Last night I awoke at 1:38am in a cold sweat of nerves. My mind was racing at a million miles an hour as I thought was about to come. Shaking with anticipation, bursting with desire for my white sheet of paper with the 4 little letters on it that would confirm my fait, I reached for my diary and wrote:
‘So it’s quarter to 2 in the morning. But it’s not just any morning. It’s the 13th August, the moment that every gear of time has been passing down to for the past two years. Nay, the moment since my educational career began.
Results day. The day where I find out if I did it. Not only the whole ‘getting into uni’ thing, but the whole ‘grades’ thing too. The uni part feels almost secondary to the grades I achieved – as bad as this sounds. If you had asked me six months ago what grades I wanted, I would have shyly mumbled, ‘3 A*s’.
Clearly, I now know that this was impossible. In striving for perfection, you get blinded and miss the gold along the way. Perfection is an impossible myth, and it’s an addictive one. I know I haven’t got the grades I wanted. I know. Life isn’t a controllable entity that can you exert such authority over – it is always going to throw things at you that you never wished to expect. In striving for these grades, I stretched myself to the limit and placed myself under unfavourable pressure; in the end I cracked. I can only wait now to discover how badly I cracked.’
I was wrong.
Oh, how I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I arrived at school at 7:41 – slightly later than I was aiming for. By this time, the school hall that had welcomed me on my very first day of Year 7 so many years ago now was already bristling with people who can clearly managed to get out of bed on time for the 7:30 start. They were all huddled in groups, hunched over pieces of glowing white paper. I walked to the table with my results on. Breathe. I tried to partake in conversation with a few friends who had just received their results, but my mind felt wooden like the wooden table which was grasping my results. A teacher saw me peering to the table with looks of horror and anxiety. As if in slow motion, he handed me my results. I started to cry before he even forced them into my hands. The pressure on this one moment was too much and the mascara ran from my eyes like black tears. ‘Stop worrying Juliette – you did amazingly,’ he laughed, bringing me back out of the bubble I had briefly reverted to. Wait a sec – did he just say amazingly? I opened my eyes and…
A*A*A* and an A in Extended Project.
I’d done it.
I cried again.
It didn’t take long for people to wonder what the commotion was about and for them to circle round me and my crisp results paper. There was a brief silence before someone shouted ‘BLOODY HELL!’
In all honesty, this part is a bit of a blur. I’d try and tell you what happened, but how can I even attempt to explain when I’m not even certain myself? As hard as I try, I can’t pull back the cohesion to my memory any more than I can explain the sheer happiness that flooded through me and out of my eyes again as I comprehended what was written on my paper.
I’m not going to lie: I was a MESS. Teachers approached me and congratulated me on my results before I even had a chance to say anything. It turns out they’d all been told before hand – of course they were going to be told that a student had achieved A*A*A* for the first time in the sixth form’s short history. Embarrassingly, I was made to stand outside my school sign holding my results. Normally when people take photos of me, it’s one of those awkward smiles that is more pained than pleasured that’s plastered across my face. But not this time. This time it was genuine.
In reality is there much of a difference between As and A*s? Probably not. But to me it felt like there was. The gap between an A and an A* felt like a mountain, a challenge I had to overcome. After my results last year (I got 100% in five different units) I was pretty much guaranteed As overall anyway. Therefore to get As this year felt like I was simply relying on the grades I got from the much easier As Level. I was consistently aware that I was getting high marks all year and the idea of then getting As when I knew I’d was capable of higher was then a painful one.
But above all, I wanted to be ‘special’. Don’t get me wrong: three As is AMAZING. I live in a prosperous area where ‘the worth of grades’ is perhaps devalued; with so many people getting Bs and As, the extent of the achievement of these grades is thereby overlooked. A*s, however, are a different matter. The value of work ethic needed to get these results is never overlooked and is always capable of achieving a stunned silence after you tell someone your grades. Don’t ask me why, it’s just how things turn out. Ultimately, I wanted to be in the top 7.2% of girls who achieved A* grades. I wanted people to have to ask ‘you got WHAT grades?!’ I wanted to be at the but-end of all the ‘nerd A*kids’ jokes to satisfy my nerdy ego. I wanted to do myself proud after thoughts of inadequacy had haunted my brain. Maybe it’s just the star itself that makes it so appealing; while in practise there might only be a few marks different between an A* and an A candidate, that little * that sits next to that friendly looking A somehow elevates it to a more godly level beyond the capabilities of mere letters.
Would I recommend aiming for straight A*s? To me, this seems like a stupid question. Because if you’re anything like me, it’s not a question of wanting to get top marks – it’s a matter of needing them. In practise essays, every mark I dropped felt like a little black stain that screamed ‘could do better!!!’ There was no ‘oh, I might try and see if I can get some A*s then’ – it was a matter of needing to, working for it and bloody doing it.
The idea that people ‘don’t have the right to be disappointed if they don’t get A*s’ is a ridiculous one. Success can only be defined by the individual – it’s all relative. For example, if someone who was averaging 3 Us throughout the year and then worked really hard and got 3Cs in their final exams, this would be a MASSIVE achievement. This person would have clearly worked their arse off to overcome their personal weaknesses to achieve substantially higher grades. If someone who was averaging A*s all year around then achieved 3 Cs, however, this would clearly be a ‘failure’. It would suggest this person didn’t work hard enough for their final exams and is not a reflection of their true capabilities.
One of my biggest issues with society and the effect of the Gove-era of education is how society has tried to define success. Success should be tailored to an individual in the way you tailor a suit to fir the curve of a body. It’s a sad reflection of society that we’ve become so exam-driven that we feel our personal worth can be defined by a letter. It’s a sad reflection people suffer low self-esteem and stress issues because they feel they need 3A*s to justify themselves from being ‘a failure’. It’s a sad reflection of society that I was crying in my school toilets for three hours after I ‘only’ got 52/60 on my history coursework because I thought I had messed up my chance to get that all-important A*. It’s a sad reflection of society that the first thing I did when I got home today was figure out how many marks I dropped in each subject (and for the record, I dropped 36 marks across my entire History A Level, 16 marks in English and 12 marks in Government & Politics).
In many ways, achieving A*s was like a matter of breathing. It was just something I had to do. I was aware that I needed to revise as hard as possible, so I started revising 10 weeks in advance of my exams and made revision part of my daily schedule that I consistently followed every day. It never crossed my mind to ever break this schedule; why would I? While of course, revision can be a drag – us A* kids aren’t inhuman after all – it was just something I did. I suppose revision often felt like making dinner. It was just something that I had to do multiple times a day in order to have a mouth-watering meal at the end of it.
While the A* grade reveals a lot of the ugly truths of the inseparable link between education and the poor adolescent mental health in this country, I could not be happier. The simple fact remains is that I love my subjects. Politics exams enabled me to rant about how terrible America is while in my As English exam I was able to write a feministic critique of the damaging effects of masculinity presented in Palahniuk’s’ Fight Club which is pretty damn cool if you ask me. Perhaps stereotypically, I was certain that I had done terribly this year. But today I found out that I did good. Real bloody good. And now I can move on to university in the solid knowledge that,
I’m not so bad.
I can do this.
Words by Juliette Rowsell