My mom was really proud of me when I told her I was graduating high school with honors. She didn’t seem as thrilled when the ceremony came and she found out sixteen other people in my batch were graduating with high honors.
I can’t blame her though. From first grade until halfway through high school, I was the class valedictorian. I’m not, anymore, and she’s obviously disappointed. I, on the other hand, have never been happier.
I mean, sure, growing up a valedictorian meant praise. People told me I had a bright future, that I could be anything I dreamed to be, and of course I believed them. When you’re young you believe everything adults say.
But growing up a valedictorian also meant growing up in a box. People believed I had a bright future, so I had to have a bright future. Family dinners became discussion groups centered on my career path, and I was never invited to the table. Everyone was making the decisions for me, as if my intelligence was a resource that I, at my young age, had no right to manage.
It meant being put on a pedestal for most of my childhood. Everyone expected me to have all the answers at a time when I was supposed to be asking questions; I had no room for error at an age when I was supposed to make mistakes. For most of my adolescence, I saw asking for help as a sign of defeat, as my admission that I wasn’t as smart as people thought I was.
Growing up a valedictorian meant I was subjected to a decade-long competition with my peers. My parents would ask me how I was doing at school—you know, like parents do. But then they would ask me how my friends were doing, how the other smart kids were doing. Whenever one of my classmates would achieve something, I never knew how to act. I always felt like all eyes were on me, waiting to see how I’d react, to see if I was playing the part of graceful loser. I don’t think I’ve ever been truly, unconditionally proud of a peer’s achievement, because there’s always that tinge of envy or dread—how will I explain this to my parents? How will I explain that someone else received the award? I experienced an omnipresent sense of guilt, which enabled dark thoughts: I’m not good enough; my parents are disappointed in me; I’m always doing something wrong. I started taking long naps before dinnertime because I always had an anxiety attack when my mom came home from work. She said I slept too much. I was always too much, but also somehow never enough.
Growing up a valedictorian meant always questioning what my parents thought of me. Did they really love me, or did they love their little trophy daughter they could show off to their friends? Would they still love me if I was no longer what they dreamed me to be?
Losing my title was a huge sigh of relief. I’m happy partly because this immense pressure is off me; the label “valedictorian” has been lifted off my shoulders. But mostly it’s because growing up valedictorian meant getting things handed to me. I was elected student council president even though I was underqualified. I was invited to write in the school paper without going through auditions. I was always the group leader, and I was always getting my way. I didn’t have to listen to others’ suggestions because no one dared to say anything after I spoke.
Growing up valedictorian meant being on the verge of tears whenever someone offered me criticism, even if it was healthy or constructive. I experienced spurts of irrational anger when someone other than a teacher told me what to do.
Growing up valedictorian meant growing up arrogant. Condescending. Self-aggrandizing. Lazy. I bullshitted my way through oral presentations and book reports, and I was always sure I would get away with it. I could write an essay in ten minutes and still receive the highest marks. I could memorize a passage in half the time it took my classmates to do it. And I wanted everyone to know that. Sure, I was growing tired of all the expectations. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was the smart kid and start treating me differently. But then another part of me wanted everyone to know that I was the smart kid. I wanted them to know I got into the Top 50 of the regional spelling bee. I wanted them to know I’d been the best sixth-grade editorial writer in the whole city. I wanted to brag, because growing up valedictorian meant growing up being defined by my academic achievements. If I wasn’t the resident prodigy, then who was I?
Growing up valedictorian meant learning to be a good student, but not a good person. In the process of focusing all my energy on being the best, I forgot to be good. I always felt angry, sad, tired, and overall just miserable because I was constantly rattled with anxiety. In ninth grade, I was beginning to burn out and my grades started to drop. My rank fell to third, and everyone took it harshly. My parents whispered about it in the living room the day they got my report card. Teachers and guidance counselors asked me what was happening—was something wrong at home? Was there anything they could do to help? I took it hard at first too: I cried about it for days, and I started feeling anxious about my work.
It took a few weeks to get over it, but once I did, it was completely, overwhelmingly liberating. I suddenly had room to mess up, to grow. I wasn’t carrying the weight of being the top of my class anymore; I no longer felt like the world was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. I felt less guilty about having downtime. I took my time resting. I looked for things to be passionate about. Less of my energy was spent being frustrated with myself, so I poured more into being kind and empathetic. It’s been really difficult to practice values I only started to apply when I got older, but I’m trying every day. I try not to beat myself up for my slow progress.
It’s been four years since I’ve been the top of the class. I’m at my high school graduation, and I don’t know what my class rank is; I never bothered to check. And I’m happy, because growing up valedictorian meant growing up quantifying myself, ranking myself among my peers, grading my worth. It meant having no passions because I only found joy in the validation of my teachers and parents. It meant growing up in a cycle of anxiety and arrogance.
And now that I’ve finally stopped growing up a valedictorian, I can actually grow as a person, in my own terms, in my own ways. It doesn’t matter if not everyone is proud of me; for the first time, I’m truly, wholeheartedly proud of myself.
Annie Walton Doyle