Contrary to what many of the upperclassmen have told me, I’ve actually been enjoying my sophomore year. Despite the late nights and constant procrastination, I haven’t had any bouts of demotivation or depression yet, and I still have role models to look up to instead of acting as the role model. However, last year was a different story. Here’s the best way I can organize it.
Rejecting the System
Even though I was taking easier classes freshman year, by second semester, I had burned out and lost motivation to do well in school. In retrospect, I hadn’t fully made the transition to high school yet. Previously, I had worked hard “just because,” but there was a certain degree of wanting to impress the teachers as well. However, in high school, the teachers didn’t particularly care about each student, and BSing would often produce same grade as actually doing the work. If no one was going to take note of my work, why should I put effort into doing it? Interestingly, my “intellectual curiosity” (if that ever existed) died down at around the same time.
I started reading into education reform, aka learning more about school sucked, Knowing that other people disliked the system seemed to justify my rejection of school. My readings gradually became more and more philosophical, delving into the purpose of education, and eventually, the purpose of life.
One of the more influential books I read was “The Teenage Liberation Handbook,” a guide to unschooling, aka rejecting formal structured education and “naturally” learning on your own. This meant ultimate freedom. I loved the idea of unschooling at first and was seriously considering it, until I realized that I didn’t have any motivation to learn on my own, nor did I know what I wanted to learn.
One of the central ideas around TTLH was that we’ve created an educational system where grades are the sole motivator. On the surface, that’s exactly what has happened, and it’s an exhausting system to navigate seen that way, which sadly, many people do. I felt like being a robot in the school was below me somehow. Why should I slave away in the system to produce some numbers on a transcript, when I obviously had so much more potential? REJECT THE SYSTEM.
…If only it were so easy. I had been supported by school my entire life, my grades sometimes the only thing keeping me going, and I realized that I was physically unable to not do my work. Even if it took procrastinating until the end, I would always finish my homework, the quality being questionable, but never incomplete. Whether because of fear of what others would think or other motives, I grudgingly worked my way through freshman year, telling myself that “I’ll hate myself senior year if I don’t get all A’s this year.”
Reaccepting the system
It wasn’t until I read Paper Tigers and completely related to Wesley ‘s story, though about Asian-American identity rather than education, that I realized what I was trying to accomplish, and how unrealistic it was:
[Note: long passage below]
I finished school alienated both from Asian culture (which, in my hometown, was barely visible) and the manners and mores of my white peers. But like Mao, I wanted to be an individual. I had refused both cultures as an act of self-assertion. An education spent dutifully acquiring credentials through relentless drilling seemed to me an obscenity. So did adopting the manipulative cheeriness that seemed to secure the popularity of white Americans.
Instead, I set about contriving to live beyond both poles. I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer—“a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who does not seek after material gain. Who is his own law.
This, of course, was madness. A child of Asian immigrants born into the suburbs of New Jersey and educated at Rutgers cannot be a law unto himself. The only way to approximate this is to refuse employment, because you will not be bossed around by people beneath you, and shave your expenses to the bone, because you cannot afford more, and move into a decaying Victorian mansion in Jersey City, so that your sense of eccentric distinction can be preserved in the midst of poverty, and cut yourself free of every form of bourgeois discipline, because these are precisely the habits that will keep you chained to the mediocre fate you consider worse than death.
You can either linger on the unfairness of this or you can get with the program. If you are an Asian person who holds himself proudly aloof, nobody will respect that, or find it intriguing, or wonder if that challenging façade hides someone worth getting to know. They will simply write you off as someone not worth the trouble of talking to.
Having glimpsed just how unacceptable the world judges my demeanor, could I too strive to make up for my shortcomings? Practice a shit-eating grin until it becomes natural? Love the world twice as hard?
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others’ expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.
Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.
The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.
It’s one thing to work through the system because of an intrinsic motive to learn–it’s another to work in school because you’re afraid to know what happens if you don’t. Even now, I’d like to think that’s I’m purely motivated by the former, but the prospect of failing the system still keeps me going at times.
Reconstructing the System
If I couldn’t completely reject school, I could at least adapt to it. To think that my interests would align perfectly with College Board’s curriculum and the courses offered at my school is insane, which meant that I had to judge myself what was worth putting effort into, and what was perhaps ok to BS.
This required a more active mindset than accepting whatever my teachers handed me, but in the end, it gave me more purpose in my work, and overall, it cured me of my demotivation. This doesn’t that I did all my work. I just couldn’t see the point in some assignments (ahem math homework) and I suffered the grade penalties.
Perhaps this is the just some burst of motivation during sophomore year, but for now, I’m happy with myself.
Actually, scratch that. I still have long way to go with learning, but I don’t feel like typing this out at midnight. To be continued.