Simply put, everyone, at some point or other, has been a student. If you’d like to define “student” philosophically as well, we have always been, and always will be, students – perhaps we may not officially be a member of a school or university, perhaps our days of formal education have ceased already, but we will never stop learning from lessons that life teaches, that untiring universal teacher.
The student is always striving – for good grades, for approval, to stand out and be remembered. We long to be extraordinary, to leave our mark upon the earth and have our names immortalized, our deeds talked about and recalled even centuries after our physical bodies have crumbled to dust. If we were to have a peep into the average Malaysian classroom nowadays, we would hear “Be academically successful” and “Get straight As” as common motivators, we hear teachers pushing their students to enter competitions and be active in clubs and societies “Because it would look good on your CV and that helps you enter university”.
We present students and we present ourselves as students with concrete goals – we tackle them and take them down, one after another. Straight As for UPSR, PMR, SPM, 4.0 GPAs in A-levels and university. We graduate, we get a job. Maybe it pays well, maybe it doesn’t.
Has anyone asked what it’s all for?
Skeptics and old cynics will tell you that the easiest job out there is being a student. But being a student isn’t easy, either. You have the long nights awake and guided by the glaring fluorescent light of a desktop lamp, solving mathematical equations or reviewing biological terminology or reading the assigned literary text. You have the heart-thumping moments before you enter the exam hall because you’re fully aware that how well you put your knowledge to use in the next two hours is going to make or break your future. You have the crushing instances of disappointment when you see less-than-satisfactory grades on your report card, or maybe that’s just your kiasu-ism showing because you’re not happy with anything less than a 100% (hint : you got 94%).
We typically tell students of formal education that they are doing this to secure that all-important well-paying job that puts bread and rice and pasta on the table and maybe if you’re lucky you’d even have that spare money for an iPhone or a plasma-screen 15-inch television, assuming your parents haven’t already bought one for you. But when that’s all said and done, when the idealistic period of youthful chasing-after-dreams ends, what do we take with us?
Are we going to remember that one time we were 2 marks short of an A for English Literature?
Are we going to tell our maybe-kids tales of when our lecturers used to push us and say that they’re disappointed with us for getting a B?
Are we going to recall with fondness the clubs and societies that we joined because we wanted to have something shiny on our CVs?
I don’t think we are.
There’s this very famous question that lots of people like to ask in the possible event that you get bad grades for exams :
“Ask yourself, will this matter a year from now?”
And unless those exams and grades are quite literally life-changing and possibly earth-shatteringly important, chances are, it’s not going to matter much a year from now.
Life stories are written as individuals go along, and if they did their best and yet still fail to prove themselves as being conventionally academically intelligent, chances are their talents belong elsewhere.
But no, what you’re going to remember from humble student-y days most probably isn’t going to be what grades you got or how close you came to having a perfect score.
It’s going to be those days you spent goofing off with your friends. The times you played truant and skipped classes to go out for dessert. Yam-seng-ing with glasses of orange juice during a librarian farewell party. That time a guy stabbed an electric socket with a pair of scissors and caused the entire floor to have a blackout. The panic attacks you got when you realized you forgot to do something or you’ve just been tossed a really last-minute deadline for editorial board, that you joined because you love to write. Or quite possibly that one day when, in the midst of all the studying for upcoming exams, you stop and realize that you are miserable and have been miserable for the past 4 months.
Sometimes, it really does seem that well-defined goals are quite possibly the worst ways of ruining student life and the very meaning of being a student. When you push them to get good grades, some students may make that their sole single-minded motivator and erase what they learned from their memories as soon as the paper has been answered. When you encourage them to join societies to buff up their CVs, you make them reluctant members and they are less likely to be active participators because to them the club is only an object on a list. After all, if they get to put it on their CVs just for showing up, why should they bother doing more?
In that quest to make formal education more well-rounded for the sake of better preparing students for the ruthless working world, we have distorted the original purpose of education, and in doing so we distort just what it means to be a student.
At the end of it all, you’re not going to be fondly talking about how high your GPA was.
You’re going to be talking about the nights you spent with your friends philosophizing over coffee.
KKA doesn’t remember what she did in Girl Scouts, but would definitely tell people about the years she spent in editorial board, ReMag, and being a school librarian. Her first semester of A-levels taught her a very sharp lesson : it really is as important to make time for yourself as it is for your studies.