Column: Dear God, calm down about your grades

Braden Hajer, Copy Editor & Columnist

There’s a line I’ve used in a couple of college essays that I want to share with you.

“Frankly, I associate with and understand kids with sub-3 GPAs who don’t care about school more than grade-obsessed, AP-stacking Super-Students. Dedicating one’s entire life to getting ahead of your peers academically and ‘winning school’ is complete nonsense to me.”

I mean every word, and that line didn’t come out of a vacuum. I’ve seen it all around me for nearly four years. Kids eagerly discuss test scores with each other. They brag about how little sleep they’ve gotten studying for the four AP exams they have to take the next week. I’ve seen countless upperclassmen with freshman levels of maturity, asking every other minute the most infuriating, flow-breaking questions. Will this be on the test? How many questions will the test have? When’s the retake going to be (often they haven’t even taken the actual exam yet). Is this formative or summative?

The student body Naperville Central High School seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of why they are where they are. This problem has been exacerbated by flabbergastingly-naive Tiger Parents and a district that seems to care far more about the numerical output of its students than their educational experience or well-being.

I need to make one thing perfectly clear: you are not in high school to obtain a high GPA. You are not in high school to get to college. You are not in high school to surpass your peers. You are in high school to learn, to better yourself. Learn for the sake of it, not for the sake of acing the next test. There are life skills to be learned and career paths to foster, sure, but the ethos of the high school experience has been perverted beyond recognition.

We are all very lucky to be at NCHS. It’s a nice building in a bubble of utopian suburbia. The district is well-funded and all that jazz. But here’s the thing: without its teachers, it would be nothing. We really do hire the best of the best, and it saddens me to my core to see barely anyone take advantage of that. 

At this point, I’ve had dozens of incredible teachers, from Mr. Smith to Ms. Albiniak, Ms. Twietmeyer to Mr. Carlson, Mr. Gebbie to Mr. Gross, Mrs. Hastings to Mr. Brady… the list goes on (I’d name everyone I’ve had, but I do have a word count to fit in  — sorry!). There is so much to learn from these people beyond what the curriculum mandates they tell you. The classes I’ve loved have almost always been because the teachers were great, not that the content was mind-blowing.

But instead, teachers are used like a means to an end, point dispensers more than anything else. Learning is a tool for academic success, not life enrichment. In place of anything actually productive, the D203 community has constructed a pressure cooker. I’ve seen students beat themselves up over messing up a practice math problem. Getting something wrong is a calamitous embarrassment, and performing worse than your friends is a national tragedy.

In a system like this, students are but husks, shuffling between classes (or Zooms). They’ve scooped out their souls to make room for as much “information” as possible. Learning is important, yes, but learning is not synonymous with overstuffing yourself on facts. In their pursuit of the highest GPA possible and “winning” school, they’ve somewhat abandoned their humanity.

But as I said prior, the students are not exclusively to blame. Many of the district’s parents are, to put it bluntly, insane. This culture of academic fear and stress would not exist if it wasn’t passionately reinforced by those who revel in their kids’ success and shame them for anything less than a fully unrealistic level of excellence. 

If you couldn’t tell, my parents have always been a little laissez-faire, and it always shocks me when I hear about kids whose parents check their grades hundreds of times a semester. That might even be the norm at this point, and it’s borderline…gross. Please, parents of D203, stop checking your kids’ grades every 30 minutes. You have nothing to gain by knowing every time your child’s grade slides up or down a half of a percent. You’re only causing more stress.

I’d love to spend a couple hundred more words yelling at the district about all the ways they’ve perpetuated these destructive tendencies, but wouldn’t we all? I suppose I’ll just leave you with this: if you’ve ever gotten a B or lower in a high school class (and most have), what does that actually say about you? If I may make a suggestion: very little.