Recovering from Third Grade

Ava S. '22
During Morning Reports, members of the Emma Willard School community have a chance to share inspirational thoughts from their own life experience. In a recent talk, Ava S. '22 energetically and humorously shared her thoughts on perfectionism and how she “recovered from third grade.”


When I was in the third grade, we received a timed multiplication test. It was a graded assessment, and I was terrified, for I despised all things timed. The teacher passed out the test and I was determined to do well. I could hear the teacher’s instructions: “You have one minute to do this test. Fill in the answers to the questions,” but they were muffled behind the buzzing in the back of my head. The next minute was a blur. I completed the questions with ease and passed with a solid one hundred. I thought that would be the end of it. No more timed exams, no more stress. But oh, poor me. A few days later, a very similar test was passed out. Instead of feeling confident, I could feel myself filling up with existential dread. You see, when I completed something well the first time, the stakes were even higher the second. I had an expectation to live up to, meaning that if I didn’t get one hundred percent, my insufficient third-grade brain would tell me I was a failure. 


I did the test. I passed it in. And… I waited. I waited for a minute, an hour, a day, a week until I got the test back. Of course, what was I even expecting? I saw the grade. I looked away. I looked back. That eight out of ten was burned into my mind. So much for pride. So much for a good GPA, so much for a good college, so much for a good career, so much for a good life. I could see it then, all my achievements squandered by a dastardly timed multiplication test. What a waste; it was all just a waste.


Then began the rest of Hell—I mean third grade. I was so delusional that I couldn’t stand to live with my failures. I had to prepare for the future. This was my new schedule: Wake up, do multiplication while having breakfast, walk to the bus and have one of my parents quiz me on multiplication, on the bus I practiced multiplication, on the swings I practiced multiplication, at lunch I practiced multiplication,  multiplication, multiplication, multiplication, multiplication, multiplication.


I had no fun for the rest of the year. All I remember is a blur of random multiplication facts. What’s truly unfortunate is that we never had another one of those tests again. It. Was. All. For. Nothing.


Was my nothing worth it? No, definitely not. However, it took me far too long to realize the proper way to organize my work. Even after elementary school, I continued to be a perfectionist as I berated myself whenever I procrastinated or was unable to complete my work to a 90% or above. I was always looking inward at what I considered to be academic flaws, which flattened me to a one-dimensional person; I was a student and only a student. Personal growth also eluded me because I was usually too proud to admit that I did want to forgive myself, and even when I overcame my pride, I was too self-righteous to take my own advice. In late middle school and early high school, my desire to be lenient and take breaks overwhelmed my normal rigorous discipline, and I found myself staying up later and later because of YouTube, various side-projects, and general negligence. While my grades did not slip, I felt my mind was slipping into moral decay.


Luckily for me, I began to realize the error of my ways after many people told me that it is, in fact, unhealthy to beat myself up so much. My younger, somewhat deranged, despotic self, put perfectionism on a pedestal because it was convenient to see my work and myself in that light. In the third-grade, my work was only flawless because I had so little to do, not because I was intrinsically a dedicated student. However, I found as my workloads became heavier and my academic challenges became increasingly nuanced, discipline alone just didn’t cut it anymore. I likely would have been killed by my own cutthroat extremism if I had not been exposed to the kinder perspectives of those who encouraged me to learn from my previous errors and to take my own idealism with a degree of uncertainty. As my interest in science deepened, I had an epiphany: “We’re all just neurons and chemicals in flesh suits, so we don’t have to take the constructs we make so seriously because they are not absolute. Thus, trying to attain perfection is a fool’s errand because there is no such thing.”


While I have resolved my issue with perfectionism, not all my problems are gone. There are still instances when I stay up too late or feel my work is inadequate. However, this time is different. I now know how to schedule my time and priorities so my work never feels so heavy. I give myself space to socialize and indulge in my personal joys such as YouTube and anime, and it fits well into the normal structure of the day. The desire to do well academically has and will push me through many hours of labor, but I understand that being a good student is not what determines my value as an individual. Don’t get me wrong, I still strive to be the best person and student I can be, but understanding and respecting my limits are parts of growth too. Ironically, I have developed more with gentle moderation than I did or ever could with intense discipline. 

Ava S. '22