On Not Being a Straight “A” Student

 

I’m sure we can all remember the first time we received a less than pleasing mark on a school assignment. If you’re one of those who never fails, then you’re displeasing grade was probably a B, or a B- at worst. Others of us were not so fortunate. It’s almost cruel – how we spend our first year in academics rigorously learning the order of letters and numbers only to have them hauntingly dictate our success later in life. It makes the ABC tune a little sadistic once you pass the third letter…. No one should be quite that happy singing about D’s and F’s.

While I was growing up I was a bright student. There wasn’t anything too difficult about learning how to read, or memorizing certain dates and what happened in battles and who invented what. I did of course cry over rudimentary math sheets – I don’t know who hasn’t shed a few tears over misplaced decimal points and fractions, but it was nothing detrimental to the continuation of my studies. Even when I walked into high school, I was confident in my intelligence. High grades should come easy shouldn’t they?

They did not.

For the first two years I sailed along quite happily. Nothing dreadful happens in Geometry, or Chemistry, and sophomore English was a delight with the amount of creative writing assignments we were allowed. Even my Junior year was fairly smooth, with a few challenges from AP courses but nothing drastic. No, I was abiding by my own expectations of well rehearsed studying, memorization and regurgitation on each test. The results were good –  and then there was Calculus.

I still remember receiving my first test grade during Senior year. I don’t remember taking the test though, perhaps that was a traumatic experience and my memory has kindly destroyed it. When my teacher handed me those stapled papers though, with lots of evil red writing and a large, obvious “D” printed on the front, I was crushed. I had never been a “D” student. Those students didn’t take 3 AP courses in one year. Those students were not on a varsity sports team. Those students were not in school plays each semester. Those students did not receive high marks on dreadful standardized tests. But here I was holding a paper with a letter that made all that evidence void. I WAS a “D” student, maybe not entirely, but I did now have to recognize solidarity with those who were not identified as “stellar students.” And it was difficult.

Tears of frustration fell during multiple studying sessions. I poured over derivatives and integrals. I made myself mad while scribbling out equations, double checking them again and again. I humbled myself by asking friends for help – friends who I had once believed were “less scholarly” than myself. What did that even mean? – I wondered. How could I have believed that good grades in geometry and well written essays could make me invincible to the failing grades dealt out by our teachers’ year after year?

The long hours of work paid off with a simple, honest “B” in Calculus. I thought I would never be so proud of a grade less than an A as I was of that one. Until I started Nursing School that is. I thought the days of difficult, drudging studying was behind me when I turned in my scientific calculator to another poor student. But they were not. The days of being humbled by less than satisfying grades were far from over – and in fact with my university’s five-point grading scale they had only become more brutal. High school had only skimmed the surface at my ego – nursing school excavated its entirety.

I’m not finished with Nursing School yet. In fact, I’m diligently studying for a test that won’t take place for another 3 weeks – because I need to raise my grade in the course. And that is what university has been for me, a consistent need to raise my grade, sometimes for my own satisfaction and sometimes a necessity for continuing.

This grueling labour for school is something I had never associated with myself before now. Even when I was struggling through Calculus as a teenager, strangers would make the assumption that I was smart, intelligent, bright, a “straight A student” for sure. I did not correct them. Perhaps they thought this because I like to read, or can carry on a conversation with people much older than me without much error. Or perhaps they just assumed because I’m well dressed and have intelligent parents that school would come easy to me. It doesn’t – and that is something I have only just learned to admit.

I’m not a student who can look over a power point twice and understand the content. I’m not a student who can read the chapter once and ace the test. No, I’m the late night studier, I’m the note card writer, the scrambler, the one trying to understand the concept and also just trying to pass the test. I’m the one swamped with notes and books in the library, constantly on the verge of tears due to stress, sleep deprivation, or hopelessness. I don’t check my grades until I’m alone, able to handle the disappointment or the joy in peace. And I’m the kind who has had to learn time and time again my worth is not in my grades, nor in my performance at school, but in my faith, my Father.

Although there are days when I am certain my university will send me a later saying “I’m sorry – you are not the academic scholar we expected, please find a rudimentary community college to which you are more suited” – there are an equal number of days when I am proud to work hard for my grades. Though they aren’t the best in my class, there won’t be any “cum laude” certifications for me at graduation, I will have a diploma. I will have learned the material required to pass nursing school. Far beyond that, I will have learned that I am not a straight A student, but I am a hard worker.

I hope this is an encouragement to those who find themselves defeated by the rigorous expectations of today’s culture. We are required to make certain grades, certain scores, be involved in certain programmes, have an on campus presence, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We know it’s impossible. Professors know it’s impossible. But we push ourselves to the brink of exhaustion just the same. So I plead with you to stop. As I had to learn – we cannot achieve perfection. We cannot ace every test, paper or not, placed in front of us. Some days I think we should all stop and take notice of Moulin Rouge’s famous line “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is to love and be loved in return.” If only that was the philosophy of academia – how to achieve the ability to love at your fullest capacity and accept that love in return. But that is for another post, another time.

For now, my fellow less than perfect students, let’s embrace the opportunity we have been given – to study, to work persistently towards our goals, and to practice the humility of saying “No, I’m not a straight A student, and that’s okay.”

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On Being Marked

Mid January. Cold, grey, boring. Is there a better time to do something impulsive? Surely not. A quick text conversation and everything was arranged. Moments later I was in a car with a dear friend headed towards the parlour.

An over sized black leather chair. A bright light. A whirring needle dipped in jet black ink. A heavily illustrated pair of arms very close to me. Prick, whir, dip. And again. The slightest discomfort was felt – nothing comparatively.

A single transaction. One after care form. And it was done.

I looked down at my wrist the whole drive back to campus. The ironic bandage covered it, but I knew it was there. A mark. An jet black inky mark. A new definition of my body. A new descriptor. A new addition to the collection of marks on my arms.

That night I lay awake pondering my decision. It wasn’t permanent I kept telling myself. There are always ways to remove these things. There was no life time commitment to something. I lay awake, tossing and turning, as I dwelled on what other people would say. Am I rebellious now? Am I more hipster or more conventional?  Am I more of a sinner? Or does the concept it represents rectify its inherent wrongness? I reminded myself of the other up standing people I knew, my roommate, my dear friends, that one customer in the coffee shop. All these people were my relief, my reason to not despair about the state of my character because of this pictorialization.

But there were no models for the other marks. There were no people to whom I could look when I was alone in the bathroom, creating marks just as permanent, and ever more damning.

No, in those moments it is me. A blade. A nail. A lie. Blackness. Numbing pain. A throbbing much more tangible than any whirring prick in a clean parlour. Blood, small at first, then a steady pour. And then, it stops. I stem it. I clean it. I cover it. And I walk out. Marked.

These decisions, surprisingly, do not keep me up at night. They keep me hiding in the day. These are the marks that keep me from using my hands when I talk. They are the ones that force me to where a watch. They are the ones that keep my cardigan sleeves pulled all the way down. The scars, they are the birthplace of so many lies. Some have been called burns, others accidental falls. They are the intrinsic home of shame.

And they are ingrained on the topography of my skin.

 

For so long, I believed these marks defined me. Just as I was convinced my tattoo added some significance to my personality – either it made me “more hipster” or it made me “more interesting” or “more dynamic.” I believed these self inflicted scars characterized me as unstable, hopelessly wicked, numbly masochistic, and mostly, fearful. More fearful of being vulnerable than physical pain. More fearful of death than permanent scarring. More fearful of living with apathy than the inconvenience of hiding or lying forever.

I allowed these scars to give my personality unwanted detail. I allowed the red angry marks become definitions of my state of mind. They warped into points of pride. I couldn’t hide them. I couldn’t lie them away. But I could accept that I had created them, and I could let others squirm in the discomfort of knowing what I did to myself. Shameful.

My scars don’t define me anymore than the length of my hair. Yes, they may represent the intimate darkness of my past, but they do not colour the climate of tomorrow.

I have a black tattoo on my wrist. It overlaps several self-inflicted wounds. They turn purple in the cold weather. Some days, when the weather is most mild, they are barely noticeable. Some days, only I can see them. Other days, people notice. They ask questions I have to choose to answer truthfully. I have to be brave. I have to recognize that, yes, these scars are a part of me, because those moments, during those blindingly dark days, are a part of my past. In no way will this define my future. I am not bound by the sin of my self-aimed destruction. I am free. I am not defined by my wounds, because the wounds of One greater that me abolished all my wrong doing.

If you define yourself by a mark, let it be the mark of salvation on your heart. Let it not be a tattoo that adds an edge to your personality. Let it not be scars that relate an exciting adventure. Let it not be wounds that lead to pity, fear, or pride.  Rather, let it be the holy blood of the Son across your door.

I am marked. In many ways my body has been tainted and tarnished. I am not unblemished. But I am pure. I am marked, but not by this world, by His blood.

On Feeling Incompentent

We all have moments of human inadequacies – we forget to brush our teeth, we leave our assignment in the other folder, we take the wrong turn that makes us fifteen minutes late to a small get together. We are all guilty of these little fumbles that leave us feeling a bit abashed and ashamed – we’re faced the reality that we are not above error.

Generally these mistakes of my own don’t bother me too much. If I have enough time and sense to reverse my error I’m not worse off, and I feel even more human for making little mistakes (I can’t be infallible all the time!) Sometimes, however, these mistakes are just too great – too plan changing, too drastic and too inconvenient to leave me feeling anything other than completely incompetent.

Now, as a nursing major, I feel incompentent weekly, but I’m surrounded by 40 peers who feel the equal level of incompetence for the same reason – we did something wrong, or we got a question wrong, or clinical was terrible. We’re indistinguishable in our red scrubs and therefore our incompetence is shared. But this was a mistake I made regarding travel – an aspect of my life I have come to idolize.

I’ve traveled for 21 years. My first solo flight was at 13 years old, returning from boarding school. I’ve braved long overseas flights to visit family, short, turbulent fights to see friends, and all the connections in between. I have always been proud to call my self a world traveler, and I would venture to say I am even a competent one. Or I would have said that, until this tragic incident.

It started with an email from my father. He was kindly reminding me to pack my British passport (I have dual citizenship and we would be traveling to the UK during the holidays).  Promptly, I went to the folder where I smartly keep all my documents, well separated and organized. Amongst the medical files and school records are my passports. I pack the current American one, and the current British one. Then I zip close my bags and head off to Nashville. My boyfriend, Jeremiah, and I had organized a whole trip around my flight. We would see a musical on Monday night, drive to his aunt and uncle’s and stay visiting family until my flight on Wednesday. Everything had been splendid. There were two new babies to meet, lots of food to eat, and plenty of good conversation. Wednesday morning came and we were more than sad to leave. Once on the road however, the sadness turned to silence as I argued with him over petty differences.

I preoccupied myself with picking lint off my black jeans. My first human error – I forgot a lint roll. Now I knew I would look disheveled before reaching an aeroplane. Moments of quiet later, I started, and (quite loudly) swore into the silence of the car. He stared at me “What’s wrong? What is it?” It was only at that dreaful moment, my heart racing with panic, I realized I had packed all the essentials except for one – my entry visa. My parents’ live in the Middle East and without an entry visa it would be impossible to travel. Here I was, hurtling towards the aeroport, two hours away from the one piece of paper that would let me board the plane, and I had no way of retrieving it.

Jeremiah immediately told me to call my parents once I had explained my awful situation. They answered Facetime with concern (I knew what they were thinking – you’re meant to be on the plane? What’s wrong? Who’s hurt? What’s happened) And they were greeted with my wailing. I’ve never been one for subtle meltdowns – I’m all or nothing and this was an ALL sort of circumstance. I dismissed all my thoughts of being cool and aloof in front of Jeremiah – and through my tears and chokes tried to explain my unforgivable error. I, master of travel, had left a key piece in a drawer far away.

There was no yelling or sighing. Honestly, I think my parents were amused that I was reacting this way – but I felt terrible. My mum got on the phone with the airlines. My dad suggested we try the aeroport but knew I wouldn’t be able to board the flight without my final visa. He was right. They didn’t let me check in. We were back in the car headed to Jackson, my parents reassuring voices on the other end of the phone. My flight was rebooked – an identical itinerary for the next day, and they would reimburses Jeremiah for gas. The logistical issue was resolved; now I had to handle the shame and guilt of being an inconvenience. Despite Jeremiah’s constant stream of “It’s okay. No one is upset” my tears were not stemmed. It wasn’t until I reached my bed I realized the problem was not being an inconvenience – it wasn’t even about having my plans change (which I abhor) or about seeing my parents a day later than scheduled. It was all about pride. I was so unwilling to admit I was capable of error in the world of travel that when it happened (in quite a dramatic fashion) my self illusion was shattered. The painstaking reality of making a mistake, at the end of a trying semester, was the tipping point for my emotions, and my multitude of failings took their opportunity to pounce.

It was a long night of prayers and apologies and reconciliation self. The next day I was on an aeroplane – home bound. No one was injured, nothing was lost or forgotten and in the great scheme of the universe nothing had changed. Simply, I had learned I will make mistakes, I will feel incompetent and there will be no one else to commiserate my shame with – it will lie on me. And that’s okay. As a human I can attempt to avoid mistakes but I will never be void of them. Some will be bigger than others, some will lead to good stories, others I might never tell, but I will make them. I am not all competent or all knowing or infallible in any area and that’s okay. Hopefully I’ll continue to learn through my mistakes – and hopefully future ones will involve less hysterical crying on the interstate, but one never knows.

On Introductions

Hello. My name is Iona McHaney. I am a 21 year old Senior in University. Fingers crossed I will graduate in May.

I was born in Scotland, raised in Angola, attended boarding school in Kenya, and now I live in Jackson, TN. God has taken me many places and has taught me the same lessons in many different ways –

  • I will never be perfect, but I can be constantly seeking perfection in Him.
  • I will never understand His love and I will never be able to love with His capacity but I am a recipient of flawless love and I have the power to show that love to others.
  • Be compassionate. Always. Especially to mothers traveling with small children.
  • Be generous. Give away and expect nothing back. You may be repaid or you may just be blessed with a poor spirit that can only be satisfied by God.
  • Laugh when you really feel it. The world is full of artificial products – but neither laughter nor love should be one of them.
  • If you don’t know what to do, go for a run. You’ll either figure it out or be too exhausted to think about it later.
  • And when you’re brave enough share what you have to say.

 

Thank you for reading this short intro. I hope you enjoy the rest. I’m a believer of the simple things in life and I hope to bring you simple relief from your daily life. Maybe I’ll pose some provoking questions. Or maybe you’ll just get to know a stranger through this.  Either way – thank you for helping me be brave.