Thursday, August 7, 2014

Teen Essay Contest in May 2014

Theme: Inspire Myself, Motivate Others
The First Place Winner: Marisa Li
Lowell High School

Growing up in an Asian family, I was raised in a environment where academic success is highly stressed. In a family oriented on the results rather than the process, grades are everything, grades are everything. 4.0 GPA? They expect nothing less. Anything lower, however, amounts to failure. Math used to be the best and favorite subject. Somewhere along the line of high school, though, it was morphed into my worst. Now it was junior year, and my struggles with math continued in Precalculus Honors.
When we received our tests back, I couldn't help but feel inferior compared to everyone else in the class. I'm not intelligent, I thought, and because of that I must work twice as hard for only half the results. I stared at the bright red 61% on my paper and resisted the urge to crumple it. When did learning become a chore? When did school, a place formerly filled with fun and students eagerly absorbing new knowledge, become a place to earn grades and increase family pride?
I envisioned a cycle of success when I was younger based on my grandmother's teachings. High grades would ensure acceptance into a "good" college, meaning a prestigious one recognized by her and all other relatives; this would allow me to obtain a career with a high salary, spacious house, luxury brand car, and various other signs of opulence. Now I believed I was falling into a cycle of failure.
I tried to share with my friends my difficulties with the course. They responded, "It's okay. I know you'll get an A. You're so smart! There is no way you will not be able to raise it." What they failed to understand was that I did not want to hear that reply. Claims of my intelligence meant nothing to me when a C in my math class disproved that assertion. If I was truly smart, would I be receiving a C despite trying and trying? What I wanted to know was if there was more to me. What other qualities did my friends see in me?
What no one realized was the underlying, hidden fear in my heart. Was this all I had become - an AP machine, a factory that churned out good grades every grading period, every semester? Was there anything more to the name Marisa Li than high intellect?
I recall in fifth grade, all the students wrote anonymous compliments about everyone in the class onto slips of paper, which we placed into individual paper bags. When I opened my bag, nearly all of the messages stated something along the lines of "You're super smart." The first time, it made me feel happy, but as I continued to unfold and read the papers, I wished for something different. I desired to be recognized for more than just my grades. And at this time in my junior year, the thought that maybe all I was to my family and friends was someone with good grades returned. It haunted me, the fear that maybe the only reason and the only method for my family to love me was a 4.0 GPA.
What is intellect? What are qualities worthy of admiration? Is someone effortlessly gaining high marks worth more respect than someone striving a thousand times harder but achieving smaller results? And what about the process? School was supposed to be a place for learning because people wanted to learn. When did the results take precedence over the process?
I never understood what I had turned into until talking to my best friend one day. Crying, I relayed how I felt, and she frankly told me that I was more than just grades. She was the first to tell me outright, and I couldn't help but cry. This time, however, my tears were due to happiness.
Sometimes, all it takes is one person to lift you up. Just a few words from her were enough to change my perspective. Doing badly in math did not make me a lesser person. I was still the smiling girl with a fondness for pandas and a love for all types of rice. Maybe my grades were a component of me, but they definitely were not all of me. I would not let one class grade define me. In fact, I realized that I shouldn't let any grade define me. I was my own person with more than just an academic life. I was the food bank volunteer who always aimed to place the nutrition label stickers on the center to make the packages look nicer for people. I was the Chinese girl attempting to correctly pronounce the "r" sound in French. I was so many things more than I first believed, and these facts were present all along. Why was I seeking approval from others when I hadn't even taken  the time to see myself clearly and appreciate who I was? I had to learn to love myself first, and once that occurred, everything fell into place. My new, inspired self brought many things - a brighter outlook on life, a 10% gain in my Precalculus Honors grade to a B-, and most importantly of all, the confidence and self-esteem needed to permanently banish my previous fear.
I remember that day in fifth grade I searched and searched until finally, at the bottom of my paper bag was one compliment much longer than the rest. While the message briefly touched on my intelligence, it focused on how easy it was to talk to me, how I was an excellent listener, how I was kind and caring, and how they enjoyed sharing a love of books with me. It was the paper I cherished most, and years later, when I took out that bag once again, it was the one slip that stood out most in my mind and the one I found first.
One person can make a difference. In fifth grade and now in my junior year, someone reached out and said exactly the words I needed to hear. I wanted to do the same. I wanted to be the voice that encouraged and uplifted someone. I wanted to spread the happiness that was sometimes difficult to find in a stressful, competitive, and achievement-centered environment.
As I seated myself next to my tutee the following day, she voiced her frustration and anxiety about her chemistry class, which she had a C in. I wanted to tell her that grades weren't everything, that she was a wonderful, kind person with or without that 4.0 GPA. That I was happy to tutor her and that she had already raised her grade so much from the beginning of the year. That I was proud of her regardless of her final grade because she worked so hard and never gave up.
So I told her, and her smile as she continued her studies was the brightest I had ever seen.

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