Yesterday I got an email from a former student. She was upset about a grade she had received from another teacher at the end of the term. To her credit, I was a little surprised too at the grade because I had worked with this student so much over the months, and I had seen first-hand her earnest effort and the improvement in her work. It is never easy to accept disappointment, especially if you have exerted maximum effort. It is never easy to feel as if you have “failed” when you have really tried your best.
I felt empathy for this young Chinese woman who had labored so hard to read literature in English and write college-level papers. She did her best and yet at the end of the term, her professor told her that her best was still “C” quality work. While most of us raised in the U.S. know that a “C” means average and is not, necessarily, a low-grade, for many international students a “C” might as well be an “F”. Many of these students – especially the ones who are academically strong enough to study abroad, are used to straight “As” and an average grade equates to failure, to realizing that everyone is human and no one can be exceptional at all things.
Accepting your own limitations is difficult, no matter your age or life experiences. I guess as we grow we learn to know ourselves better and to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses. But it can still smart to know that even if you have worked your hardest to do something well, it might not be deemed good enough by others. I learned at a young age that most science courses and upper-level math skills would always be challenging to me. I could study, get a tutor and really apply myself to learning the formulas and equations…but no matter my efforts, I was still an average – and at times a below average – student when it came to these areas. Luckily, I was talented in other areas, like language arts and art. I could enter an English class and earning “As” took little effort. Somehow, I could read a story or poem and almost always find a way to interpret them. Writing papers was never too difficult either. But I saw that many of my friends did struggle with these acts. So I learned that while I may have little aptitude for math or science, I was blessed with a good mind for reading, analysis and communication. I learned that rarely does any one person have every subject in her mastery.
I think many people forget to acknowledge their areas of strength and perhaps focus too much on what they lack rather than on what they possess. My Chinese student reminded me of this yesterday. I know that to be accepted into the school’s program she has to be bright and highly gifted in art. Yet she, and I am sure her parents, want her to excel in all areas. Despite her hard work, she still only earned an average grade and this, she feels, tells her she is only average. Of course, this is not true.
I was reminded again yesterday of the very human emotion of frustration and disappointment when I lost my tennis match. I’ve played for the better part of my life and have devoted uncountable hours to lessons, practice and trying to improve my game. Some days I can go out onto the court and feel everything is working in tandem, my body and mind united in one act: hitting the little yellow ball well. On other days, it is as if my body and mind are at war with one another. No matter what I think or do, the act of striking the ball or staying focused is impossible. Those are the days that deplete me the most. It is a hard fact to swallow that no matter how many hours I put into a sport, I will never be “the best.” And even if I am playing exceptionally well, there will always be someone who is doing it better. Accepting these facts is, I guess, part of being an adult and part of loving yourself no matter what. Realizing that some days are going to be better than others, that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose is part of life.
Hard, frustrating, disappointing…all of the words spring to mind when I think about applying myself and not getting the results I want. This is a fact of life that everyone must contend with if competing in an arena where she is judged, whether that’s reflected in the score on a tennis court or the grade in a classroom. Effort does not always equal a win or an “A.” So I think what we have to take away from such experiences is personal reflection and acceptance of self, no matter the external measurement.
I replied to the desperate email from my student. She was heartbroken at the average grade and did not understand why all her efforts and revising her papers had not rewarded her with a higher mark. I agreed with her that accepting the evaluation of someone else is not always easy…neither is losing a tennis match you so hoped you would win. But our merit is not to be found in the grade of someone else. It can only be found in yourself. I reminded this young woman of how much she had gained within last semester, how much her skills in English did advance. She tried her best and that is all anyone can ask of herself.
In the wise words of Miguel Ruiz, the true path to happiness and self-acceptance is to always do your best, but to recognize that doing your best will fluctuate. No one can be 100 percent every day. Too many other factors influence us: mood, nutrition, stress, feeling well rested and energetic…even the weather. Some days will simply be better than others. It is with the acceptance of this simple fact that we can learn to be more at peace and to ignore the measurements of others. Does a professor’s grade mean anything?Does the score of a tennis match matter? Of course these things do, but they do not tell the whole story. Grades at school, wins or loses, these are ways we evaluate others and ourselves. They give us feedback on areas to improve and goals to set. Learning to be alright with disappointment and personal limitations is the real lesson and knowing – really believing – that you are so much more than a letter grade or game score.