I’ve always been a great student, and I was proud of that. After graduation, though, I find myself missing my report card.
For seventeen years or so, I snuggled right into the American education system, from Grahamwood Elementary to White Station Middle and High to Rhodes College. Barring the standard social woes of adolescence, I fit in just fine within those confines, and it gave me tools to which I clung to measure my personal and intellectual growth. By that measurement, I was doing well. I had extracurriculars to pad my college resumé, a pretty good GPA, and a respectable academic scholarship to Rhodes. I mean, I wasn’t the best, and I wasn’t about to jet off into the ivy league, but I was easily in the top 10%, which was enough for me to feel satisfied with myself as a person.
Fast forward to college, and it was more of the same, but with more titles and honor societies to hang around my neck. I made better grades than I did in high school, but it wasn’t for the love of learning, it was in the pursuit of what I saw as success. I was usually able to figure out what the professors were looking for and give it to them, regardless of whether I really cared about it or believed in the argument I was defending. By senior year I was totally burned out, only still doing the work in order to lock down As, which was unsatisfying and, honestly, pretty disrespectful to my professors who deserve their students' best work. I did it, though, and I walked across the graduation stage in step with “Julia Hamilton: double major in Commerce & Business and French, Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa.” Dad joked with me afterward that he didn’t even get to cheer because he had to wait too long after my name, and I tried to respond humbly, but truthfully I was hungry for people to acknowledge those titles. (And clearly I still am, seeing that I paraded it across this blog post.) The way I saw it, I had run my race, and I won. Again, not the valedictorian or the one with the most cords and pins, but still an unequivocal academic success. Good job, me.
Now, though, I don’t know exactly what race I’m running. The problem with measuring myself by my GPA is that nobody’s giving me a grade anymore. I miss my report card. Who do I email for my post-grad transcript? Where are the latin accolades to tell me I’m on the right path?
I’m coming to the unpleasant conclusion that I’ve been depending too much on grades to guide me, and as a result I lack a strong internal drive. I am participating in a sort of internship this summer, but its lack of structure depends on its participants to drive themselves to be entrepreneurs, and I’m not really doing that. I’m coasting. Our pay doesn’t depend on the milestones we hit, and, obviously, there are no grades. I’m seeing the extent to which my “excellence” depends on external benchmarks, whether in the form of letters or numbers.
In grown-up land, I won’t earn a living making good grades, and I’m going to have to figure out how to drive myself when there’s no semesterly rankings, or when just I’m flat-out bad at something. In my pastry experience, for example, I’m nowhere near the top 10% of the pack, and I doubt I ever will be. If I were to grade myself, it’d be a string of Cs, though not for lack of trying. At this point, what I have to show for it is a teeny instagram, a smidge of professional experience, and a plan to wiggle into some boulangerie/pâtisseries when I’m overseas, and there’s a bucket of “if”s in that plan. It all depends on me figuring it out for myself, without academic advisors or degree requirements to map it out for me. It’s just that graduation was just such a definitive finish line, and I’m having a hard time finding my next one.
Ultimately, though, this post is really just my own little hyped-up pity party. I am both the hostess and the honored guest. I’m going to be fine. I do have a plan, at least for the next year, and even if I lose it all, I’d have my family to fall back on. Not everyone can say that. I am extremely lucky and very very privileged to have a safety net--it’s something I was born into, not something that I earned. And when it comes to my education, even if I let it become something more than it should have, it did create opportunities for me, and I am thankful for that.
I guess what I’m wondering is how many other people have felt a similar sort of “what now” realization after they left their respective educative environments, whether that be after graduation or an earlier exit. Obviously grades are not and should not be a measure of human worth, but that’s what they became for me. I made idols out of them, to use terms that I know my parents will throw at me when they bring up this post later--hi Mom and Dad--and I’m curious if anybody else fell into that trap. As for me, I strung up my finish line at the end of a diving board, and now that I’m bobbing in the water, I’m unsure of what’s keeping me afloat. While I’m here, I’ll just put this out into the internet void to see who else is in the water with me. Or if you’re not, what keeps you on land.