So many years ago, and I still remember that first F. It was a fifth-grade social studies test; we had to memorize all 50 states. I could only come up with about 10. I looked around….everyone around me had an A.
It didn’t seem fair. I had worked just as hard as everyone else. Was it my fault that I was bad at memorization; could I be blamed for never studying the states before now? I had tried…and that should have been enough.
Suddenly, my growing self-pity was interrupted by one blinding moment of clarity: I didn’t get the failing grade; my work did. And with that simple realization, things started to fall into place. It wasn’t important how hard I tried; I wasn’t being graded. What was being graded was what I created; what was important was not how hard I’d worked, but how well I’d done. Giving a different grade for the same effort wouldn’t have been fair…but a different grade for a different result certainly was; in fact, it was the only just option. School was fair, not to me, but to what I made. The process wasn’t important, only the result.
It matters, that difference. Not just in school, but in life, because society works the same way school does: You receive based on how well you do, not on how hard you try. I
It doesn’t matter if you’re usually hardworking, but you miss a day of work or you don’t meet a deadline…the job didn’t get done, and you still have to face the consequences. That’s fair…fair for results, anyway.
I looked at that F on my piece of paper, and I thought about that distinction, and I realized I’d still done, in some sense, just as well as all those As around me; I’d tried just as hard. But the letter on the paper didn’t change; I hadn’t done just as well.
So I did the only thing I could: tried harder. I spent more time studying…I worked until I got it right. And a week later, on the next test, I was rewarded with an A on my paper. I looked around; everyone else had gotten an A too. And probably with a lot less work and time than I had put in. It didn’t matter; in fact, I was happy to see my new understanding about school fairness confirmed. What mattered, to me, was what I’d put in, not what I got out. The rest of the world gave me an A; they said I was just as good as everyone else in that class…but I knew that wasn’t true. My work was just as good, but I was better. I had overcome challenges others hadn’t faced; I had studied longer and harder than anybody else in that classroom. I had risen farther than anyone else, had overcome a lack of both aptitude for memorization and previous learning about the states. On the road of life, society judges you by where you finish, but that’s not how you should judge yourself. Because, really, it doesn’t matter where you start or even where you finish; what matters is how far you ran.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.