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September 25, 2012
College Voices
84% and the Meaning of (College) Life - by MJ Johnson
by College Voices
MJ Johnson
Freshman, Brigham Young University

I’m sitting at my desk, with a box of chocolate graham crackers and a jar of Nutella that was half full about five minutes ago. What remains of my mangled dignity won’t permit me to tell you how full the jar is right now.

The occasional low grumble escapes me, usually involving something like “stupid mnngrbmbr test narrm,” and within a few seconds the whole process will culminate in my abandoning all semblance of mental or physical health and flopping onto my bed with The Essential Calvin and Hobbes propped open before my occasionally teary eyes.

I call this experience “Post-Brother Merrill’s Exam Therapy, Session 1.”

Okay, so maybe I’m overreacting a little. Maybe I just wanted a good excuse to finish off the box of chocolate grahams, and maybe the grumbling is just fun because I get to hear weird mumbly noises come out of my mouth, and maybe I’ve spent the last two weeks going through leisure-reading withdrawal and Calvin and Hobbes is making up for that.

In fact, maybe, just maybe, an 84% isn’t that bad at all.

I’m not going to deny that when I went and looked up at the scores that were being broadcast on the testing center’s television screens, eyes wide with hope, it was pretty hard to follow the advice of the little piece of paper taped next to the monitor. Handwritten in Sharpie, it commands, “Keep Smiling.” I could hear the words echoing in my head, sounding forced with the effort of trying to obey, just as the corners of my mouth wilted down in utter despondence.

Sure, there had been lots of little “this answer I’m not so sure about” markings on my paper, indicating questions that I should come back to later, and a modest amount of smudges where I had erased the penciled-in answer bubbles as I changed my mind. I took out my phone and entered the information into the calculator. My score meant I had gotten seven answers wrong.

Seven! On a test with only forty-five questions! Seven whole questions — it made me feel so absolutely mediocre. Coming from a school where I was always level with the kids whose brains everyone else would have gladly stolen right out of their heads, where I even had a little medal saying I was ranked in the top ten for my class, getting seven was shameful in the most agonizing way. Grades, for me, have always been not so much a matter of pride, but the way that I measure myself, something that is in the definition of my name, and (as bad as this is, probably) a big slice of my self-worth.

Yet, as I walked home from the testing center, I felt okay. Well, there were a few minutes at first where I literally wanted to dash the rest of the way, physically assault the vending machine for one of the little cups of Creamery ice cream, and then lie sprawled on my fleece blankie for the rest of the evening. But after that phase wound down, I realized I was okay with that 84. Sure, it isn’t up to par with my normal testing scores. But I feel like I learned a lot in the class and enjoyed it.

I had studied hard. I’d done my best. And most of all, I am in college now. My grades are important, but there are other things that are important too. Maybe if I hadn’t run through Provo at 11:30 pm two nights before to get fries at McDonalds with my boyfriend, or stayed up till 4:30 decorating the door of the soon-to-be birthday girl with streamers and balloons, I would be less exhausted and more at the top of my game.

Maybe if I had spent those hours studying instead of running at the indoor track with the girls down the hall from me, I would have remembered those couple extra facts that I knew I had read but couldn’t quite recall exactly.

Maybe if, right now, I take a second look at the notes I copied down today in class I would be better prepared for the next test, instead of taking time to do some technically useless writing.

But grinding myself into the dirt to keep up with school — that’s not what I wanted to do when I came to college. I remember the long conversation I had with my brother on the way from Chicago to Milwaukee, as we puttered along the freeway in his rusty, sad specimen of a car. I remember him telling me that first of all, employers aren’t looking for grades, they’re looking for smart, good workers, and creative people, and that it was more important for me to enjoy my last years as a student before I stumbled into the real adult world (because, face it, who can call college students “adults” when every Friday night you can go to the quad and see a herd of them shrieking and playing hide and seek?).

I remember hearing his entreaties for me to have more fun with my life, make more friends, and break out of my shell. And I paid attention, because my brother is the person I admire most in the whole world. He’s understanding, he’s mature, and he cares about people and wants to help them be their best. He’s still poor because he just graduated, but he’s an engineer and gets to play with lasers at work every day (which, of course, he loves). He was the one who ran the flag down the field at the University of Michigan football games, in front of crowds of more than one hundred thousand screaming fans. And he’s married to an astoundingly beautiful emergency trauma doctor (basically, Wonder Woman).

He is the kind of happy that I had always assumed wasn’t even possible for people. I truly believed it was only for the flat, undeveloped characters in cheap novels. So sitting right there in his clunker of a vehicle, I decided that I wanted to have the type of college experience that he’d had. And if my grades weren’t exactly impeccable, I was willing to let that be an opportunity cost.

So as I finish off the last of the Nutella (fine, I admit that I ate the entire half jar; the stuff’s delicious), I mull over the numbers seven and eighty-four, and think about how things are going so far at BYU. I look behind me and see the wall calendar that my roommate and I put up. Every day, we pick something that was most significant about our day and draw a little picture representing that thing over the day’s date, instead of the typical calendar practice of x-ing it out. And I know that when we do that tonight, there won’t be a picture of a red pen, or an 84, or a sad face, or anything to do with a low test score.

Because now that I’m in college, everything else — my real life — is so much more important, that we’ll have something much more interesting to draw. Because in five or eighty years, the memories I’ll have won’t be a number in red ink. They’ll be real life.

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