Success has changed. From the age of five until twenty-three—eighteen critical years— the terms and measures of my success were summated into a quantitative report delivered right to my person. Termly, semesterly, yearly, at four institutions, through each stage of humanly development, I received report cards. We all did. The last report card that I received was one I had to check myself, from the bedroom of my childhood home, wherefrom I had completed my final three university exams in the —then wake, now infancy— of the COVID pandemic, nearly two years ago. Despite my obsessive record keeping, I cannot find my grades for those final courses. I can however find the Honours Award that I received as a result of them. But what since? Nearly twenty months outside of the standards-you-should-strive-for structure that nurtured me to adulthood, what can be reported to me on my performance? Or do I do the reporting now? Is that how it works? I tell you how great I’m doing. Well I’m not. Or I don’t know. I literally came to be in a world where that step was higher than that step, where there was a ceiling that were you ever reaching for and a few times graced with your fingers; where that boy is failing or that girl is a dropout — and you didn’t want to be them; where you could set clear goals and achieve them; where you had no money, but your currency was your grades. I’m in a sludge puddle now. It’s a mess. Some people are sitting so calmly and collecting paycheques, others are at each others throat, fighting to go one way while another group entirely hurries against them; some people are neck deep and some people are fully submerged; some people are naked and skinny; and while it seems we all should want to get out of the puddle, others are pushing to get in. What the fuck do I do now? Success hasn’t changed — it doesn’t fucking exist.
When I was in first grade, it was kind of confusing — I’d just come back from my family living a year in Australia for my mother’s teaching exchange — there I’d completed senior kindergarten. Partway through the year, and I was back at Codrington Public School, where I’d done junior kindergarten, but now there was another kid named Ben and that wasn’t going to fly. So I was no longer an Aussie, I had to drop the subtle accent I had picked up, I had to settle back into my home district elementary school, and I had to start going by Benny. All things took. It was fine.
In December or February or whenever it would have been, I remember receiving my first report card; I think in kindergarten it had been just parent-teacher meetings discussing how the child was progressing. I didn’t think anything of it. The report card was a foreign thing to me. I was doing fine in school, I wouldn’t know any different. I imagine I might not have even read the two pieces of paper stapled together, and instead they were stuffed in my knapsack to be delivered to Mom and Dad. Which I did, that night. I don’t remember anything significant about the day —Mrs. Bowman didn’t give me a knowing, pitiful look, or slide the sheets to me slowly, face-down—, I don’t remember talking about my grades with my friends. I only remember my mom — my mom and the feeling.
In this version we’re simultaneously at home by the kitchen table, where it likely occurred, and in the school hallway, where it was emotionally tied:
“Benny, this is your report card. Good job. Do you see this? Mostly B’s — and a B+ in Math. That’s great. But in English, do you see? It’s a C+.”
I was probably distracted.
“How do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you feel good?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you like Math more than English?”
“I don’t know, they’re all the same.”
And then the knockout: “Are you doing the best job you can do?”
Oof. I still feel it.
“No,” I probably admitted, or shook my head. And that stuck with me.
After that day, school was no longer a place I went to, it was a task that I succeeded at. In elementary school, I never got less than a B- on a report card ever again. In high school, I never got less than an 80. And we’ll not speak of university — the recalibration of my personal standards that was forced upon me. I can hang my hat on having never failed a course or dropped a course, never quitting or taking the easy path.
The question that lingers now, in the wasteland that remains with the podium ripped away, is did my need for quantifiable achievement lead me to academic success or did my academic success lead me to a need for quantifiable achievement? Either way the need is still there. If not for my own success itself, for the comfort the system brings. “You are performing in the eighty-second percentile of North American adults.” Hell yeah, then I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. “You are performing insufficiently in the section of monetary earnings.” I guess I gotta start hustling.
You’ll say that the answer to the last question in my opening paragraph is not the imagined system I have described above, but in fact another question in retort: “What do you want to do, Benny? The answer to that question diffuses your crisis.” And so we have it. You built me in a world where my wants were secondary —tertiary, maybe— to the system, and now you want them to triumphantly take on the leading role; dismantle the system and let my wants take the reigns of my life, guide me through the sludge puddle with whimsy and impulse. It’s not so easy.
There’re still the forces that be: currents in the puddle that push you this way or that, expecting looks from the people nearest you, pressures from the societal structures that hold everything in place. More than them, my own uncertainty slows me: what do I want to do? I don’t know. Or I don’t know if it’s possible.
One last digression — before, there was never the question of why. Reasoning was implicit, the system was linear: up is better, so go up. Now there’s forty two different ways, and you could go far on one path or another, but paralyzing you before you begin is that question of why. Why this path over that one?
I do not need advice. The questions in this report are rhetorical. Two years outside the city gates, in this muddy torrent, I do not seek direction, nor reentry. I just want you to feel my bafflement. You taught me two plus two equals four, and more importantly, five is the greater number, but then you pushed me out to a foreign place where something called a mortgage is greater than loyalty and equal to puppies, but absolute paramount is: we all can’t wait for the weekend. OK. Thanks.
Give me a score,
B.F. Greeno, aka
(-112.4, 569.0, 247.1)