now “perfect” means “happy.” Competition can be found anywhere, but only if you focus on it. This era and atmosphere we are growing up in is corrupt. This culture has made it apparent that the only things that matter in life are the numbers and letters on your transcript. You are more than a number or letter. There is more to life than grades, doing well on tests, and how many hours you studied. Take a class you’re actually interested in. Pick up a hobby that doesn’t have to go on your resumé. Take a moment to relax and smile.

You’re going to get into college. You will have success in your life. It will all be okay. Trust me.