Let’s travel back in time to Sophomore year.
As a naive fifteen-year-old coming out of a ridiculously easy freshman year, I naturally decided to take three AP classes, two honors courses, one fine arts class plus marching band (which was an entire class on its own that I wasn’t enrolled in). I joined every club I could – AP Club, Tri-M Music Society, World Traveler’s Club, and Jazz Club. I was stretched thin that year.
I was dedicated to putting my absolute best in every single one of those endeavors. I went to every club meeting. I did all my homework, to the best of my ability. I studied for tests – never once did I let myself walk into a test cold. I went to every sectional, no matter what workload I had. I never missed a concert.
By the end of the year, I was a mess. My classes were a real struggle. I managed to get A’s in everything – but only through sheer force of will. I actually ditched Jazz Club all together. AP Club and Tri-M fizzled out all on it’s own – but I didn’t try to salvage anything. The only club I actually don’t regret joining was World Traveler’s Club – they took me to Switzerland and Italy, which was a pleasant escape from the constant stress attacking my every move.
I honestly regret the effort I put into everything that year. None of the rewards were worth the price on my mental, physical, and emotional health.
I take Sophomore year as a lesson. That was my worst year ever. I worked really hard, and I didn’t really win. That whole year was a fail – regardless of the grades I earned or the places I went. It was all too much.
Sometimes Hard Work Won’t Lead to Rewards
I specifically remember one class I took that year: AP Physics.
I don’t necessarily enjoy math – and that’s all that class was – but I was good at it. As long as the theoretical math didn’t connect to the real world, I was fine. Except, physics is all about the real world. We talk about gravity. Pressure and tension. Friction. Dumb, complicated variables that mess up all that theoretical math.
I actually sucked big time at AP physics. My older sister, Liz, was a senior at that time and in the same class period as me. Our teacher would actually compare our test grades to see who was better at which topics. (All those horror stories about teachers comparing you to your siblings hold nothing compared to this). Liz was so naturally good at physics that she hardly had to pay attention. She didn’t need to study. She’d just waltz in to any exam, finish it up early, and battle another top student for best score in the class.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to grasp anything the teacher said. I would literally walk out of the class unclear on what we had just learned. I would spend three hours a night redoing problems in class until I could somewhat replicate what my teacher said I was supposed to be able to do on my own. Tests and quizzes were a nightmare. Pair that with a poorly timed cold, and I almost failed the first semester.
Somehow, I pulled out an A in the course. But only through sheer force of will and temporarily ignoring the other five classes that required my attention – two of which were AP courses with time consuming assignments and horrible tests of their own.
I know what you’re thinking. “Erin, you got an A. This is an awful example of hard work not paying off.”
Perhaps. I did work hard for that A (whether it was worth it is another debate). But this is big picture stuff.
Let’s talk about the time I got a 15% on a unit exam in physics. After studying for hours each day for a week leading up to the test.
Yup. When he handed my test back, I only got three points out of the twenty available. Granted, most people did poorly. But no one else scored below a 30% like I did. I did worse than random guessing. And I actually tried!
I know it’s insane. How did I manage to get an A – at least a 90% accuracy in the overall course, with a score like that, where random guessing would have benefited me more?
I promise I’m not making this story up. Ask anyone who knows me. They probably vividly remember me freaking out over this 15%. I probably cried. Yet… my GPA didn’t suffer from this terrible mishap.
Right Now Things Aren’t Working… But That Doesn’t Mean They Never Will
That 15% is hilarious now. Especially since I now know it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. And if I’m being honest, scoring so low was a humbling experience. It reminded me that I’m definitely not good at everything, no matter how much time and will I dedicate.
So then how did I recover?
Well… this teacher had a special grading scale. He curved every test to a five point grading scale:
I regularly scored 62% on exams (except that 15% exam, which was an absolutely terrible unit overall). He wouldn’t downgrade me to a 3 – that would mean I’d lose 2%! Instead, he’d round up. So my 62% exam grade would round to an 80% in the grade book, even though I was never anywhere near that threshold. He did the same with the people who scored above 80% – they’d automatically get 100%.
This teacher would also allow us to do corrections on every test and quiz, including unit tests, for half credit back per correct answer. His philosophy was that correcting our mistakes led to understanding. Maybe it did for some people, but for me it only led to a higher grade overall.
I worked hard on those test corrections so I could increase my grade by 50%. I spent hours studying so I could get a score above a 60% – my goal wasn’t to understand the material completely, because that was impossible for an inept student like me, but just enough to not kill my grade.
My hard work never led to understanding. I look back to AP physics and wonder how I never broke down in tears in that class. I would leave every day feeling super dumb and super disorientated. I have never experienced a class where I literally had no idea – no shadow of understanding or sliver of epiphany – of what was going on and what I’m supposed to know.
The only reason I survived in that class was because I sold my soul to it for a year. I dedicated so much time to studying – and my poor dad, with a PhD in physics, had to sit with me for hours upon hours trying to make me understand elementary physics concepts. I clawed my way to victory in that class, and then spent the entire summer following sophomore year attempting to recover from my stress-induced emotional collapse.
I didn’t gain many victories in that class. Regularly scoring D’s on exams is not great. Scoring a 15% is outright embarrassing. Day-to-day, things didn’t seem to be working out. I constantly felt hopeless. I constantly felt stressed. I didn’t know what I was doing, only that I needed to get an A for some intangible, ideological reason.
Yet, in the end, I succeeded. I achieved my goal, which may or may not have been a good thing. But I did it. Even though things didn’t feel like they were coming together while I was knee deep in stress, the eventual end turned out fine.
Perhaps right now you’re failing at something. School related. Work related. Social related. Maybe you work hard but there aren’t any current successes. That doesn’t mean there never will be.
Success Takes Time
We all know the expression “you reap what you sow”. But I think a lot of us forget that this doesn’t come true overnight. My family put a lot of effort into growing our backyard garden. After a few seasons, most of the plants sown at the right time grew, but the orange tree did not produce fruit. It took five years for this tree to produce oranges – which meant five years of watering, trimming, and fertilizing. We could have easily replaced the tree with a different one – but we wanted oranges. We couldn’t get oranges with an apple tree.
All that hard work we put in now is what we are sowing. All those hours I spent studying, the unconditional dedication to that class, those lengthy notes that didn’t seem to make any sense. Those were all seeds for my garden. I wanted my A in a difficult class, so I put in time to grow it.
I failed over and over. And even today, I’m failing at things that I want to succeed in. The club I founded is dying. My extra time meant for writing is being seeped away by college applications. My social situations aren’t fantastic right now.
But those things haven’t turned out yet. I haven’t reaped what I’ve sown. Reaping can’t be done until the seeds have had enough time to settle into the ground and begin to grow. And I have to wait until my plant has fully grown before I can start harvesting its fruit.
I have to spend time fostering commitment to my club, otherwise it will die officially. I have to work in time to write – or accept that right now is a season of applications. I have to continue to weave my personal values into relationships – which is especially hard when some relationships have been founded on different values I no longer believe in. Giving up entirely because temporary failures arise is like pulling a plant from the ground before it has any chance at all to produce favorable fruit.
We all work hard on what we love. We do. If you aren’t working hard, then that activity or relationship obviously doesn’t mean very much to you and doesn’t deserve any more attention than it’s currently receiving.
It’s so frustrating when our efforts fail to produce rewards. We compromise in a friendship only to have it fall apart. We make a point to be diligent employees, and then someone else gets the promotion. We study for a test, only to get a 15%.
But maybe our plants aren’t done growing. Maybe those failures are just miniature rainstorms threatening to uproot our garden before it’s fully grown. We must press on. If we care enough, we must keep going.
Great things will come. I firmly believe in that. Perhaps not in the way we expect, or in the area we thought we wanted, but in some sort of fashion, great things will come.
I work ridiculously hard. And I fail constantly. But if AP physics taught me one thing (and it definitely wasn’t physics), it taught me that perseverance turns bad situations into pleasant surprises.