Payment in kind
On healing and identity
I don't think I ever told anyone this, but I cried many times out of stress over my grades in my time at MIT, and countless more times I have felt…
These past few years, I have been pretty open about not caring about grades since they're not necessary. As someone going into the tech industry, I laughed off my poor GPA. I'm sorry, but I was deceiving you all. Not lying, exactly, since I do believe that our grades-obsessed education system is inherently flawed, but I never admitted how much it pained me to have below-average grades.
Below average — but at MIT! I should be grateful, right? I am surrounded by some of the most intelligent people in the world, so even below average is pretty darn impressive. I didn’t come from an Olympiad or a private school background! And our classes are really hard! I’m doing okay, all things considered, right? And yet.
And yet, it hurts. It really does. I feel like I'm not doing enough, like I'm not smart enough to be here. Logically, I understand that isn’t true, but my heart is much harder to convince.
And what makes this pain in my heart much more difficult to bear is how fucking lonely I feel in my pain. I love my friends; I really do. They care for me and have supported me to the best of their ability, but I feel like it's not enough. They don't and won't understand what it means to struggle through my depression and my classes and to consistently have less than stellar marks on my transcript. I have been saying, "Oh, I just had a bad semester," for several semesters now.
Why does this matter to me, anyway? I should stop comparing myself to others and focus on a personal growth mindset! Again, I understand that — logically, despite my depression and the hell that is MIT — I am doing alright for myself. But there's more to it than that. Secretly, I am so, so worried that I peaked in high school and that my life will just continue to go downhill from here.
I used to like school, actually! I was good at it! I absorbed everything I was taught like a sponge and could prove it on tests. In high school, I would’ve had to actively try to do poorly in class. Ask any of my peers during my high school years how they would describe me and most would start off with "smart" and probably not say much else. I even seriously considered going to grad school after undergrad. Academics came so easily to me, so why not?
That was the problem, actually. It was too easy, to the point that I never learned how to study. The classes I took at public schools were taught at a slow enough pace that I never really had to. So, by the time I came to MIT, I had a nearly perfect GPA but lacked the skills to preserve it.
My rude awakening came my freshman spring, when As turned into Bs and Cs, which eventually evolved into Ds and Fs. I couldn't handle it. I had built my entire identity and self-worth around being a straight-A student and being good at school. So when this identity crumbled, I felt empty. What did I have to offer the world except for my supposed intellect? I wasn't good at anything else! I wasn’t sociable or athletic or crafty or funny or good-looking. I sucked at piano, I sucked at tennis, I sucked at clarinet, I sucked at swimming, I sucked at writing, I sucked at coding. I couldn't draw, sing, dance, act, cook, fight, do makeup, speak multiple languages fluently, or even run for more than five seconds without my lungs freezing up.
I was spiraling and probably selling myself short, but you get the point. I had to contend with the question, "Who am I if not smart? Who am I without my achievements?" That was pretty tough to handle, especially since all my life I was under the impression that my only redeeming quality was my intelligence, and everyone's comments just seemed to support that.
I managed to break out of this harmful headspace by finding a few people who empathized with my struggles. Like me, their worries were not "will I get an A in this class and keep my 5.0?" but "will I manage to pass my classes this semester?" I wasn’t alone after all. MIT breaks us, some more than others, but it's so, so hard to admit that you're seriously worried about whether you'll graduate in the typical four-year window because you failed too many classes. Knowing that this was not a unique experience and that taking longer to graduate was okay really helped me, especially since I could tell that these people were incredibly smart and skilled and wonderful in their own right. Maybe I could afford myself the same kindness that I afforded others.
And so, I started feeling better about my situation. I still hadn't figured out who I was stripped of test scores and numerical representations of my worth or ability. Not yet, at least, but I was determined to find and develop it. Thus, I looked within myself and decided to prioritize things I valued or enjoyed, and I realized I loved my friends. I loved making people laugh and be happy. I wanted to support others as much as I could and make the world a better place, whatever that means.
So I chose to be kind. I chose to prioritize people over psets and to encourage others to do the same. And I'm still working on it, of course, but I hope sharing my pain and the beginning of my healing journey with you has helped, even if only a little bit. This is my kindness to you.