Racing Toward Graduation

After running down street after street, across fields, under and around buildings, we finally made it to the coordinate.

I ran with Ledesma, a little bit behind the other two as she had a busted knee. Corwin was stopped across the street up ahead adjusting her compass and Testa was off God knows where in search of the point. My ankle was killing me and I just wanted to go back to sleep. Testa called out that he had found the point and we started running again. We saw other teams of 4 from both our platoon and the other 3 searching for the elusive black numbers hidden around the naval base. These teams were all in different places on their journey, some departed before, some after, and some at the same time as us.

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As we came to the second to last coordinate we could see the start line from where we were and sprinted towards it as realization came over us. I split off from Ledesma and ran as quickly as I could back to the start. The next morning we all crowded around the pinboard to see the results of the orienteering competition. My heart jumped when I saw a star next to our team’s number. “First Place: Team 6, Blue Platoon – Bailie, Corwin, Ledesma, Testa.

47 minutes, 100% accuracy.” The other 32 cadets in my platoon promptly congratulated us and we steeled ourselves for another week of exhausting training with this small victory under our belts. Despite all my complaining, this was some of the most fun I’d had in a week. We were allowed to explore the base and work with other kids in our platoon instead of constantly drilling, going to classes, or doing PT (physical training) at 5 in the morning. This was a day of rest at the usually rigorous NJROTC Leadership Academy.

Leadership Academy only takes 150 or so NJROTC cadets from around the entire northeast. They have to be the best of the best. Best athletically, best morally, best academically. Crowding around that pinboard reminded me of just how competitive high school students are when it comes to scores and where they rank, no matter what they’re doing. Where there is competition, there is a high school student doing all in their power to win.

Education is, in itself, a race. Students set out on a 4 year course that will determine their future, starting as soon as they enter their freshman year and ending at graduation. Kids have unknowingly been turned into racers, an “I have to win” mentality hammered into their heads from a young age. Much like a runner would have their teammates, kids band together and become friends with each other. The runner and his teammates go through the course mostly together, some falling behind and walking and some staying at a steady pace to the end. Those who keep running are the kids that get far in their high school careers.

They’re the ones with the best grades, the most diverse college resumes, and the ones looking at the most challenging universities. The racers who fell behind and walked are the kids that didn’t do so hot in school or who just aren’t good at it. They might not try as hard or be as fast as the runners but they keep going toward the finish line all the same. Those runners all have to overcome the same obstacles: homework, tests, and other assignments. If they clear an obstacle they got a good grade but if they trip over it they don’t get such a great grade.

Tripping over obstacles doesn’t help anyone win a race so those kids are left further back with each fall they take. The stats for each kid is comprised of all the obstacles they overcame and each leg of the race completed. This all adds up to their final score to figure out who wins – like how a GPA determines a student’s class rank. Ultimately, the winner of the race is the kid who becomes valedictorian on graduation day, the end of the race. The second place winner is the salutatorian and the third place winner is the rest of the top 10.

At the finish line those winners are gifted awards based on how well they did. For kids this would be scholarships and letters accepting them into their dream colleges. Some runners get involved with drugs in order to become better at racing. These runners can be compared to the kids who constantly cheat. They’d do anything to keep up or get ahead.

This is all based off of fear of failure created by the people who guide them along this course, the teachers. Teachers are like the coaches. They push the runners ahead, saying do your best… butgetgoodgradesbecauseifyoudontyoullfailatlife. Teachers are the ones who allow the “I must win” mentality to grow. They push some students to the top and others to the breaking point.

Students can’t be blamed for being so competitive and grade centered when the ones that are supposed to be helping them learn are pushing this mentality on them at any chance they can. Alfie Kohn, a famous American author, has written many pieces on the subject of grades. One of his articles, ‘The Case Against Grades’, talks about the effects of grading, stating that “grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever their learning.” This shows that schools have put way too much emphasis on grades. The competitive mentality brainwashes students into thinking that they have to get good grades and so they do everything they can to get the best grades possible which leads to cheating.

When students don’t actually do the work they are sacrificing their ability to learn the information for a letter on a high school transcript. Khon says in this piece that most schools don’t believe learning without grades can be done. Too much depends on grades for it to be a logical thing to do – college, class rank, etc. However, schools that do incorporate gradeless learning still churn out well educated young men and women with all the right credentials to get into great colleges just without that grade crazed piece to them. Schools need to realize that not everything is dependent on how well you did in high school.

As a student, I know I’m not going to look back at my below average Trig score in 10th grade and say it was the determining factor in all aspects of my future. This mass culture of competition that is growing within education is doing more harm than help. The teenage years are meant to be enjoyed but when students focus so much on grades this factor slips to the wayside. While school is important, a balance needs to be reached. Kids don’t start out as racers; they’re molded into racers.