I’ve never liked numbers. Throughout school, no matter how hard I tried, I could never fully grasp them—for whatever reason, they never seemed tangible to me. Imaginary figures floating in the air, I would attempt to connect them to one another, figure out some sort of pattern, but they never clicked together. I wasn’t a terrible math student, but there was always a noticeable disconnect.
Not words, though. Words make sense to me. I love their beautiful lyricism, the emotion they inspire, the relatability of words. I see the world in words. I think in words.
Which is why, among other reasons, being referred to as a number feels so foreign and uncomfortable to me.
When I think of who I am, several nouns come to mind. I’m a person. A woman. A student. A writer. A daughter, a sister, a friend.
I am not, however, a 40% or 1/400.
Last year, I was enrolled in a class I’d rather not have taken, a universal feeling among college students. However, this course was a general education requirement for my major, so there I sat. Twice a week. With roughly 400 other students who, most likely, would have rather been anywhere but in that cramped lecture hall.
I remember when we received our second midterm grades. After spending an entire week studying in preparation for the exam, I felt fairly confident.
This confidence was short lived, however, when I learned that I came in dead last (my teacher posted the highest and lowest grades online). For someone who has never come in last in anything, especially not academically, this was a shock. I called my mom and told her I was a failure, unintelligent, a fraud. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to this school, I said.
I sat on the floor of my dorm room and cried with a friend in a similar situation. We were both struggling to keep our heads above water in the class.
I remember looking in the black-framed mirror on my closet door later that night, seeing tear stains on my face leftover from our crying session. My eyes looked sad and lost.
It wasn’t me, though, I realized. This experience really made me consider how our educational system is constructed to make students feel inadequate, not inspire confidence. Why do professors feel compelled to pit students against one another? Posting grade distributions turns students into numbers and breeds unhealthy competition. When I realized that I received the lowest grade, I immediately felt low, small, and inadequate. Everything my exam percentage was.
It’s problematic that numbers, imaginary, constructed figures, have such an incredible hold over our lives, thoughts, and emotions. They govern us in so many ways, and sometimes, it can become mentally overwhelming.
In college, numbers are essentially part of a student’s identity. I find myself constantly worrying about my GPA, calculating what I need on a final exam to get a B in the course, measuring my grades, and therefore my success, against others’.
Far too often, we equate worth with GPA and grades, when a person’s worth is so much more than numbers. Worth is kindness, generosity, empathy, being a good friend, loving your neighbor.
As a student, it’s easy to get caught up in the “what ifs.”
What if I don’t pass this class?
What if I’m not social enough?
What if my resume is too short?
What if I don’t get that internship?
What if I disappoint my parents?
What if I’m not good enough?
The vast majority of students I have met since entering college have experienced or are experiencing some form of depression or anxiety, mainly due to these constant pressures to measure up.
“Mental health issues in the college student population, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, are associated with lower GPA and higher probability of dropping out of college,” according to Active Minds’, a mental health organization, website.
Even though I put as much time and effort into the class that caused me constant stress as I possibly could without having constant emotional breakdowns, spending long nights in the library and study lounges, I still could not pass the course.
I thought this meant I wasn’t competent. When I sat in lecture and couldn’t make connections, I convinced myself there was something intrinsically wrong with me.
This experience, though, has truly opened my eyes to what it actually means to be successful and how imperative it is to put one’s emotional, mental, and physical well being first. Although it is important to work hard, it’s infinitely more vital to maintain balance in life and recognize when to take a step back.
Take a second to briefly imagine an education system that truly focuses on learning. An environment that fosters ability, not mental or emotional stress. An atmosphere that encourages and promotes real world discussion, not a rat race to earn a grade on a test, then forget the information afterward. Imagine that.
It’s high time we start treating students as complex, emotional human beings, not numbers on a screen or a sea of bodies in seats.