Your marks should not define who you are

Michelle Namachemo writes about the ongoing battle between operating within an education system that values marks and other external measures, and not letting those external measures define one’s worth as a human being.

Photograph by Sophie Marques

As someone who enjoys learning, the education system is by far the biggest hindrance to my learning. It is set up in a way where education is made competitive as opposed to valuing knowledge and fostering a culture where learners are compelled to study out of their own interest. Time and time again it has been shown how detrimental current systems can be to young learners.

That is why I made a conscious choice, years ago, not to be entrapped by said system. My journey in detaching myself (as far as one can while still participating in the education system) was a very difficult one. It consisted of frustration, confusion, introspection and just when I thought I had achieved it, I regressed. I think it’s still somewhat of a work in progress.

It all began when high school started. In primary school, I was the star pupil and my high school was a top girls’ school, meaning everyone else was also the best in their respective primary schools. I was no longer the best; I was now average. I finally got a taste of what it was like to not be the best, and after a childhood of being defined by my stellar academics, I was in turmoil and lost all sense of who I was. It was a horrible feeling, so I searched long and hard within myself for what mattered to me and what I wanted to be known for and defined by.

With the aid of a life-altering event, I decided that knowing and understanding phenomena, people and systems and being a kind, reliable, and helpful person is what mattered to me and what I wanted to be defined by. I realised that my marks, neither objectively (my mark) nor subjectively (how my mark compared to others) were not a measure of my intelligence, but rather a measure of how much the education system had entrenched itself in my mind. I noticed that I adored reading on topics for the sake of it, so much so that even if I failed a test it didn’t bother me too much. Tests became a formality, something required of me that had no real meaning to me. My focus was on the knowledge simply for the love of it.

Painting by Nino Mekanarishvili

I had moments (more so during times of very high pressure) when I would regress. This mainly happened during exam times because as much as the mark did not define me, it would still determine whether I could proceed to the next stage. It was an aggravating feeling knowing that something that didn’t represent me and all my complexities would determine my future. The longer I spent in such stressful periods the more prone I was to hear a little voice in my head, saying that maybe I was defined by these numbers after all. This is what my entire year in engineering has been like, very high pressure and constant reminders of how my academic results determine if I am worthy of attaining my goal of becoming an environmental engineer.

The time pressure put on us every day means I no longer have time to take my learning into my own hands and do it at a pace where my interests remain intact. Rather, all the learning I do has an end goal. I study not out of interest but more so because I have a deadline to meet by which time I must assimilate the information, be it a test or exam. The mass of information and impossibly little time to digest it leaves me unable to enjoy the process of learning. It has long been argued that the time pressure prepares us for the working world but from what I’ve noticed the capitalist world in which we live in is very exploitive in its nature. These immense time pressures are consequences of employees not being valued as human beings who get stressed and tired. Ultimately preparing students for such an environment normalises the idea that they are a commodity as opposed to living, breathing human beings.

Hence, despite my unending love for physics and having a cool lecturer who had experiments in class using a guitar and bagpipes, last semester’s physics was not enjoyable. Learning it in class was interactive and awe-inspiring, but it still didn’t save the subject when it came to the content vs time battle.

As for advice to other students, I would suggest they find meaning in their lives that is neither academic nor reliant on measurement by other people or systems put in place to forcefully mould us in specific ways. If you can find your worth in something that cannot be given or taken from you by someone else, you can determine what has control over you and your sense of happiness and worth.

Michelle Namachemo

Future Environmental Engineer 2nd Year,

"I like to think of myself as an amateur anthropologist. Always learning."

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