I hope this doesn’t come off as whining. I’ve been very fortunate to attend great schools and have supportive parents and relatives, even if folks were sometimes demanding. What I’ve come to learn, and what I know is true, is that to reach my absolute best, the motivation has to come from within me, and that I’ve only found that fire recently, with the results to show. So here’s an account of how I finally got to where I always wanted to be.
I’m in 19th grade now, technically. Due to take two more years of class after this one.
I was definitely told I was smart as a small child, and placed in schools where I could be around other smart kids. This, I’m sure, helped me a lot, but I also never really felt exceptional.
I did fine in school, excelled at math when I was 3 or 4, was apparently doing long division in kindergarten (even though I can’t really do it now), and eventually was skipped right over first grade. I was already small (and stood out in other ways), so that left me an undersized 6 year old amongst 7 year olds when I got to second grade, and I basically became deathly afraid of being myself because I got teased a lot. There’s more to it than that but I’ll leave it there.
I started struggling when I got to fourth grade. I, for some reason, didn’t really like my math teacher and also didn’t really understand what, at the time, seemed to be relatively abstract math (I believe it was “bases,” as in “base 2,” “base 5,” etc. It seemed dumb to me so I didn’t want to do it). So I started cutting class, by hiding in the bathroom during math. Eventually I got in trouble.
But I never really solved my issues with homework, and for the next 4 years or so, all the rest of middle school, I procrastinated and was only interested in class-clowning to become more popular (it didn’t work) more so than getting my work done and learning. I’m not sure I learned a whole lot from 1995 to 1998, but I was talented enough (and my school permissive enough) to skate by, barely, until it was almost too late, as college began to beckon. I was getting “See me” written on my science tests since my scores were so poor. And I think they all knew I was capable of the work but school just wasn’t clicking for me.
In retrospect, I was having some pretty significant emotional issues, but they were mostly internal so no one really figured it out. I don’t blame anyone for that. I kept up a brave face and told everyone I was fine. And I mostly was. For a black boy, I was going to school every day and was far from danger.
I cut a bunch more classes in 7th grade when I fell too far behind on homework one weekend. This time they caught me after three full days where I skipped school, and had I been at a public school, I am sure I would have been suspended and my whole story would be different. Indeed, the extra chances I got by virtue of being at a kind school were invaluable.
For whatever reason, I suddently got very anxious when I got to ninth grade. Maybe I was more mature, but by then I’d developed a reputation for never following through on anything, and it was something I believed of myself. I gave up easily when discouraged and certainly never went the extra mile, which is a funny thing for me to say now as a marathoner.
And then I started doing all of my homework early. As soon as it was assigned, I did as much of my homework as I could on the subway or right after getting home. My report cards at the time were narratives - and teachers were encouraged to include both good and bad things - so my mistakes were always harped on by… stakeholders, but I did improve. I still didn’t feel like I was very talented, though, since my peers were getting 4s and 5s on AP exams and I never got above a 3. When I finally got into Princeton, I was shocked, and convinced myself I was a combination of an affirmative action entry and a semi-legacy (my mother went there for a year). Considering how I ultimately performed, it took a long time for me to shake this opinion of myself.
My teachers have since spoken to me and told me I was a better student than I remember, though I’m not exactly sure they aren’t just being nice. Ultimately, before college, I never got letter grades, but I was, at best, a frustrating and unfocused learner with no real academic goals aside from not getting in trouble, and at worst I just didn’t do my homework and wasted my parents’ money. In retrospect, though, I was at a very good school, and still received a great education, especially in writing. But I sure did feel like I was mediocre in every way when college started, and then I went out and confirmed my own suspicions.
Some people go to college knowing exactly what they want to be or do. I was not one of these people. I vaguely wanted to be a writer - I still do! - but I couldn’t figure out how to do that. So I filled my schedule with “distribution” requirements for my first two years to knock those classes out of the way and focused almost entirely on my social life, which was a… poor choice.
That said, I actually did well in my very first semester, just because I happened to be taking classes that weren’t exceptionally difficult for me, and were pretty interesting. I was definitely more focused on beer, but I did all my homework and did it well. And I set myself up for trouble.
The second semester, the classes were harder and they weren’t classes I really wanted, so, with no interest, I slacked off. Unlike my no-grades high school and middle school, that mess doesn’t fly at Princeton, and my grades plummeted. I was never in danger of fully failing, but whereas peers were excelling and building themselves into achievers who were set for big careers, I just tried to keep my head above water.
The following fall was the most difficult of my life for unrelated reasons, but I did okay, not great, but okay. And then I finally improved my social life the next spring and focused on parties I actually enjoyed and my grades cratered again.
That summer I was told in no uncertain terms I wouldn’t be fully supported if I didn’t get my act together. And I literally sat down one day and became the absurdly over-planned person I still am. It’s probably not best to make changes out of fear, but, that’s what I did.
After that, I never fell behind again, not once. I clearly had it in me to stay on top of my schooling and needed to unlock the skill of time management. But this didn’t mean I became a top student overnight. I had spent two years not really learning much and blowing off the great privilege I’d been given, mostly because of the same emotional issues I’d had for a decade by that point - I thought I was lazy and worthless, but I was in pain - so I had to work extremely hard to keep pace with the increasing workload. I did keep pace, but overall I finished as an okay student, grade-wise. And I certainly had no plans to get additional degrees without being intrinsically motivated.
So I went to Korea and continued to ignore how I felt, but by the end of that I knew I did want to teach, and I applied and was accepted into my MA program. Yay!
The program was online (even though I was in the same city), and I was very, very underemployed, so I did all my homework as early as possible and called it a day. I did fine in my classes, but I never challenged myself, and I never read anything extra. I had all the time in the world but I never applied myself fully.
My professor (and, eventually, a mentor to me) told me, in my final semester, that she wanted me to get an A, and I accepted that challenge and became determined to do so, especially after she implied I had an attitude problem (she was right). I had spent so long inside of a cocoon of my own issues that I often didn’t realize how I came off to people who cared about me, and, even though there wasn’t much time left in the program, I did finally sit down and do what was needed to excel, and I got that A. But I didn’t get an A in my other class, and a 4.0 semester continued to elude me.
I really never thought about a doctorate, for several years after getting my MA. I’m not sure why. I saw friends go for it. But I had no idea what I’d study or how to make it work financially or logistically. My dad was trying to nudge me into various programs I didn’t really want to do, and I was finally way too old to do what other people suggested because I knew it would lead to more apathetic academic performance.
When I got into this program, I was told that the minimum cumulative GPA was 3.3, and I was terrified, which elicited more than one (appropriate!) eye-roll from my wife when I told her I was worried. I’d barely beaten that number in my MA, but I figured doctoral work would be more challenging and time-consuming, and I really thought I might be in danger of falling off the pace. I knew that several students drop out of every doctoral program, and I figured I, long convinced I was just mediocre (indeed I’m sure I said so in the early years of this website), would be one of these students if I bothered to apply.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the classroom: I finally looked my issues in the face after running away for decades, and though they’ll probably always be with me to some extent, I finally got a handle on them to the point that I was able to focus on work that interests me. I’ve been living - and studying - in a fog since I was a child, and though it’s not a completely clear day just yet, I can see much better now than I used to, and, just this week, it was confirmed that, even without all-nighters or quitting my job or whatever I might have thought necessary, I got what is my very first 4.0 semester. It’s only the first semester out of many, and I’m sure it’ll get harder as we are expected to learn more and more, but I finally know how it feels to be the student I’ve always been expected to be.
Now, sure, some folks are nodding saying, “well, we knew you could, so that wasn’t that hard.” Living up to my potential took me until I was 32, and if you read all this you might be thinking I should have figured myself out a long time ago. But I didn’t.
I want to cherish this moment because it really does feel good to be learning and growing towards a bright future. I am glad for all of my teachers who saw I had talent in me and never really gave up on trying to drag it out from within, especially as an occasionally frustrated teacher myself. I’m glad for my relatives and friends, who probably always wondered why I sort of struggled through my teens and twenties, and for my wife, who saw me lying to myself that scuffling through life was okay with me. For my parents, who probably pushed too hard at some times but knew what they had and spent absurd amounts of time and money supporting. But most of all, for the bright and sensitive little boy I was, who went to hide when he got scared in second grade and is finally getting to skip in circles and dream whatever he wants and become the man he always hoped he could be. I know I’m lucky I got so many chances - what happens if I got physically ill at some point? Or we had less money? Or I had a child? - and that my struggles are a pittance compared to those of many others. But I also know now that pain is pain, and to no longer be subsumed by it is wonderful.
I’m proud of what feels like more of an achievement for me than it probably should, and I absoutely cannot wait to learn more.