2 AM, Tuesday, halfway done with my senior year of college. I was anxiously contemplating what I would do tomorrow, and then this summer, and then next year, and then for the rest of my life. Then came panic, and, shortly following that, a flashback.
Eighth grade. I was sitting in a classroom, the type with the plastic desks painted to resemble wood, and the shiny blue chairs that retained the body heat of the person who sat there before. It was algebra class with Ms. Terry. She was a kind, round woman with a gray bowl cut. She was so round that she often did not bother to stand up—she would teach from her rolling chair, slight rumbling noises erupting from the chairs’ spine between “add this” and “distribute.” She handed back our midterms, ceremoniously placing each one face down in front of us. They were Blue Books—the elementary school version with wide-ruled lines that seemed too tall for numbers. It seemed like my handwriting was shrinking with each coming year.
After assuring that each student had received their respective Blue Book, Ms. Terry told us that our grades were written on the front cover. Some students flipped their papers over nonchalantly to take a look. Others feverishly ruffled through their answer sheets, back to front, to gauge the amount of red pen, before cautiously revealing their grades to themselves.
I fell within the first group of flippers—I exposed my grade to myself (and anyone else to cared to look) without the slightest bit of concern. 71%, it said. Nice, more than half correct. WAY more than half correct. I looked up at the board where Ms. Terry had scribbled the letter-grade equivalent of each percentage. I found that my grade fit neatly within the narrow range of a C-. I then proceeded to write “C-“ in bubble letters next to the 71%.
Gabby, who I presumed had received an A, sat next to me, eagerly eyeing other students’ test grades. Upon seeing my bubble C- (which by then had been adorned with small stripes and dots) her gray-blue eyes widened. Gabby’s reality was different from mine—while I was free to take the A train to my heart’s content, to see any movie or concert, Gabby was restricted to a 10-block radius of the Upper West Side, and PG-13 movies. She would call her mother at every juncture of her day, informing her of test scores and afternoon plans.
This was the moment that my and Gabby’s differences emerged—in the form of numerically designated letters. “Don’t worry,” Gabby assured me, upon seeing my grade. “College doesn’t see this year. It doesn’t matter yet.”
It doesn’t matter yet.
“Matter” was a word liberally thrown around once high school began. It was used to denote the significance of academic performance and pastimes. According to the small cohort of teenagers who I did most of my breathing with, something “mattered” if it impacted your admission to college. This, after all, was the only goalpost in clear sight. At that point in eighth grade, this goalpost had not yet announced itself. My conception of the “application process” was primitive. I thought we simply would write an informal letter to a college. Something along the lines of: “I got a B in math, but I got an A in geography. I enjoy biology and collaging, but not really algebra.” Colleges would peruse our honest musings and place us according to ability and interest. Or something like that. I hadn’t really thought about it. I would worry about it later.
But people like Ms. Terry and Gabby did not allow me to “worry about it later.” After receiving my C-, Ms. Terry pulled me aside and explained to me that ninth grade math would be “cumulative.” That the math I’m learning now matters. My world was small, and I had a profound myopia for the future. But amidst my swarm of middle school thoughts, a menacing goalpost appeared. I would have to pull my load. I would have to spend my evenings reading a chemistry textbook, my Sunday afternoons plugging in my x to check my answers. I was responsible for my own future. My lens unto the world had forever changed.
(I should add that at this point in my life, this “goalpost” felt more like a duty, rather than a privilege. It never crossed my mind that not everyone had a Ms. Terry. Not everyone is pointed towards this goalpost.)
This change in perspective seemed innocuous. The evaluation of what matters was a barometer implanted in me to help filter all that fell into my lap. Though artificially implanted, it gave me a purpose. While this barometer would sometimes limit the range of my experiences (e.g. the painful decision to forgo a season of track to do a science research project) it granted me security in a demanding meritocracy. If my worth was transmutable only via paper application, then my actions would have to be too. And so I eagerly adopted this attitude, superimposed it atop my pre-existing interests and fascinations, and set forth towards the unknown with #2 pencils fastened to my knuckles.
But this newfound lens was dangerous—it never quite went away. Despite ‘scoring’ what I had previously considered to be the ultimate goal—admission to college—the lens remained. Though the phrase “it matters” had certainly thinned in my years at Princeton, it is only because this attitude has become inherent. It lurked under the surface. It is the invisible force that guides every click of my mouse, be it on course enrollment, job applications, and even articles written. Each decision I made was in anticipation of the next one, and then the one after that.
But this (as could have been predicted by my formulaic use of the phrase “goalpost”) was a classic case of a ‘moving goalpost.’ In my senior year, I have noticed that this force—the same force that emerged in Ms. Terry’s classroom—continues to dictate my decisions. At each juncture of achievement, my goalpost would jump another mile ahead. It was untouchable.
It is rare and lucky to recall turning points. Most of our convictions are so impressed upon our identities that we forget that they have an origin. Our conviction of what “matters,” be it academic success, material rewards, or fame, are secondary goalposts, built upon the pursuit of more fundamental requirements: a sense of identity, stability, and purpose. Without recognizing the nature of our goals, we are chasing a disembodied happiness. When we gain clarity into their origins, they are no longer monsters under the bed.
2 AM, Tuesday, halfway done with my senior year of college. Anxiously contemplating tomorrow, this summer, next year, the rest of my life. Then came panic, then a flashback, then a sense of relief. I can choose what matters.