Jan 23, 2014

We are our own slave-drivers

I just read an article about a girl in UPenn who committed suicide. It reads, "At the end of high school and going to Penn she was the happiest girl on the planet. It was easy for her in high school," said Madison Holleran’s father... "There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn. She wasn’t normal happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress".

The article was also run on the Daily Mail, from which I quote:
Family friend Bob Weckworth said the high-achiever ultimately couldn't cope with the expectations she'd set herself... 
"She got a 3.5 her first semester, and I think just the high expectations that she put on herself was that that’s just not acceptable. 'She was not happy at Penn, but the parents had told her then, ‘Don’t go back. We’ll transfer. We’ll look at other schools. There’s no reason to go back, it’s OK,’' he said.

Isn't it funny that the higher up we are, or the better a place we are in, the smaller we feel?

This article makes me terribly sad because as much as I deny it, I see it in myself, and definitely in those around me: the more we achieve, the more we expect of ourselves and the more we despise ourselves when we are not excellent. I mean, at Yale-NUS I always feel like I don't really care how my grades will turn out, because I am prioritising living and learning to the fullest, even if it doesn't translate into good grades. Or that's what I think, anyway. Today we had our weekly Quantitative Reasoning quiz, and I got extremely pissed at myself because I could've gotten full marks, but I made all these careless mistakes and got only 50%. And an A is 95%. And I managed to use the coding program to make a really pretty graph on my own, y'know? But it means nothing if the tests don't show I can do it.

And it's funny. When I got an A1 for the Chinese O's, I immediately made that my expectation even though I knew my Chinese is far worse than my grade implied. And then I got disappointed when I got a B for the A Levels, but why should I be pissed when my command of Chinese doesn't even deserve a C in the first place? And my final grades are usually far above what I expect - like, I get Ds and Es for every test and miraculously make an A in the end. (That was basically my whole A Level story lol.) The end-grade makes no sense. Yet I take it to be the standard for myself, and then if I get a B after that, I get pissed. Suddenly I go from being content with a D to hating myself for a B.

It's strange that the more we achieve, the more we take to be "normal", and the less we are happy with. Yes, the best schools have the worst academic stress levels, but the pressure is often self-inflicted. My Nanyang Girls' tuition kid was talking about how she did "really badly" for her Lit paper, and it was a friggin' 20/25. That's more than I have ever scored for an essay. We become obsessed with perfection, and anything less is an insult to ourselves. It's a blessing to know when to be grateful and content, while also not being complacent.

This girl who committed suicide, her parents encouraged her to transfer out. But that wasn't what she wanted. She wouldn't settle for less. She felt like she was worth more, that her grades should've been better because she was excellent. Mediocrity means different things to different people. For some, mediocrity might be having nationally-average grades. For others, mediocrity might be blending into the background. And even in the best school, you can blend into the background. You feel the need to be the best wherever you are, whether it's in an average high school or an Ivy League. You've never been any less, after all.

It's so important to step back and remember how fortunate we are to have gotten this far already. But it's really difficult because we are immersed in the environment of our school or social class, and that becomes our gauge, our universe. You could live in the smallest house in Orchard Road and feel like a poor wimp, or be a retainee in a top school and feel like a reject. Here in college, I often feel very incompetent and unintelligent, like everyone else has brains full of volumes of books and I have nothing. But that's a funny way of thinking, right? My other friends would go, look Karen, you're in freaking Yale-NUS, with an average admissions rate of under 4%, and the people here are exceptional. It's unreasonable to compare yourself to exceptional people and feel like a lousy person.

Okay, I think it's more than just pegging yourself against your immediate community. It's also about pegging yourself against what you think you are able to achieve, and this is the greatest pressure. Like, before taking the O Levels, I expected an L1R5 of 9, and I was hoping to go to SAJC. And when I got my results, a raw score of 7 which is 1 point away from the 'perfect score' and a final score of 5 (7-2), I was somehow disappointed that I wouldn't even be able to try appealing to Hwa Chong. And that was unreasonable of myself. I mean, I didn't even take Higher Chinese; I wouldn't have been able to make it to Hwa Chong anyway. But suddenly, when it seemed to be somewhat within grasp, I started to take that as an expectation for myself. Funny huh.

Yeah, sorry this is a rambly disorganised post. Just typing out my flow of thought. I'm just, very sad for the girl. I hope this serves as a wake-up call to us - that we might not be the best, and we might think we can do better, but it's okay. We have so much already, and we just need to step back and remember that.

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