Being selective

For those who don’t know me, during my high school years I attended a ‘selective school’. That means I had to pass an entrance exam in order to be admitted to this school – in short, it was a school for smart kids. Except that I wasn’t smart like that.

In primary school, all I’d cared about was having fun with friends, playing sports that I loved, and reading. I loved to read, I would devour books as they arrived in the library, and the librarian would recommend me books she thought I’d like. As year 5 approached though, there was a sudden pressure from my parents to study hard in preparation for the Selective School test. This meant that suddenly I had to spend countless hours after school attending tutoring, as well as on the weekends too – instead of doing what a kid should be doing. I hated every second of it. Maths was never my strong point (I knew this early on – and only during high school, did a certain maths teacher enlighten me as to ‘mathematical maturity’, and it was only then that I realised I was about 6 months to a year behind everyone else) not that this is an issue in itself. But I was being forced to keep up with and compete with other kids whose mathematical ability and maturity was beyond mine. Maths was by far the most hated subject for me, and a great deal of conflict between myself and my parents, for the better part of 8 years stretching from primary school to the end of high school.

Back on topic: I knew I didn’t fit into the mold of the book-smart, intellectual student who strived to achieve full marks in every exam. I knew this in primary school, and i knew this in high school. The only thing was, I got into a Selective School. A very competitive one at that, where my peers would be scrambling to obtain every mark for every test no matter how little % it was worth. I didn’t really care for marks, rankings, grades – as long as I wasn’t failing, or bottom, I was satisfied. There’s a fine line between being lazy and not caring for this kind of ‘achievement’ and I think I straddled that line very, very finely. Some of you reading this might think I’m lazy – the only time I’m lazy about something is if I don’t care about it. And for something like this, I really didn’t care. But everyone else did. I’m not saying that I hate being a student – in fact, I love to learn. But I like to do it on my own terms, and I like to learn what I like. The environment in this high school was extremely single-minded, and focused on first of all, producing the highest marks for the students; and by corollary, the highest ranking for the school. Which makes sense, as that’s how this whole thing works, the school is judged by its results.

What did 6 years of that do to me? It made me think that I was stupid. That I was below everyone, that I was ‘not good enough’. That I would ‘never make it’ in the real world, or not get into the best university course (this last one held some merit). Who knew that, after leaving high school it all wouldn’t matter ever again? Yet, the scars still remain. I spent 6 years at that high school, every day for 40+ weeks a year, but the day I left the gates for the final time was a weight lifted off my shoulders. I don’t ever miss that place, nor the people in it. That’s not to say there aren’t some great teachers – in fact, there are some teachers I miss, who did have a big impact on me and my way of thinking, that still stays with me now – those people, I miss. There are those couple of friends who I still keep in contact with – of course I don’t miss them because they’re still around. But the school, everything it stood for? The principal at the time? No, not a single morsel of my being wishes I could revisit.

In fact, nearly 10 years after leaving high school, I sometimes still get reminded of the fact that I am in fact, more ‘intelligent’ than many more people out there. That all those years feeling inferior to my peers who were in the top 1% of students meant nothing because it was a useless comparison for my life. That in fact I was just beyond that 1%, which meant there was a great deal many kids below me in the % rankings – yet somehow it felt like I was forever in the bottom %. I tried to put that in the least condescending way as possible, I’m not saying I’m better than other people, but moreso that the byproduct of my time in high school gave me a skewed sense of reality in terms of intelligence and achievement. And in fact, people who are intelligent can also be quite idiotic at the best of times too.

Do I regret going to that high school? Regret in this case wouldn’t really be the right word, because I never had a choice. I just did what I was told, and my parents told me to study, and do the exam, and go to this high school. But if you were to ask me, yes, I do regret it. There are some experiences and memories there that I will always remember and treasure – those moments are rare, which make them stand out more, in a sea of drab grey-blue walls and old carpet, broken wooden tables, old facilities and continual erosion of student rights. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go to a different high school where getting ‘the best mark’ wasn’t the sole focus. Our principal talked about trying to help us grow into ‘young men’ but in the end, all they cared about was the mark that appeared in the newspaper at the end of the year.

Would I be the same person as I am today if I hadn’t gone to this school? Would I be better off now, or worse off? Would I have found the career that I liked much earlier, had I been allowed to follow my passions instead of a constant chase for ‘high achievement’? There’s no answer to these questions of course. I’m also not trying to place the blame on other people, or on the school – I can see how it was a great place for those students who fit into their mold – but what this school, and the education system itself here doesn’t realise is that not every kid is the same, not every kid learns the same, not every kid wants to go to university to do commerce/law/engineering/science.

Instead of trying to mould us into young men they wanted us to be, they should have helped us mould ourselves into the young men we wanted to be.