Leaderboard, 1-0: A VOICES essay on competition and contentment

This essay is part of the 2018 essay series "VOICES: Overcoming Challenges in Learning" from Michigan Nightlight. In this series, we will feature the authentic voices of teachers, parents, students, administrators, counselors, medical practitioners, and others about a challenge to learning they’ve encountered and how they are working to overcome it.
"Grades and numbers should not be the end or beginning of a person’s potential. There is no way a letter or number or leaderboard can truly measure a person’s intelligence and abilities," says eighth grader Alayna Williams, who in this special VOICES essay, explores competition, confidence, and homework.
We sit at A-lunch, picking at the food and glaring around the lunchroom. The room is bright and vast, filled with noise and enough people for you to disappear in. Right away, you can hear the volume difference between the high schoolers and us. We get on the topic of sports, which leads to how much we are not into them and how annoyingly high of a pedestal they are put on.

That brings us to the topic of homework, and it doesn’t take long for Fiona to say sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough.
I totally agree. I sometimes have this feeling and had this feeling a lot in the past—that thought in the back of my mind saying do better! Heck, I may have been doing the most I can and still feel like I’m falling short. This insecurity falls into a lot of situations for me.

A good example is math—a subject I can grasp but find difficult. We do Imagine Math, an online math course where you get points for excelling in lessons. The rankings go: your class, your school, and then the state. This electronic leaderboard is the worst! It makes it hard to feel like you are trying and giving your all when they measure you that way. For a person struggling with the issue of feeling behind, a visual symbol that’s ranking them adds more negative power to their feeling. I try to get every answer right, only to get one wrong and feel like I’m falling behind. The numbers climb and change, but I never see my name.

The entire system of grading isn’t positive. Yes, my teacher tells me what I did wrong and how to improve. I mean, don’t most teachers? Stating what to improve next time definitely helps me but, for some people, it can be unclear. The thing that helps me with confusion, when I have it, is asking for help. When it comes to wanting to understand or seeking that understanding, I ask for help if no self-solution is found. I feel like a person’s ability to try and work through a problem should be more celebrated. Grades and numbers should not be the end or beginning of a person’s potential. There is no way a letter or number or leaderboard can truly measure a person’s intelligence and abilities.

In class after a heavy workweek, grades come. I’m a little scared and almost a little queasy at the possibility of a bad grade. I feel the same tension in the room from my peers: the excessive grade-checking; the constant competition put into the words, what grade you get?; the rushing to turn in late papers.

When the grade comes, you have three options. One, panic. Two, fix it before it reaches home. Or, three, be content. Being in a place of contentment takes a long time and, for me, depends on the situation. Contentment is easily sabotaged by the letters C, D, or E. (F was scrapped for E, though E still means failing. This “improvement” doesn’t lift anyone’s self-esteem or lift worry off anyone’s shoulders.)

The grade comes and I’m doing good. I then set the paper down only to be bombarded with questions of what I got. This moment is the worst for someone who struggles with feeling great about where they’re at with their own work. At times like this, I just have to say it’s none of your business. Of course, I’m not harsh about it. Focusing on yourself is one of my key ways in contentment. I think it’s a key everyone should use. Me telling my grade would create unwanted competition. This may seem small, but it would set me up to compare everything I do to everything they do. It would create another leaderboard, and we have too many of those in life already.

Alayna Williams is a student at Grand Rapids Montessori. She enjoys writing poetry, realistic fiction, and pieces that focus on unnoticed things. She hopes to pursue a career in writing. Alayna is an author at the Creative Youth Center and the president of the Grand Rapids chapter of the Amicette Club. Her friends and family push her everyday and are her biggest supporters. Alayna loves to stay positive and channel positive energy into doing the right thing and fighting for it too!


This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photo courtesy of the Creative Youth Center.
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