Friday, March 14, 2014

External Valuations

As this post goes live, I will be finding out whether I've gotten into or been rejected from my dream school. I have been telling myself that I won't get it, so as to prepare myself mentally for the most likely outcome (last year, admission rates were 7% and no one from the wait list got in). I have a rejection playlist queued up, with the first song Cee Lo Green's "Forget You."

Obviously, if I get rejected I will be upset. I might cry. I'd definitely sulk. If any of my friends got in, hopefully I'd be big enough to be genuinely happy for them. The image in my head of all of us getting in and partying it up at the robotics competition will probably not come true. The image of all of us weeping together and then moving on with our lives is more likely.

But my reaction, and my close friends' reactions, were not what I wanted to talk about today. Instead, I wanted to vent.

Caveat: I know that my troubles are small, that people have far bigger problems, that I'm being a sulky privileged teenager. Yeah, not denying any of that. But this is my space and I know some people who might empathize. Here's me trying to speak for us:

Being a "smart kid" at school is not as pleasant as it may seem. Oh, you can find your group of people who are also nerds, who tolerate or even enjoy your dumb physics puns, and you can pursue knowledge and get lost in the wild wanderings of the universe. But being at school, surrounded by people who see only your test scores and assume things about you, is not fun.

I'm circumlocuting. Sorry. What I mean...okay, let me illustrate.

On Wednesday I walked into my first class of the day and a girl I know, whom I generally like, said, "Hey, I heard that you missed the AIME cutoff by one point. That sucks, doesn't it? If it were me I'd be really mad."

NB: projecting someone else's failures publicly is a jerk thing to do.

"Well, I'm not," I said, because I'm not.

"Yeah, well, it was your own fault anyway," continued the girl, at which point another friend reprimanded her for being rude and I debated the pros and cons of letting someone know exactly how much my respect for them had just dropped.

"Just kidding," said my classmate. "I mean, I only answered five questions."

I'm telling this story because I'm angry about it and because I think it's representative of the kind of treatment that "smart kids"...I'm struggling to find a verb. It's not so melodramatic as to warrant an "endure" or a "go through," but it certainly is annoying.

What is that treatment? Being judged on external achievements. Nay, not simply being judged: having our worth determined by external achievements.

This is not a horrible system: after all, judgment on deeds is the basis of a meritocracy. And it isn't only "smart kids" who face judgment. But when a student who succeeds academically does poorly on something--anything--gets a B on a test, or doesn't qualify for the second level of a math competition--then others will let them know about it.

A note on my use of quotes around "smart kids": I don't think I'm much smarter than most people I know. It's just that my intelligence is channeled toward things like math and science and academics, which are socially perceived as "smart." The C-average student who can take apart an engine, or the yoga-pants-wearing B student who has worked since sophomore year as a sales rep, are just as smart as I am. I just happen to have strong academics.

And at times that doesn't feel like as much of good thing as it really is. Because when you're "smart," when your name and your friends' names were on the school website for National Merit, when you have a reputation for knowing stuff...people see you as a function of just your brain, and what shiny trophies your brain wins for you. That trophy could be an A on a test, or a certificate of merit.

Or a college acceptance letter.

I'm a little afraid that I won't be able to handle rejection, but I've had so many opportunities to deal with failure this year that I'm sure I can get through it. I'm close enough with my friends that even if some of us get in and some don't, we can stay friends.

But the other people, the ones who don't know me, who see us as a pack of robots programmed to generate status...if I get rejected, I will be transmuted into "the girl who wasn't good enough for MIT."

And that's not a statement that necessarily carries a value judgment. I knew when I shot that I was shooting high, and whether they want me or not, MIT is a great institution that has produced numerous contributions to the world. Lots of people have been rejected from it and gone on to do great things, and I will not speak ill of it even if they tell me no.

"Forget You" will not be directed at MIT. Instead, it will be directed at all the people who will think less of me, or of any of my friends, for not getting in.

We've learned, we've grown, we've become leaders in any number of fields--band and volunteering, for me, but also sports teams, MUN, robotics--we've been mentored by those above us and paid it forward to the younger set. We've set records, broken them, performed, won and lost and learned. One piece of paper more or less--what is that, set against all that we've done and become?

We will find success, no matter if the path is more or less prestigious, because we are not our trophies and we are not our failures.

To everyone who is waiting for admissions decisions: best of luck.



Rejected from MIT. I'm all right; I expected this.

On the other hand, I got into Caltech--maybe I won't be going East Coast after all.

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