I have had such a rollercoaster experience when it comes to formal education.
I was considered a “gifted” student in elementary school even though I rarely made any grade higher than a C or B-. Middle school was just a blur in every way. And in high school I swung to the opposite end of the pendulum in an effort to redeem and prove myself; I became a posterchild for autodidacticism and graduated with high honors.
Things shifted after I began college. The work load changed, the modes of authority changed, and the expectations changed. The stakes were higher all around. I wasn’t only wasting my time when I missed a due date or fell behind in reading assignments . . . I was wasting thousands of dollars. And from the perspective of my pride, I was just proving everyone right who invalidated or teased me throughout elementary, middle, and high school.
I buckled down and did well in my first semester of college and only missed the Dean’s List by a fraction of one point. The same thing happened in my next semester. I tried to remember at this point that my original goal for college wasn’t to be a model student, and that I had told myself when I graduated high school that I wouldn’t worry anymore about honor societies or merit scholarships or extra credit.
I hadn’t realized the seeds of academic idolatry and people-pleasing were already well established in my heart, and it would take much more than hollow resolutions to uproot them.
My sophomore and junior years were insanely difficult. I went through a lot of really hard things in my personal life that drained my time, energy, and motivation. When I was late on an assignment or turned in a sub-par essay, I worried about how my professors would perceive me and about how it would feel to admit I had passed up the halfway mark in my college career without having met my goals.
I failed my first class in the summer semester before my junior year. Then I failed another in the very last week of the following fall semester. I felt like I was actually decreasing in knowledge and ability. I tried to keep up with assignments but it was hard enough to keep up with all the changes happening in my life. If I wanted to do well in school again, I would have to give some things up, and I knew something was wrong because they were all really valuable things.
I thought the problem was with my lack of control over things and people around me. I hated turning in bad assignments because I knew it made me look bad. I knew if I could pull a few all-nighters instead of prioritizing sleep, I would be able to do everything required of me to make straight A’s again. If I had internet connection at home, I wouldn’t have to do homework at relatives’ house where I felt distracted by the reality of being a burden. If my family were more supportive, I could feel more motivated. If I wasn’t sick all the time, I would have more energy and focus.
Eventually I realized I was frustrated for all the wrong reasons. I was upset by my lack of control, but the beauty in it was that God ordered these things. He put me in a place where I was stripped of the kind of resources and environments that would provide my sin with the habitat it needed to flourish.
Wanting to excel in the positions God has placed us in is not a bad thing. But in our sin, we can quickly turn a world of opportunity into a prison cell of pride and frustration. I’ve had to face the fact that it isn’t always good for me to be a “good” student . . . and that being a good student isn’t always about making “good” grades . . . and that a 4.0 GPA isn’t a good GPA if you have to sacrifice your perspective and sanity to achieve it.
Sometimes you need to get eight hours of sleep and turn in a quality paper a day late instead of exhausting yourself to finish a bad one on time. Sometimes you need to stay late after church to spend time with your community instead of rushing home to get some more work hours in. By saying this, I don’t mean to imply that all or even most straight-A students are plagued by the same bad motivations that I’ve had, or that you shouldn’t care about making good grades. It’s just essential that you check your motives along the way.
For me in my current season, being a good student is about having a balanced life and using my growing knowledge base to minister to people around me. I can be a good student by having a B average if it means that I’m invested in learning, but not obsessed with getting it perfect all the time. I’m a good student when I utilize my education as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.
Maybe it looks differently for you, and I delight in that. I just encourage you, whether you’re struggling to pass or struggling because you just made your first B, to fight for good priorities along the journey.
Soli Deo gloria.