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Why I tore my transcript up at graduation
By Lily Childress
(printed in the Stuyvesant Spectator, September 24, 1996)

"And I would just like to take this chance to say how angry I am at every number that has ever been used to quantify who I am, what I have done, or what I am worth. This transcript -- it means nothing. This is not what I have learned, this is not what I have accomplished, this is not me." -- Lily Childress, Valedictorian, Class of 1996.

To help me write my valedictory speech, Dr. Shapiro offered to let me glance through some of the senior theses lining the bookshelves of his office -- perhaps seeing how others viewed Stuyvesant would be inspiration. I had been skimming for perhaps two hours when I noticed my name. Someone had decided to write about competition at Stuyvesant, about the twisted desire of every student to be the smartest of the smart, the brightest of the bright. And Lily Childress was this "best of the best" --- not because of my insight, not because of my intellectual curiosity -- because she had a 1600 SAT and a 99 average.

Perhaps those numbers do reflect something (for instance: a peculiar ability to fill in pink bubble sheets in pretty patterns) but they seem a rather sick definition of a person. I have been approached in the halls by too many students with numerical ambitions; I have even had a complete stranger ask me to edit his college essays. I have heard whispers, "There's the girl with the 99 average" behind me. I have had to endure undeserved accolades from administrators who consider me the perfect selling point for Stuyvesant: the girl with the highest average in the history of the school.

The only thing worse than unrewarded merit is unmerited reward. Too many of my grades were bullshit. Teachers had heard of me, perhaps liked me, and didn't want to bring down my average. Many more had base grades of 90, or curved tests so that the class average was well into the 90s.

But the worst part if that I bought into it, and this truly disgusts me. I felt impelled to keep up my grades, polish my image. My grades closed far more doors for me than they opened. I stopped doing things for the fun of it. By senior year I hated school, I hated basketball, I hated everything that I felt obligated to do. And yet I did it out of some desire -- perhaps I wanted to be the "best of the best" as much as everyone else. I had become so caught up in the pursuit of a number I had forgotten that the number merely represented my efforts and achievements and was not a goal in and of itself.

And I think that is why I decided, at 4:00 AM the morning of graduation, that my speech, my message for the year, would be more personal than a mere farewell. By ripping up my transcript, I was symbolically tearing myself from this desperate ambition that had left me hating what I had once loved. Moreover, by ripping up my transcript, I was leaving behind that part of high school that was not worth carrying on. I would much rather remember Stuyvesant for the real things, for the people.

Those are the personal reasons for my action. There are far broader issues that need to be addressed regarding grades at Stuyvesant. I, personally, would favor the abolition of all grades; if not that, at least the institution of letter grades. I came from a junior high school that gave no grades -- I probably worked harder there than I did in my first three years of Stuyvesant. Grades teach students to run after a carrot, not enjoy and profit from the exertion. I will not deny that there are many students who need that carrot, but who is to say how many more might push themselves farther than this carrot allows, if given the chance?

I took Mr. Goetsch's creative writing class knowing full well he never gave over a 95. And yet I ended up working as hard for that class as I did for any other, if not harder -- I must have written well over 150 typed pages by the end of the term. And Mr. Goetsch gave me a 98. I told him the night before graduation how disappointed I was. I felt like all the work I had done had been reduced into three points.

Grades cheapen accomplishment. I would rather be remembered for the reasons why a teacher gave me a grade than for the grade itself. A teacher bumped into me once in the elevator, looked at me for a while, and then said, "Oh, I remember you. You're the girl I gave a 98 to in freshman English." I guess he doesn't remember that I wrote a thirty page term paper on cosmology.

I suppose those were also personal reasons, but I think they are shared experiences at Stuyvesant. I wish everyone would rip up their transcripts, at least in their minds, and imagine what it would be like to work with no number hanging over their heads, imagine what it would be like to wake up without dreading a second-period math test every other Thursday, imagine what it would be like to learn simply to know, remember, and understand a little bit more about life, whether in or out of the classroom.

Unfortunately, we do not live in an idyllic world, and it is unlikely that a school with a competitive entrance exam will ever abolish numerical grades.



Lily's response to the critics
By Lily Childress
(printed at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~childres/grades.htm)

(written in response to various email messages--edited)

I understand your accusation of hypocrisy because in all honesty I must admit that what I had to say was relatively hypocritical. I had no right to say it. But then again, who does have the right to say it? If a failing student complains about the grading system, no one listens because one assumes that he is merely trying to explain his situation. If an average person complains no one cares because one assumes that he is simply upset with himself that he isn't getting higher grades. And if a student who gets exceptionally high grades complains that the grading system has many flaws, then he is a hypocrite because he has benefited by this system he is denouncing.

The point of this rhetoric is that no one is paying attention to what is being said by any of these students--only to who is saying it. And so perhaps I ought not to have used personal examples--maybe I should have submitted an anonymous editorial. But its point would then have been lost--it is a personal statement, but by that very virtue I think it reflects the personal experience of other Stuyvesant students.  

This article was not my graduation speech--the speech itself was much shorter and was intended to focus more on what Stuyvesant offered BESIDES the separating influence of grades. However, people have tended to remember only the fact that I tore up my transcript. Hence I was asked to explain in greater detail my reasons. If they seem a bit "sob-storyish" and "exaggerated" it is because they are true: I was trying to communicate (to a friend who had requested to write an article about my speech) why I felt so angry about my grades that I would tear them up in front of 3,000 people. I did not intend this letter to be published as is, but everything I said in it was, at the time, very true to me. My attitude towards Stuyvesant--and consequently towards my grades--has much improved since I have been at college. However, much of what I said I still believe, though the anger has faded.

The point I was trying to make in the first few paragraphs was not that I am stupid, but rather that Stuyvesant's testing and grading system do little towards a useful evaluation of a student's work. For instance, in my seminar here in college, out entire collected work consists of four essays to which the teacher assigns a grade only upon the request of the student. For each paper, however, he writes two pages worth of comments, analysis, and suggestions. Similarly, at my junior high school, instead of report cards each student would receive a packet of longhand evaluations from each teacher.  A grade is superfluous.

I had some teachers at Stuyvesant who cared enough to evaluate my work not just with the concept in mind of what grade they would ultimately give me but also of what I could learn from their comments--not mere grammatical corrections or notes on obvious omissions, but questions that delved beyond the actual material of the work and yet questions that I would not have had the knowledge to address without having done the work. But if, at the end of this commentary, there is an unchangeable number marking the true "meaning" of their evaluation, then why should I bother to think about these questions?

I suppose it is rather obvious that the majority of teachers have neither the time nor the patience to devote to such a careful evaluation of students work that grades would become superfluous. This is as much a function of class size and number as of the actual grading system in place. But I think that numerical grades make it much easier for teachers to gloss over in-depth commentary. And the numbers teach students to disvalue what commentary they are given.

Letter grades are a better, though not ideal, option--I believe I mentioned this in the article. Although I tend to look with disfavor upon any sort of grading system after my experiences at Stuyvesant (please don't think that I am unhappy with my four years there--quite the opposite--I just wish I understood then what I have now come to realize: that there were many classes that I could have gotten much more out of had I not gotten caught up in what sort of grades I was getting) I think that letter grades tend to discourage both grade inflation and competition. (This was my experience at Chesterton Community College, and English school I attended when I was 12.) Letter grades discourage grade inflation by re-establishing the norm. It is much more difficult to rescale a numerical system than to replace it with another one. But there really isn't anything wrong with grade inflation--it just makes the number even more meaningless than it originally was. Letter grades discourage competition because they are less concrete: they imply the subjectivity inherent in all evaluation. They indicate a general quality of work without defining it in a discrete number.

To get back to the subject, I recently re-read this infamous article.  I can see how easily what I was saying could come off as if I were a petty, whiny, attention-starved brat who wanted sympathy for having beaten down everyone else.  I was a little irritated with myself. Yet as I kept reading, I slowly began to remember how I had felt when I wrote the letter: I remembered the twisting gut-wrenching feeling that somehow I was guilty, that by accepting awards and accolades for something I knew meant nothing, I was hurting not just myself but also everyone who wanted what I was getting.  And I remember how sick I felt to think that I kept accepting them because I wanted other people to think I deserved them even when I knew I didn't.   

And so call me a hypocrite. How I acted, trying to be the "perfect" student, does not agree with what I said in my article.  And much of what I wrote then I now find self-righteous. "Consistency is the mark of a small mind."  I use Emerson not as an excuse for my past actions and words, but rather as a tribute to everyone who has forced me to confront and re-evaluate them. And yet throughout this reappraisal, one element has stayed true to me: I was angry, miserably angry, at myself and at everyone who had ever used a number to define me, and all I wanted to say was this: `Forget the numbers, forget the grades.    Work however hard you know you need to work, and don't let a high grade slow you down or a low one snap you into working harder.   Learning should be a selfish process: work to improve yourself.'    This advice was meant for anyone who would listen with an open mind; above all it was meant for myself.

Anyway, if you do have any more questions, comments, or criticisms, feel free to email me at childres@fas.harvard.edu

I cannot promise that I will respond, but I will try....



I found this article pretty intriguing in comparison to Lily's when I took a look back at the archives.

The Big Picture
By Benny Adler
(Stuyvesant Spectator, December 22, 1995, p. 2)

Stuyvesant High School is "The best high school in the country." The students here win more Westinghouse awards, have higher SAT scores, and get into better colleges than students from any other high school in the nation. All this comes, not from the great intellect which we supposedly all possess, but mostly from good, old-fashioned hard work. It takes more than brains to be the best. We do everything with a passion. Combined with the multitude of activities and difficult classes which the Stuyvesant environment urges us to participate in, that makes us the busiest group of high school students in the nation. Of course, being the best has its place. But so did IBM shares in 1948.

The question that I ask is: Why do we bother? Why do we throw ourselves into school while other people our age are out partying, hanging out, "having lives?" Why do we spend eight hours a week at the Princeton Review preparing for the SAT, a test designed to test our ability to learn? Why do we sacrifice our free time to sit in hospital laboratories performing esoteric scientific research? Why do we spend twenty-five hours a week on homework? Why do Stuyvesant students work so hard? Why do we do it?

The answer is actually pretty complex. If one were to ask around the school, no doubt the vast majority of "successful" people here would say that they're doing all to get into a "good college." People would say it as if they're just running some kind of big scam to trick colleges into accepting them.

I would argue that, in truth, remarkably few people have ever given the idea any significant thought. Sure college is a good excuse, but the real reason why we do it has more to do with hard psychology. At the start of Freshman year a whole mess of people from around the city - few of whom knew each other before Stuyvesant - are thrown into what they expect to be a bloody difficult school. It is this perception that gives us the idea that in order to have half a chance at success here we have to work harder than everyone else. This fosters both our "need" to work hard, and the competitive nature of the Stuyvesant environment that causes us to keep working harder. In essence it is Stuyvesant itself, not the 180-million-dollar-building or the "brilliant" students that makes it "the best." There seems to be a feeling around here, that says that we're all fighting against each other to be the best, so step on anyone you can to get to the top. From a theoretical point of view there are no friends here - just competitors. So why do we bother doing all this work? There is only one thing that can describe it: Stuyvesant High School.

The whole system is just a self-perpetuating cycle of Stuyvesant students working hard because people around them are working even harder. It's a cycle of circular logic that just keeps building on itself.

Through all the crazy, ill-based, and chaotic Stuyvesant work ethic, real, well-grounded justification can be extruded. In the end this ultra-competitive performance-oriented environment has some very positive outcomes because the players who get sucked into this big game leaves Stuyvesant knowing how to work, succeed, and rise to the top - wherever they may end up. So even if one were to spend the worst four years of his life at Stuyvesant, it is the torture of those years that allows all the others of his life to be so good. The fact of the matter is when people work very hard for the supposed purpose of getting into college; when they write a twenty-page Westinghouse paper and take four AP classes every year, they really deserve to be wherever they end up. The joke is not on the college but on us, because in trying to impress colleges we are making ourselves into the kind of people that good colleges are looking for. So in fact the environment here is pushing us to do a very positive thing.

Why do we bother? We're all members of the Stuyvesant herd, endlessly running, but building in the process. Why should we bother? That big house, that hundred-foot yacht, or whatever your dream may be. That's what Stuyvesant really gives us. Its time we take a look at the big picture, see what we're shooting for. Try it some time, when you look at what you're gaining it makes Stuyvesant seem like a much nicer place to go to school.

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