Ahhh the bliss of your elementary years.
You remember those days when you didn’t have a care in the world—when the joy of learning burst in your brain with endless possibility; the thrill of recess rushed through your veins; and storytime fueled your little mind with playful imagination?
Yeah, I don’t.
You see, it all started in first grade. Once upon a kindergarten, I recall a brief period of time when learning the ABCs and counting up to 100 seemed like the most exciting thing in the world. Sitting around in a circle cross-legged while Mrs. Duff read Dr. Seuss was the highlight of my day.
My mind overflowed with creativity during craft time. With a mix of crayons, colored pencils, popsicle sticks, and pipe cleaners at my fingertips, I was convinced I could be the next Monet, Picasso, or Seurat the Dot.
Then came first grade. That’s when my childhood ended. The age of innocence was gone. The world’s corruption set in. I had to put on my big-girl pants at the ripe age of 6.
It sounds dramatic, but for a kid wired for neurotic perfectionism, that was my reality.
“You’re in the gifted program.”
Those were the five words that started it all. You’d think most kids would be pumped to find out such a thing, but when my teacher announced that me and one other girl, Brooke, were going to be placed in that “special” program, I felt one emotion: fear.
Suddenly, I was different. Just one year prior, I thought all 25 of us were on the same playing field. I didn’t really know there was such a thing as being “smarter” or more “gifted” than anyone else. We were all just kids learning together, playing together, laughing together. The world was our oyster.
Now, I felt I’d been snapped into a clamshell, and I wasn’t getting out.
That’s when the pressure started. Oh, the pressure.
And my classmates willingly helped it along. Now that the whole class knew that I was the “gifted” kid, they all rushed over to my desk after every times-table quiz, spelling test and art contest.
They had to know what I got. What was my score? What was my place? I was the new standard of comparison. I’m not sure how Brooke got off the hook so easily, but I think it was because she didn’t have the same spastic gene that let all of this get to her, so it wasn’t as fun for them.
I thought I could sustain perfection, but then the moment finally came. I’ll never forget the day that I was beat on my times-table quiz. One boy came up to my desk with this gleaming look of victory in his eye as he took a peek at my grade: 98 percent.
He got a 99.
I had been conquered.
He took his paper and started flailing it like a maniac over his head as he ran around the classroom in circles yelling, “I beat Kelsey Straeter! I beat Kelsey Straeter! I beat Kelsey Straeter!” to every. single. person.
Over and over and over.
I’m not really sure why it was necessary to shout my last name as well considering I was the only Kelsey in the class, but for some reason hearing my name chanted in four syllables rather than two just made it burn that much worse.
I’m also not really sure where the teacher was at that moment, as I imagine she would’ve have put a stop to it at some point, but that’s all a blur to me. The only thing I remember is the laughter of the crowd, the flush-red feeling of my burning face, and the gut-wrenching sting of defeat sinking in my stomach.
And I remember silently screaming two words in my head that will forever be etched in my memory: “NEVER AGAIN.”
Never again would I be humiliated. Never again would I not live up to expectation. Never again would I hear “I beat Kelsey Straeter.”
NEVER AGAIN would I be not good enough.
And for the next 18 years of my school career, that’s basically exactly how it went. I obsessed over homework ‘til the wee hours of the morning, and I studied for tests until I had memorized every last word of every chapter. I walked into each quiz like I was walking the plank—like this could be the end of me.
Fourth-grade geography was grueling. I cried—oh how I cried—over eighth-grade algebra. High school just got worse. And I ended up in the ER in college over stress-induced anxiety that literally created the physical sensation of someone stabbing me in the stomach over and over with a nine-inch blade knife.
Satan perverted my pursuit of excellence into a pursuit of perfection, and I bought in. He stole my childhood, and I let him. I believed the lie. It was my identity. It was everything.
People thought I must love learning because I was so serious about my grades, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I hated learning. I became a slave to school. I just needed the number.
…and 22 years later, it still haunts me.
I got every award in every grade-school class. I was valedictorian of my high school. I was top of both my degree programs in college. I maintained a 4.0 through my master’s, and am still too paranoid to finish my thesis for fear of screwing that up now. Burnout would be an understatement.
And now what do I have to show for it?
About 50 shades of crazy, a few really expensive medical bills, and one big human stress ball.
So what’s the moral of this story?
To be clear, I’m not blaming my first-grade teacher. She was just trying to do the right thing. And it’s not like my parents ever really pushed me. In fact, they often urged me to step back and smell the roses and only found out about the first-grade incident years later. And though it was the launch pad for my perfectionistic misery, I’m also not blaming the gifted program. Per my disposition, plenty of this was probably bound to happen anyway.
But I do think our education system and our world needs to redefine what “gifted” really means.
Though my extreme tale maybe a unique case, it makes me wonder if the reverse effect was true for any of the other kids in my class.
Is it possible that they stopped seeing themselves as “gifted” the moment they weren’t put in that program?
Did they eventually stop trying as hard because the grading metric they were measured by said you’re average?
Did that affect them the rest of their lives the way it did for me?
Did they never realize their full potential because they were subtly told early on that you aren’t good enough?
As stated by Albert Einsten, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Everyone is gifted in their own way, and it’s our job as parents, educators, and Christians to set the metric straight for our children and nurture their uniqueness so that they can blossom into everything God has planned for them.
My mom never knew what happened that day in first grade, but I wonder if she did, if things would’ve been different. You have the opportunity to find out now. The truth is, I never knew it was a momentous occasion worthy of mention until long after the damage was done.
Often times, I blame my younger self for the pure hell I put myself through, but these lyrics from MercyMe always seem to put things in perspective:
If I knew then what I know now
Condemnation would’ve had no power
My joy my pain would’ve never been my worth
If I knew then what I know now
Would’ve not been hard to figure out
What I would’ve changed if I had heard
Dear younger me
It’s not your fault
You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross
Achievement is great. Good grades are awesome. But our identity doesn’t rest in it. It rests on the cross. I had to learn it (and am still learning) the hard way.
The problem with chasing the illusion of “good enough” is that you already are.
Let’s go back to kindergarten, where fish could climb trees.
About the Author: Kelsey is an editor at Outreach. She’s passionate about fear fighting, freedom writing and the pursuit of excellence in the name of crucifying perfectionism. Glitter is her favorite color, 2nd only to pink, and 3rd only to pink glitter.