Make the grade
Two conversations have been blaring around campus these first days of the term, each one seeking pecking-order clarity and comfort: how to get the best grades—what courses, what approaches, what professors—and how to look good, to turn heads or at least to have eyes lifted and glances held for a quick one-over. The first heard, the second seen. Though really they are one-in-the-same.
Status-seeking makes us who we are; it provides comforting anxiety and provokes competitive self-scrutiny. How do we match up? Where do we stand?
Vexingly, best efforts often don’t cut it. The urge demands recognition and confirmation in comparison to others: my flat stomach falls short of allure next to his ever so slightly more defined abs; her mid-term only rates B+ next to the marginally more stylish A- by the Chanel-wearing goodie-two-shoes.
And someone else always does the marking. However entitled or prepared, smart or sure, judgment only carries weight when applied from without. Clearly given grades have that much more security, but noses turned, shoulders snubbed, phone calls left unanswered all carry a level of obviousness that gets missed only by those who can’t help but further admit their laughably pitiful inability to read the writing on the wall (ugly! fat! cellulite! zits! smelly!).
Look to your left, look to your right—that sort of cliché, but worse, both of them will be here next year. So you better not slip up.
If the stressful, doubtful, sometimes cruel truth of it all makes for despondency—and redoubled efforts for victory—then it’s all the more odd to me why the shared obsession over A’s and appearance rarely gets explored as such. At least my teacher-training session didn’t link the two so clearly.
Yet there’s much more than comingled artifice at stake. Take two exams, one of them intellectually unoriginal but smartly written, clear, well organized and to-the-point: The Great Regurgitation. The other has flashes of brilliance, is suggestive and shows tremendous analytical talent but lacks for clarity, misses part of the question and so on: The Eccentric Genius. Do they each merit the same middle of the road assessment?
Fairy tales provide much better diamond-in-the-rough examples of Cinderella surprise. We tend to adore the hottie in the paint-spattered hoodie but, who, really, would take that risk in real life? So many days of floor-scrubbing for that one elusive, princely night?
Similarly, what about progress and growth? If I arrive personally-trained, decked out in Madison Avenue’s finest and only refine slightly my prep-school-inflected articulations, should I get credit ahead of the person who still lags but came Wal-Mart-clad and McDonalds-chubbed from small-town nowhere (and can now look quite good in gym shorts and an appropriately insider t-shirt, that sort of five-paragraph essay of suggestive attire)?
When it comes to intellect and academic achievement, we tend to reward leaps and bounds of progress from the underprivileged or ill-prepared, especially and most often juxtaposed to apathetic excellence by the already proficient. Such greater clarity—the rewards of learning over the distillation of vanity, up-from-your-bootstraps against to-the-manor-born—actually obscures much more closely linked issues of identity, success and imagined fulfillment.
Granted certain unfortunate lapses in fashion sense, how many prominent professors do you know who live slovenly lives, hopelessly homely in appearance?
Ideally we want it all: the ease and élan, that savoir-faire and joie de vivre, that je ne sais quoi. (Not to fetishize the French’s monopoly on sexily-sounded self-satisfaction.)
But whether because of Protestant work ethic or a simple love of self-suffering, for it to come so easily would only mean doubt and further anxiety. Success means hard work. Damn those bastards all the more who appear to just role out of bed, never crack the book, get the glass slipper and become valedictorian.
From the personal to the society-wide, crucial questions of justice mirror these bouts of personal pouting: the lottery of good looks is in some ways as arbitrary as that for native intelligence. So what if any corrective and compensatory structures ought to be in place for those less fortunate, with little of that which is more regularly rewarded in this world?
No happy, be-yourself answer can square this circle. But I do think we can be more explicit about how we ask the question and, more so, the goals and rewards we seek along the way. What can we allow behind these necessary facades of everyday life? Let-it-all-hang-out joy? Where can comfort counterbalance competition? Towards what do we strive as we accumulate all this baggage along the way?
Romanticize a bit, certainly. Some sense of nakedness, of rawness—in body or mind—carries both allure and revulsion with equal measures of shame and satisfaction. This imagined naturalness and clarity is as symbolic and constructed as anything else.
Still variety is the spice of life. Take some charge and mark yourself. Bring some self-consciousness to bear. Have a bit of fun along the way. Above all, stop talking and start doing, less looking and more loving. Then we can all avoid any contraction in the opportunities for being smart and sexy. Fear not efforts against inflation: you can make your grades quite satisfying all on your own (or ideally with a little help from a friend). Just don’t cheat.