I wish I wasn’t a straight-A student.
There, I said it.
It’s not the school, of course, it’s just one more symptom of the “Good Girl Syndrome.” By the Good Girl Syndrome, I’m not referring to the Mary Ingalls good girl, who is good and saintly and has golden curls; I’m referring to the Laura Ingalls good girl. She feels responsible for Mary–and Carrie, and Ma, and Pa. In fact, she feels responsible for nearly everything, including being responsible FOR being responsible, all the time. She thinks maybe she would like to go play catch with the boys and have fun, but that wouldn’t be proper. Occasionally, she does get caught up in a “whirl of gaiety” and reaps the consequences of her final grade being “only 96.”
It really is a bit like a disease, and though I’ve been afflicted for probably forever, I’m only now being able to start putting into words what I mean. It’s easiest for me to talk about it and describe it through the lens of school grades, but it isn’t about school and it isn’t about grades; it’s about me, and it seeps in and permeates everything. It’s dreadful.
When I first started going to school, I thought it was only responsible to be dutiful and work hard and do your best. You ought, you know. So I did, but when those high scores kept rolling in, it stopped being about the responsibility to put the effort in, and somehow eased it’s way more into identity. I have to get A’s, because I have get A’s.
Getting A’s wasn’t important, and I knew it. I was embarrassed by getting A’s with–let us be honest, because honesty is important–relatively little effort, while my classmates struggled with the work. I didn’t look down on them; I mostly tried to be oblique and underplay my grades–not to refuse to answer if someone asked, but to not bring up the fact that, yes, the test you almost failed was not hard for me. There was no shame–I wasn’t at all dishonest when I told people that they did good when they got an 83%. What’s wrong with an 83%? An 83% is perfectly acceptable.
For them. But not for me.
It was an insidious little double-standard, wherein I had to be held to a higher level than them, because I was me. I was a different, better, other, who was expected to perform at above excellent–but people shouldn’t hold themselves to that level. Meanwhile, since I continued to mute my grades, I still clung to the idea that I didn’t look down on them at all, because–don’t you see? I don’t care what grade they get. I don’t lord my grades over them. I just. . .think I’m good enough to have perfection as my standard, and they’re, you know, human and shouldn’t be so hard on themselves.
So on one hand there is this, ohh, smug superiority, I suppose, that I’m to be judged by a different standard. But there is also this great level of insecurity–which one can’t talk about, because how can the straight-A student say, “Ohhh, I feel so insecure!” without being taken out behind the school and stoned? You, insecure? You, who seem more like a teacher’s assistant, an instructor, not a student? One time I told someone frustratedly that even though I got good grades, I was still human. I don’t know if they got it or not. I don’t know if I got it or not.
But the insecurity is two-fold. On one hand, it becomes part of you. I have to get good grades, because I have to get good grades. Giving up on good grades would be like giving up on part of yourself. Giving up on working hard, and being dutiful, and being responsible and leading the class–it would be like your eyes changing color. That’s just who you are, how could you NOT? I am the over-achiever. I am the nerd. I am the one who excels at whatever she puts her hands and head to. It would be like–being a totally different person. It would be like an apple tree growing pears. I have to do this, because this is what I do. I can’t not do it. Not without not being me, and I have to be me.
On the other hand, and perhaps less subtly, is the realization that there is no way to go except for down. If you usually get B’s and occasionally get A’s–how exciting to get A’s! How exciting when you find you are getting mostly A’s and a few B’s! How you’ve grown–how you’ve improved! How you’ve succeeded, how you’ve achieved, how you’ve accomplished! But when Good Girls get more A’s–again–no one need remark, because you’ve always gotten A’s and will likely always get A’s. And as for you, you have no risk of improving; only the cloudy awareness that you could always get worse.
One of the times I most starkly remember this dilemma is when I made a birthday present for my grandmother’s significant birthday. It was a basket, one of the first I’d made. It came out very well, if I do say so myself, and I was very proud of my efforts. It was a new skill, and I’d worked hard to make it for her–anticipating her delight, and surprise, and shock and awe. I was maybe 13 years old. Right before my grandma opened it, my mom announced I had made it–to which my grandmother replied, “Well, we all know already that she can do anything.”
I think she meant as a compliment, but it totally deflated me. I was impressed with my creation, but everything I did would be considered commonplace, because that was what was expected of me. If someone else–someone who didn’t bear the title of being Good At Everything–had made that basket, then she would have been impressed. But since it was just me, well, you know, what else would I do? I could go down, but I couldn’t go up; and if I didn’t stay up, I wouldn’t be me, because I was always up.
If found since then that it has other problems, too. I get terribly tense when I’m trying to learn new things, because I have to do good. It’s not, oh, well, if you make a mistake, who cares? It’s not like B’s are okay. I can’t just do it. I have to do it well. I have to do it in the top of the class. I have to exceed. When I am sitting at home singing, and I’ve been singing long enough to forget the whole house can hear me, I relax and my voice improves. Then I go to my singing lesson, and try to sing for my instructor. She tries to explain how if I relax, my voice will sound better; I understand what she’s saying (after all, I’ve heard it myself at home), but the emotional part of me also hears the rebuke. You’re doing it wrong. You aren’t doing it good. Do it more good! And so, I tense myself with the effort of more good, until by the time I leave the half hour session I can barely find any note and I’m tense from my scalp to little toes, never mind my vocal cords and my throat and my lips.
I also leave utterly discouraged, because I didn’t get the A. What A? There was no A. My classes aren’t graded and my instructor doesn’t care. But I should have improved. I should have victored. I should have exceeded all expectations. I should have been able to blow that song out of the water; I should be able to sing so well that my instructor can only count me as her peer.
People say, “You’re so hard on yourself.” It makes me feel so frustrated, because it’s like asking, “Why are you hungry? Why does it hurt when you stub your toe? Why do you feel cold when it’s wet and the wind blows?” This is just–myself. I don’t know any other way. I don’t know how to get B’s, but I think I rather wish I did. It would be better to laugh and relax, but I don’t know how to make myself, and I don’t know how to fail.
It’s a very scary thing when you consider your problems. . .your arrogance, and your pride, and your imagined self-sufficiency, and your smugness. You look at them all from a little bit of a distance, and you say to yourself, “My goodness, this person needs to fail. This person needs to fail, and fail, and fail until they finally learn what failure is and how to do it and what really matters and how to let go of this silly idea that they can be Good, by Working Hard.” It’s very hard to have a candid conversation with God and say, “You know what? I think part of my problem is that I’ve never really had to accept what I failure I am in this life, save by Your grace. It’s too easy for me think it was my fault for all of those A’s, because I worked hard, not because, for whatever unfathomable reason, You decided to give me those grades.”
It really is silly, too. By the end of my first two years of school, I was handing in random papers instead of the assigned work and refusing to study for tests, and still randomly getting A’s. The teacher would accidentally have a duplicate sheet on the test, and so would give everyone in the class all those problems a full grade for free. I would show up for class unprepared and the test would be rescheduled. It was the oddest, queerest thing. Even after I decided the school system had so poisoned my soul I didn’t care if I failed the rest of my tests, I kept getting these A’s. I don’t remember what I did for the last two years of school online, most of my work having been done in a near drunken haze of emotional and physical exhaustion–but I did get A’s.
And I still have the audacity to whisper to myself, sometimes, when I don’t think I’ll notice, that I’ve been working so hard. Immediately, I try to squash the thought out, pretend it never existed, correct it. No, no, they were given to you. For some reason, some reason I can see no fruit whatsoever from yet, God has been giving you a 4.0 GPA. Not you.
You can’t keep going on like this, you know. Someday, you will fail. Then you’ll be just like everyone else. Is that scary? Failing is always scary, isn’t it? But if I could just fail and get it over with–it would be a relief to be like everyone else! To get B’s and a few A’s. To not expect myself to out-sing the instructor. Maybe God could fail you gently, so it wouldn’t sting so much, and then let you free. . .
But what I think–what I really think–is that probably the answer is no. Really–even if it is just the continuance of absurd arrogance–really I don’t think I will be allowed that kind of failure or that kind of freedom, and I expect I’ll probably spend the rest of my life struggling with that driving force named passion on the right and perfection on the left. Passion that can be used to give life to many good things, and perfectionism that can stand in the way of many good things.
I don’t want to give up my passion; I do think it is a gift, if at times an unruly one that most be constantly re-directed toward it’s rightful source. But I’m tired of the perfection. The perfection that is afraid to even try, for fear of failing. The perfection that says, “You need to try harder! Harder! You aren’t quite good enough yet, but if you just tried harder. . .”
No, I can’t. I could be accepted, but it’s not dependent on being perfect, or on failing, or on trying hard. I could reflect the true light, not my own false glimmer, but it wouldn’t be by trying so hard to reflect. One thing that sometimes drifts across my mind and then slips away is that Satan’s first sin was thinking he could be equal to God. Perfectionism, in a way, is just that–I could be perfect. Usually hastily addended with “not as perfect as God, of course!”–but of course not. Saying I want to nail everything perfect, without guilt or blame or lack or falling short in anyway–it is saying I want to be an equal to God and implies that I think I could be. If I just worked a little harder. And I know that isn’t the truth, but my actions aren’t bearing that out.
I hate that. I want to change that. I can’t.
I have an inflated view of myself, and when I catch just a glimpse of how inflated it is, I should like to bury it. Like not telling anyone that I got another A, lest they see how conceited I was. Like not talking about my plans or my dreams, for the ambitions and audacity they reveal. I shall be quiet and meek, but that doesn’t change what’s going on in the inside.
What’s going on in the inside is a weariness with being a Good Girl. But like Laura after she slammed her book, there is also the dreaded feeling that I will go on being a Good Girl, because I must. But I don’t like that feeling, either, and sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be reckless and daring. Perfectionism whispers, “You aren’t any good at that; you’re a coward. Better not to try, and expose your inability to even be reckless.” Passion murmurs back, “There are better things in life than you, Perfectionism. You’re a dry cloud, promise without delivery.”
And I stand in the middle, wondering how to be good at failing.