Everyone at Brown gets As. At least, that’s what my international relations TA told me.
That morning, our professor had handed back our midterm research papers. Having earned a B+ on the short essay before it, I had spent days navigating the longer and more difficult prompt she had distributed in efforts to improve what was already, in my opinion, an admirable grade. As countless students do, I hunched over my computer and pieced together my argument until my eyes grew so tired that I could no longer make out the words on my screen.
Immediately after receiving my graded paper, I flipped to the last page in search of that holy letter. Another B+ was sitting there waiting for me scrawled in small letters by a black ballpoint pen. Amidst dozens of short check marks, there were comments of “good!” and “theory was very strong” — something I am proud of, having never taken an international relations course before. Yet my analysis was too long, and thus my paper was not A-worthy — plus or minus.
Knowing one of the final assignments of the class was a 15-page research paper, I decided to meet with my graduate TA to review the material and see how I could push myself further and improve. “Don’t worry, everyone at Brown gets As,” was the response I received.
Since I had met with my TA because I had not, in fact, earned an A, I went home embarrassed and unsure of how to feel.
Though it was not the first time I had heard this sentiment at Brown — and I have been here three-and a-half years — it was the first time I had heard it from the mouth of an instructor. So that makes it true, right? It means that a B+ just isn’t good enough.
For the majority of my time at this university, I have felt like an academic failure. It is difficult for me to type out because I know it sounds absurd. I have never gotten below a B, and even if I had, that does not constitute “academic failure.” But I have still felt a resounding guilt that anything below an A is stamped on my transcript.
Thoughts of my family’s bank account scurried their way into my head. Despite being lucky enough to have nothing but supporting and loving parents, I used to feel ashamed at how much money they were spending to sponsor my “mediocrity.” Most of my freshman and sophomore year I was either in the library or in my dorm room, always working and rarely socializing enough outside of my extracurriculars to establish meaningful friendships.
While there were many personal factors to my unhappiness at Brown, my inability to feel academically adequate was fueled by extensive comments from friends and schoolmates. And now, I suppose, by TAs.
When studying for a political science exam last semester, a friend suggested we team-up with a particular student because “she doesn’t do Bs.” Another friend, whom I dearly love and recognize as one of the most brilliant and well-rounded people I have ever met, told me that Brown is too easy. He stated that he has rarely felt challenged by his classes and it shocks him that people don’t get As on everything.
With the senior job hunt in progress, I have classmates who have taken positions with organizations serving underprivileged communities, such as Teach For America, because they are “prestigious positions that look good on my resume.” A student sitting next to me in my VISA class sophomore year neurotically voiced her worries about receiving a B: “I have to go to Harvard. I have to go to Harvard Law. I cannot get a B. I cannot get a B in ART.” She ended up making it to Harvard, but I wonder at what cost. Or does the cost not matter if one is able to reach the next step in the hopscotch game of “success”?
I recognize that not all Brunonians are like this. And I do not mean to berate the students that are, as I have certainly taken on this persona. There are students who go to great law schools while maintaining healthy lifestyles as undergraduates. I have friends committed to Teach For America because they genuinely want to share their knowledge. I am not here to undermine the achievements of others or to pass judgement on whether they deserve them. I am simply here for the open curriculum and to pursue my passions, to enhance my knowledge and to cultivate friendships. But somewhere along the way I forgot that.
Last semester, I had forgotten that despite getting a B+ on my midterm paper and being disregarded by my TA, I learned a lot in that IR class. And I wrote papers that, when re-reading, I am proud of to this day.
My efforts are always my greatest, and my devotion to my schoolwork and activities is never disingenuous. But I have allowed dismissive comments, anxiety-filled peers and my own perfectionism to overrule that.
I have forgotten that I love to learn, that I should appreciate where I am and that it is okay to be in college for the sake of learning, not just to please my peers and miserably carry out my college career living up to a standard that I find both unhealthy and unattainable. It is okay to be at Brown for self-betterment and exploration — for happiness. And I do not think I am the only one who has forgotten that grades do not always come first.
My final grade in that IR class? B+ — or B as my transcript will show. And if it’s true that everyone gets As like my TA said and that I am the only one who doesn’t, fine. I will continue to give the best effort I can give. But my goal for my last semester will be to be proud of my effort, not solely its outcome.
Zein Khleif ’15 is independently concentrating in political psychology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.