When I got to Uni, I thought I was going to be drowning in homework, have no time for a social life, and only focus on school. While this has been somewhat true, Uni is a lot different from what I expected. Instead of being a school for creative, gifted students, it has become a place for kids who are good at school. And because of this I felt isolated, insecure, and even like a failure.
I wasn’t good at school, and I’m still not. But I’m creative, hands on, and think in different ways than the average Uni student. I’m not saying this is any better or worse, just different. This can be helpful for individual projects, but when it came to group projects I tend to be the one who makes the Powerpoints, organizes things and yells at people for not doing work. I was never the one researching or doing calculations. My mind doesn’t work in the same way most Uni students’ minds work. And to me, that made me feel alone.
It wasn’t always like this for me, though. In middle school I was quite ahead, taking the honors classes and doing extra credit to get an A+ instead of an A, for what I considered fun. I wanted to come to Uni to be surrounded by people who were like this, not the people in my 7th grade science class that wouldn’t do any work and fail willingly. I wanted a school that would push me to be the best student I could.
From the beginning Uni students are put against each other. This environment of intense competition feeds into many students’ desires to improve themselves, but it can cause anxiety and stress for others. While it could be debated that the kind of student who crumbles under this kind of pressure shouldn’t be at Uni, that would only limit the diversity of the student body even more.
Because we are a community of academically gifted people, many feel the need to show that they are superior by bragging about their grades. Some outright brag about getting good grades, but others choose to humble brag. A common Uni humble brag is something along the lines of “I only studied for 20 minutes and I got a 98.” Another example would be “Ughhh, I failed this! I only got a 96.”
Because Uni has developed the culture of the humble brag and assumes everyone is doing well in school, this often silences the people that need the most help. I know from personal experience that asking for help, especially as a subbie or freshman, felt like the hardest and most humiliating thing I’d have to do. I was used to knowing the answers and helping other people, not the other way around. I felt like asking for help was showing weakness, and I was also a socially awkward 13 year-old who was trying to make friends. I thought that people wouldn’t want to be friends with me if I wasn’t smart.
Asking for help in class was hard, because I thought if I didn’t understand a topic I was dumb. Asking a friend was fine if it was one problem, but once they figured out I didn’t understand the whole topic, I felt judged. It was hard to improve my grades because I was so focused on not looking stupid that I neglected learning in the process.
It is true that people hold themselves to different standards, but it’s one thing to say you failed when you got an A or B, and another to say you failed when you got a D or F. This mindset that you need to constantly be one-upping someone else is detrimental to both parties.
I have been silenced by my fear of failure many times. Freshman year, I did not understand geometry. Geometry and I did not get along. We never really understood each other, and because of this I suffered. I am lucky enough to have a dad who, for some inexplicable reason, says that geometry is “fun.” I couldn’t have disagreed more. Every night we would spend at least an hour at the dining room table trying to learn geometry. Most nights would end in some kind of fight or tears of frustration.
Because my dad saw me struggling with geometry, I didn’t have to ask for help, which was a big deal to me. I didn’t tell many people that I was spending at least an hour a night trying to understand what we had learned in class, because I was humiliated. As it was, I still got a C+ in that class. If I had been left to my own devices, my grade would have suffered more, as would my pride.
We also have an unrealistic expectation of how well everyone is doing at school. Even as a subbie when I was getting my first Bs, I couldn’t comprehend the fact that some students were getting Cs or lower. The people who were getting bad grades were too afraid to speak up and ask for help, only causing the problem to get worse.
To me, that is a huge problem at Uni. Because we’re the “smart” school, we can’t admit our weaknesses, especially when it comes to grades or knowledge. It takes a long time for kids to even admit that they’re bad at pickleball, and that’s just a game we’re required to play in PE. At Uni, admitting faults is seen as a weakness, when it should be seen as a strength. Knowing your own limits, knowing what you need help with and what you can do on your own, and knowing when to reach out for help is really impressive. Being self-aware is something just as important as being able to prove that two angles are congruent. Maybe even more. These emotional intelligence skills are the ones that you will take with you outside of school.
Not all of this can be blamed on the students, though. Many students do have a competitive drive, but the parents contribute a great deal to this culture. Parents have their kid’s best interests at heart, wanting them to get into a good school, get good scholarships, and be well educated, but this causes nearly as many problems as it solves. Parents are often what start this idea to appear superior, because students are forced to have to act like they have their lives together at age 13. People are no longer told to try their best, but to get a 4.0 GPA.
These issues are larger scale problems than just Uni. It would take a lot of reforming to be able to adapt to all levels of giftedness and teach in a way that all students understand. Maybe eventually we’ll all split up like in Hogwarts and go to different classes based on our different learning styles, but for now, the biggest thing you can do is to speak up. If you are struggling, or you see a friend struggling, don’t let it go unnoticed. I was fortunate enough to have parents and teachers notice this drastic change in grades and pull me aside to talk about it.
Not everyone has an adult like that, so try to be that person. You never know what kind of impact you could make. For me it saved my grades. For others it could change their social life, GPA, or even where they go to college. People everywhere are scared to ask for help, but especially at Uni. That needs to change. We need to be a school that encourages collaborative learning, including asking peers for help and learning from each other. Be that person that reaches out.