By: Dennis Lam Wei Quan
Exams are coming.
The thought of that strikes in us a fear so rational, and yet so irrational at the same time. A fear of botching what is seemingly the culmination of the perennial youth pastime affectionately called studying. After countless late – maybe sleepless – nights, we base the fruits of our labour on a few alphabets, and measure our learning and accomplishments by it.
How was the pain worth it? Am I good enough? Why couldn’t I do better?
These are questions most of us ask ourselves in the aftermath, and in doing so we put ourselves down more than we need. At this point, I should point out that this isn’t an article complaining about the need for exams or having to work hard for them. It happens to be the season where pressure gets intense and it is something that every student can identify with; especially in a country that consistently ranks high on almost every international survey comparing the amount of time children and youths in each country spend on academic pursuits. It has become commonplace for us, as one Straits Times article published Oct 30 put it, to believe that “grades define worth.”
We know how in reality, excelling at school doesn’t guarantee a flourishing career or trouble-free future, and doing badly (or, for the benefit of those with high expectations, not achieving the coveted A or A+ grades) doesn’t destroy your path to success – whatever you define success to be.
But, here’s the problem: why do we still beat ourselves up over it?
Lately, there has been a spread of articles questioning the efficacy of bell curves, grading, the purpose of education, student mental health, and how schoolchildren too young to know better take drastic actions after doing badly at exams. While procrastinating on your assignments and revision (you’re reading this so don’t kid yourself), you come across the amazing reservoir of clickbait and among those are the many articles, listicles, quote compilations, videos, et cetera, telling you how insignificant your report card is in the “grand scheme of things”. And they’re not wrong.
It is a societal condition (or defect) that prompts us to feel and think this way. Since everything is relative, we instinctively compare ourselves to one another – similar to how family members judge each other about everything at gatherings, ring a bell? Yet, we endeavour to tell ourselves to be content while subconsciously forgetting how unhealthily competitive we are.
At the age of 14, I remember how someone very close to me called me “mediocre” as I was performing below average at school. That was eight years ago and I remember the event distinctly to this day. Though I realize now that it was said not out of malice but as a means of motivation through reverse psychology, I still remember how much it stung, as well as not being able to understand why. I can only imagine how other 14-year-olds facing similar encounters, left alone to decipher the message, might interpret it as encouragement, discouragement, or even a sign that they should give up altogether. And I shudder to think how younger students might react to being labelled as such – or worse – by those around them.
It is ironic how the people around you who tell you to look past the grades and that you should not care too much about them do just the opposite. Ultimately, it makes them no different from the people or institutions who measure your character or potential plainly by the letters on your report card. It is a confusing world we live in – onw in which we find ourselves irrevocably burdened by double standards or expectations we can barely understand.
Stress will always exist, and it is a fundamental human response we cannot escape from. But it is how we deal with this stress and the outcomes of our actions that make us better and stronger in the end. There is no permanent or one-size-fits-all formula for this, because the ugly feelings of scoring poorly occur in differing degrees amongst individuals, cushioned or perpetuated by the circumstances one is in.
Hence, it is important to find what helps you pick yourself up when it happens. I often find myself first falling into the trap: questioning what went wrong over and over again even though I am conscious of its futility. When feeling particularly pessimistic, I may even question my life decisions. It is a purgatory of reflection that has definitely plagued students other than myself. But once I acknowledge what has occurred, recognize the effort I have invested, it becomes easier to take subsequent steps. Ultimately, the final opinion you should heed is your own, because these decisions are yours to make. In the end, you want to be able to look in the mirror and be happy with all that you have decided on.
Since I am so concerned about “relative” and “bell curves”, I wish to look back on my life and what I have experienced, as well as what I have become aware of. This confines academic setbacks into the “try to make insignificant” box in my mind. Of course, there is the grit you can get from those you care about (and more importantly, those who care about you) in order to move on. Talk to your peers, because such insecurities aren’t unique, and once misery finds company, catharsis might just be the one thing you need. We’re all at the age where we’ve seen enough to appreciate the education resources not available or accessible elsewhere in the world and even to many others right here in Singapore. We should aim to take comfort in knowing that opportunities await us.
These methods that involve superimposing greater issues at large may seem like a lame-duck solution, but they are what push me forward. Coping mechanisms are unique to individuals and how you progress beyond despair (that we always feel tempted to exaggerate) from those undesired letters should become something that you can look back proudly upon.
Trying your best at school is certainly a positive principle. But we must remember that life is so much more than giving in to the fear of falling to the left on that terrifying statistical curve.
Exams are coming.