Academic Success Left Me a Failure

“My child is an honor student at John Q. Public School.”

Much is made of academic success in public school. Bumper stickers and window clings proudly proclaim that a budding genius may be aboard the family car. Local newspapers publish lists of “A Honor Roll” students. Every year some local paper gets to publish a glowing testemonial to a local youth who has “aced” his or her ACT or SAT exams.

Graduates who maintain a high average wear special cords to their graduation ceremonies and get an extra round of applause. “Who’s Who Among American High School Students” publishes a hardbound, heirloom quality book every year listing “students who excel in academics.”

Creative Commons

If you happened to check that “Who’s Who” for the four years I was in high school, you would find my name every year. Digging through newspaper archives would net you more mentions of me, some even dating back to my middle school years when I came close to “acing” my ACT at the age of thirteen thanks to a Duke University program that encourages identification of “talented” students. I was a public school success story and if I were the kind of person who keeps a scrapbook I would have the newspaper clippings and letters and awards to prove it. I was one of the students that public schools love to claim and Ivy League universities love to court.

And none of it has meant a thing.

School Success ≠ Life Success

I’m here to tell you that success in public school predicts absolutely nothing about success in life. I’m a college drop-out, a stay-at-home mom, and by social standards a failure at life.

If pressed to produce a resume I could provide no substantive accomplishment since leaving the high school that so proudly claims me as an alumni. I don’t mind that a bit; I’m happy with the life I lead. While employers may not recognize the value of “homemaker” on a resume, I can think of no greater or more enjoyable job title. Perhaps in many schools of thought I have “failed to live up to potential” I’m not concerned with that in the least.

Here’s the dirty secret that I want to share with you all, though: none of those academic achievements did a single thing to prepare me for “real life.”

School v. Real Life Learning

School taught me to use more words when fewer would do. I’m still breaking out of that one. School taught me that if I just used enough words, my argument would be won and I would get a gold star next to the red-inked “A” at the top of the paper.

Real life has taught me that everybody’s favorite Harry Potter stories were the ones that didn’t require a wheelbarrow to cart around. Real life has taught me that somewhere around fifty percent of you will stop reading this at any moment because it has “too many words.”

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School taught me that sloppy handwriting counts against me.

Real life has taught me that except for writing checks that only computers look at anyway, I’ll never even use handwriting. I e-mail, text message, Skype, and web cam but nobody ever sees my handwriting.

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School taught me that asking questions that didn’t directly relate to the discussion only wasted everybody’s time.

Real life has taught me that asking questions that don’t directly relate to the discussion is when real innovation happens. The real geniuses in life see through the discussion in a way that makes the whole thing irrelevant. Entire books have been written about this phenomenon.

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School taught me that books are only worth reading if they’re over 100 years old. The heavy emphasis on “the classics” in literature classes is often unremarked upon but let’s be honest, what makes The Joy Luck Club or Harry Potter less a work of literature than A Tale of Two Cities?

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Creative Commons – Marco Bellucci

School taught me that if I don’t agree with the teacher I’d better keep quiet. Here’s a memorable question I was once asked on a history quiz: “Discuss the cult of domesticity and the rise of child-centric family as signs of a restriction of women’s status and condition in the 1940s and 1950s.” It’s an open-ended question that invites an opinion, right?

Wrong. The teacher wasn’t inviting an opinion. She was looking for the answer in the textbook answer key. When I wrote several paragraphs about how the “cult of domesticity” was a myth and the “child-centric family” hadn’t existed in centuries, I was informed that I was wrong, misinformed, and clearly hadn’t read the text. I countered that I was stating an opinion, that I was more informed on the subject than the text and that in addition to reading the text, I had read several relevant scholarly works on the subject. I still missed the question and was told to confine my answers in the future to the textbook’s information because this class wasn’t about reading anything else or forming my own opinions.

Real life has taught me that if I don’t do my thinking and research for myself I’ll probably wind up in an unpleasant situation with only myself to blame.

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School taught me that statistics and logic were synonymous. In the year-long course called “Study Skills” we were told that statistically the answer to any multiple choice question was more likely to be B or C. When someone pointed out that maybe the test-makers were reading the same statistics and had started including more A and D answers to counter it, the student was told that his point was illogical because the statistics wouldn’t indicate that trend if the trend didn’t exist.

Real life has taught me that logic is a rare and precious commodity that people often confuse with statistics.

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School taught me that my only real worth was measured by the quality of my academic success or my prowess on the football field. The only kids that seemed to be valued by my school were the “smart” ones and the football players. If you were a mediocre student, if you were in drama club, if you were just passing time, you didn’t count.

The real world may celebrate athletes but we also celebrate people like Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and that guy that saved somebody’s baby. Yes, sometimes in our culture we create “celebrities” who add very little to the world, but we also turn a young misfit with the hidden vocal talent to perform breathtaking arias into a hero.

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And school taught me that the life I’ve lived since I left it has been worth nothing.

Real life has taught me that no gold star or red A or gold braid on my graduation gown can live up to my daughter “tattooing” my name and a heart on my arm in ballpoint at the grocery store check-out line or my other daughter asking “So, Mom, who was Boudicca anyway?” (something I never learned in school) or the thrill of getting a blog comment from a stranger that I’ve encouraged.

~ Mari

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