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MIT blogger Rona W. '21

academic struggles by Rona W. '23

zig-zagging in a world of straight lines

Even as a kid, school never fit right for me. I recall my third-grade teacher told us all to “divide your page in half.” The other students made horizontal or vertical slashes. Feeling rebellious, and wanting to amuse myself with the notion of “half”, I did a zig-zag that still partitioned the page into two equal areas. The teacher, who by this time of the school year was already familiar with my shenanigans, just sighed and said, “Rona, you can do that, but it might make things harder for you later.” (It turned out we had to make a pros and cons list with the two halves.)

I’ve never been very good at school. This feels strange to admit online for several reasons: 1) I go to MIT and presumably had a good enough GPA in high school to be admitted into MIT (as well as some other selective universities); 2) It seems embarrassing to struggle academically; 3) I don’t think this naturally lends itself to some romantic corollary about marching to the beat of my own drum or any other idiom. For every famous college dropout who started a billion-dollar tech company or became a chart-topping rap star, there are hundreds of college dropouts who ended up with financially and emotionally worse outcomes than if they had simply gotten the grades and graduated with degrees.

It’s not a particularly interesting struggle. It’s not a heartbreak immortalized in song lyrics, and it’s not a grief that demands witness through eulogies or obituaries. I don’t really know how to narrativize it, but I imagine many people reading this can understand this experience to some level: a missed deadline or three, frantic apology emails to professors, a mind that feels too much like a sieve.

I saw a Tweet that says: if ur self-narrative is that ur unconventional & don’t “fit into” traditional schooling but u lack material achievements, u have to ask urself if u rlly r an academic misfit or if ur avoiding responsibility

I’ve never really characterized my relationship with schooling as “unconventional” nor do I think of myself as an academic misfit, and I do fortunately have some material achievements, but I’ve started wondering if I’ve been squandering my own strengths by trying to pursue paths where my best qualities don’t get a chance to shine. I can Leetcode fine—it feels like a repeat of my competition math days—but I would prefer to build my own coding projects that might actually be useful to someone. I can go to lectures and do my homework and pass my classes, but at a university full of former valedictorians, all I can hope for is to put in my best effort and keep my eyes on my own paper.

I like building things, I like making my own solutions. This past semester, several friends and I made a meme shirt, which riffed off the MIT logo. We advertised to the greater MIT student body, organized production and pick-up, and sold the shirts.

It was so fun. It made me wonder, if I can make stuff like this happen, why should I sit at a desk and work for somebody else? But I don’t have a superbly high risk tolerance and the start-up world is so saturated and shouldn’t I use my college degree to get one of those well-paying jobs with good work-life balance . . .

Even though I was categorized as Gifted and Talented as a child, I’ve never really identified with the “gifted-kid-to-burnout-pipeline” discourse. Maybe it was because I sensed, even as a kid, that the yardstick for “smart” is irrevocably entangled with yardsticks for “obedient”, “diligent”, “conscientious”, and many other traits that are very important but certainly should not be mistaken for “smart”.

I am very lucky that, in fourth grade, my parents sacrificed their time and carpooled with other families to drive an hour into downtown Portland so I could attend an accelerated school, and probably this decision propelled me into higher-level math classes which eventually spurred me to study for contests that got me into college, but in retrospect, I don’t think the opportunities in that program actually emphasized my particular talents, nor did it address my weaknesses. Accelerated is just that—fast-paced coursework, material usually assigned to those a few years older. But my struggles at my old elementary school didn’t arise because I possessed a thirteen-year-old’s academic skill at age nine. They were more about how I wanted to draw a zig-zag while everybody else drew straight lines.

Maybe this is all cope. Like, maybe I got a B in that one class because I’m just not that smart, not because I’m unique, but also, I don’t think the underlying reasons really matter—my point is that I’m starting to believe that, instead of trying to bust my ass to get an A instead when the rigid expectations of school have never quite made sense to me, it’s more productive to lean into the activities where I can naturally succeed.

Cross-posted on Substack here.