The Most Harmful Thing School Has Taught Me

Kate Feathers

I’ve always been a huge nerd. And strangely enough, I’ve always detested school with a passion.

As a university student, I have much less workload than I did in high school. I often forget what it was like to be back in my home country, exhausted, stressed about having five exams in one week.

But sometimes, I remember.

It makes me livid. I feel so very grateful for the fact that I’m not at that place in my life anymore, that I can invest time into things I enjoy doing, that I am finally free.

I wasn’t always as happy.

Since the first day I started school at 7, I aspired to bring home the best possible grades. My parents always made it very clear — A is the only grade worth cherishing. B is alright, but it brings about a pinch of disappointment. C means you’re stupid. Grades below that aren’t acceptable.

They both didn’t go to university and worked working-class jobs, so they desperately wanted their children to do better. In my father’s eyes, university means success. He doesn’t care about high rates of unemployment of recent graduates. In his world, it’s simply not possible to not end up rich if you receive straight As and get into higher education.

Naïve, I know. This attitude, however, built the foundation for all the harmful thinking that school drilled into me later on.

And there was a lot of it. One really stands out, though.

My self-worth derives from my grades

If I don’t get As, I’m not smart enough. Good enough. Worthy enough.

The traditional educational system doesn’t offer much feedback aside from one simple letter or a number (in Czechia where I come from, excellent is 1 and fail is 5).

This symbol is all you become.

When we did group work in physics lessons, our teacher came up with a brilliant idea — we could only team up with people who had a similar average grade as us. This way, the “lazy” ones wouldn’t get an A thanks to the nerd doing all the work.

What didn’t occur to her is that not only does this support the harmful categorizing of students into groups based on one simple symbol, but it also didn’t offer us the chance to learn. To improve. To watch the nerd do the work, ask questions about it and maybe finally begin to understand.

When I got my first C at 9 years old, I was scared to go home. I cried and apologized to my parents. I promised it would never happen again. Happen it did, and I got used to it in time — but I still had that gut-wrenching feeling every time I got a grade worse than a B. I still do. And I’m 21.

When I got a B from a test around the same time, I lied to the teacher when she asked us to tell her our grades so she could write them down — I told her I got an A, and my classmate ratted me out. The teacher scorned me, and I got over my guilty conscience in a few days.

The point is, I was so terrified of getting bad grades that I even chose to lie about them.

At high school, the workload was simply too much. We learned about every single subject in such depth that people in the UK only dive into at universities.

There was Literature, Czech, English, Biology, Geography, Chemistry, Physics, Math, Social Sciences and more — all of them overloading us with specialist information, presented to us in dozens and hundreds of slides in PowerPoint.

That’s when, at 16, I realized that cheating was the only way. If I wanted to have time for my hobbies, write, read and study for subjects I actually enjoyed, I had to cheat on the rest. Otherwise I wouldn’t pass.

When I learned Biology topics by heart and tried to focus on the main points, I still failed miserably during the test — it asked about details and irrelevant information that you’d be able to drill into your head only after three hours of intense studying. It was simply easier to use the search option on my phone that I always slid beneath my thighs during an exam.

Every Biology or Chemistry exam got me shaking with fear of being caught. Yet almost every time I tried to study instead of cheating, I ended up failing.

This wasn’t due to my inability to learn, mind you — I was excellent at the subjects I cared about. I loved studying for those. I was the Hermione of the class. Very passionate and very annoying.

I never got a C on my end of the year diploma. Some of my Bs were earned solely due to cheating, yet I didn’t care. They were good grades. I could tell myself, “Yay, you’re smart!”, my teachers would appreciate my hard-working discipline and my parents would cherish their successful daughter.

Grades were everything. The one number on my test determined my mood for the rest of the day.

Each time I got an A, my self-confidence was boosted. I reaffirmed to myself I was worth it. When I got a bad grade, however, I was in shambles.

What have I done wrong? How can I go back and fix it? What will this do with my average grade? Does this mean I have to get three As in a row now to make up for my mistake?

Grades weren’t the core of the problem, though.

It was the quality I formed within myself that came from years and years of focusing on academic success.

And that’s the fact that my self-worth depended solely on the validation of authorities.

Teacher’s pet, that’s me

In my final year of high school, teachers started inviting me to their philosophy evenings and café events. I chatted with them in their offices — we discussed politics, society, my classmates.

Now, I’m not saying that forming connections with your teachers is a bad thing. Not at all. I do think it only supported my people-pleasing tendencies, though. It kept proving to me, time and again, that I am worthy of respect.

And I slowly started to forget that every human being is intrinsically worth of respect, no matter how many prizes they win in school competitions or how many As they get.

Without my As, without my competitions, without teacher’s respectful nods… I was nothing.

Just a girl.

I became a productivity machine, always striving to study hard, to be perfect, to make time for everything. At the same time, I was always exhausted. I slept every afternoon after I came home from school. I kept wondering why I had headaches so regularly.

I was constantly under pressure to perform well academically. To prove to everyone that I’m intelligent. That I am worthy of being admired.

I was desperate for respect and validation from others to the point where I lost that within myself.

When I failed, I failed hard. When my productivity system broke, it broke with a bang louder than expected. When I lost my constant source of validation from my teachers and high school grades after graduation, I didn’t know what to do with myself for the next two years.

Only now have I begun to heal.

Fight for a better world

“You’re enough,” I tell myself. “You can be imperfect.” I cry and pull my knees close to my chest, closing my eyes and forcing myself into believing it.

I’m enough as I am. I don’t need other people to admire me, validate me or respect me. I don’t need to people-please for them to like me.

That’s what I will keep telling myself until I start truly feeling it because I know it’s true.

A lot of this struggle comes from my parents, of course. Their opinions are molded by the society they live in, though, and that society dictates that school is the most important thing for children and teenagers.

Academic success is the highlight of our young lives. But it shouldn’t be.

School shouldn’t be about winning competitions or being awarded symbols based on how our teachers view the world.

It should be about cultivating a love for learning. About exploring the world, forging our identities into who we wish to become, about developing the creative part of ourselves as well as logic and memory.

Sadly, my story is one of many similar ones.

The teenagers we used to be are adults now. We have the means, the opportunities, the age-gifted authority to do something about the educational system.

To advocate for a meaningful change.

Let’s not make grades determine future children’s self-worth. Let’s focus on enriching their worlds and making them follow their passions instead of stressing them with tons of responsibilities about subjects they don’t care about.

Yes, even writers should know basic information about biology. Where every cell in your body is and what every single bone is called in Latin? Not so much.

So, let’s talk about this. Let’s change the narrative about education. Let’s fight for a change in the system.

Let’s learn because we love to do it, not because we need an A to feel like we matter.

Because we all matter, even if we get a Z.

Photo Credit: Free-Photos on Pixabay

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I'm a student of Languages & Comparative Literature who writes about relationships, feminism and personal growth. Discover more of my work:


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