I still remember the first time I got an F. It was a fifth-grade social studies test; we had to memorize all 50 states. I could only come up with the names of about 10. When the papers were handed back, I looked around the room … Everyone around me had an A.
It didn’t seem fair. I had worked just as hard as everyone else. Was it my fault that I was bad at memorization? Was it my fault that I’d never studied the states before now? I had tried … that should have been enough.
Suddenly, my growing self-pity was interrupted by a blinding moment of clarity: I didn’t get the failing grade; my work did. With that simple realization, things started to fall into place.
It wasn’t important how hard I tried. I wasn’t being graded on effort. I was being graded on what I created. Giving different grades for equal effort would not have been fair … but giving different grades for different results certainly was. In fact, it was the only just option. School was fair, not to me, but to what I made. The process wasn’t important, only the result.
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That difference matters. Not just in school, but in life, because society works the same way school does: You are rewarded based on how well you do, not on how hard you try. It doesn’t matter if you’re usually hardworking. If you miss a day of work, or you don’t meet a deadline … the job didn’t get done, and you still have to face the consequences.
I looked at that F on my piece of paper, and I realized I’d still done, in some sense, just as well as all those “A’s” around me. I’d tried just as hard. But the letter on the paper didn’t change. I hadn’t done just as well.
So I did the only thing I could: I tried harder. I spent more time studying. And a week later, on the next test, I was rewarded with an A on my paper. I looked around; everyone else had gotten an A too. And probably with a lot less time and work than me. It wasn’t important. What mattered was what I’d put in, not what I got out.
The A on my paper said I was just as good as everyone else in that class … but I knew that wasn’t true. My work was just as good, but I was better. I had overcome challenges others hadn’t faced. I had studied longer and harder than anybody else in that classroom. We all ended up in the same place, but we didn’t travel the same distance to get there.
On the road of life, society judges you by where you finish, but that’s not how you should judge yourself. Because, really, it doesn’t matter where you start or even where you finish; I believe that what matters is how far you ran.
Jonathan Paulson, 17, will start his senior year at State College Area High School. He’s attending the Governor’s school for IST at Drexel University in Philadelphia this summer and working at a computer programming internship at Penn State. He can be reached at email@example.com