It's over. My first semester of Grade 12 has finally drawn to a close. Gone too are the university applications, the conferences and hackathons, the two most difficult courses of the year, and the chance to do better in any one of these things. The result? Thoughts of "if only I had taken 5 more minutes to review X" and "if only I had taken one last look at that question on the test" running through my mind again and again and again. People tell me that I'm too hard on myself, that I need to give myself a break. After all, a final mark of 90% in Grade 12 English isn't too bad... right? Nahh, it's pretty bad.
The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection
Decent? I've gotta do better. Better? I've gotta be excellent. Excellent? Oh, I've gotta be perfect!
About a month ago, a friend of mine on Facebook asked me what I'd thought to be the biggest problem in my community. My response revolved around the idea of a "bubble of complacency" within the community, a perceived but incorrect notion that merely "passing" was enough to justify some degree of real success. After all, the report card does define a 70% average as something along the lines of "meeting provincial expectations." That was a decade or two ago - welcome to 2016.
The (weary) author at SHAD Cup Nationals 2015
A Digital Divide
The digital age has brought us a whole new understanding of "success." In a world where we can access information at the press of a button, students are capable of doing things previously unimaginable. In her article "Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection," Julie Scelfo writes, "America’s culture of hyperachievement among the affluent has been under scrutiny for at least the last decade... it robs children of opportunities to develop independence and resiliency, thereby crippling them emotionally later in life." Michelle Gillman shares a similar sentiment in "In the Name of College! What Are We Doing to Our Children?", "Childhood is for learning about relationships, the outdoors, and sometimes breaking the rules so we can learn our own edges and boundaries. This precious, innocent time holds so much limitless potential - unless of course we squash it. And we have."
This precious, innocent time holds so much limitless potential - unless of course we squash it. And we have.
Don't get me wrong, as a student myself, I most definitely do not approve of this meaningless rush for college and employment. I have always touted (sometimes a tad ostentatiously) my focus on passion, how my success and my course choices are a natural extension of my love for computer science and philanthropic work. Yet, it begs the question: If standards are becoming impossibly high today, what chance do regular, oblivious students stand? The answer could not be more deeply saddening.
Networking is Key
I'll be honest, I have been extraordinarily lucky in having both found and been able to afford opportunities that most students do not get. Take SHAD, a program where some of the brightest high school students from across Canada are placed for a month at university to learn and innovate. Short of the daily lectures and laundry lessons I got from living on my own, SHAD gave me both an internship at a large Canadian bank and access to an expansive network of incredibly smart, passionate, and successful people. So, on one hand, I have friends at school telling me of their 80 or sometimes 90 percent marks, while, on the other hand, I have friends who are going to international competitions and shrugging off admissions to some of the best universities out there.
I have friends making 80 percent on one side and friends making international news on the other.
So we beat on, pens against the test paper, borne back ceaselessly into the past
It's almost funny how much our current state of education mirrors that of Fitzgerald's world. You have those who'll never succeed (Valley of Ashes), those who are often oblivious to reality (Daisy), those who forge ahead with blind ambition (Tom), those who fail to grapple with reality (Gatsby), and those who sit back and allow themselves to become bewildered by the insanity (Nick).
Swept up by a torrent of both perfectionists and passionates, the pressure is on for the rest of us to be perfect too. Trust me, I don't enjoy factoring "mark outcome" into my course selections - and I'm pretty sure most students don't either - but it has become a necessity if we as students ever want to do something cool with our lives. Who's to blame? I don't know. Certainly not the passionates, who (like me) have worked their way to where they are now for a cause. Nor the perfectionists, who have been taught from childhood that being perfect in life is the only way in life. It's a self-feeding process that some of us like to call a "vicious circle." University and college should be about learning and discovery - not about getting that $70k/yr first job. Yet, this is what it has come to.
"Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can!" said Gatsby.
Oh, a man can dream.