Being valedictorian means nothing if I sacrificed my humanity and spirit of learning for it. A high school valedictorian, Cindy Leow, speaks out against the oppression of education and rote learning at her graduation ceremony.
Honorable principal, distinguished teachers, parents, the graduating Class of 2016:
It is of utmost irony that I am able to stand here today to address you as valedictorian, because the only reason I have been able to attain this award is that I have been deeply misguided about my values and my need for social validation. All I hope is that these — albeit raw, sometimes painful — feelings will resonate with you… and that you will find salvation as I did.
What Education Meant To Me
I am valedictorian… It is 6 am and my alarm is blaring and I had only slept for two hours and my eyes are red and blurred. I wait for them to refocus — my lens moving in and out — but my vision doesn’t clear. I drive to school, nearly crashing on the way.
I am valedictorian… It is 8 am and I was hunched over a laptop typing notes on Google Docs as my Biology teacher is droning and I almost fall asleep on the floor.
I am valedictorian… It is 10 am and I receive feedback for my English essay. A B again. My teacher says, “Be more concise. Syntax.” Be more concise? Syntax? Got it. Got it. I almost nod off.
I am valedictorian… It is 12 pm and I skipped lunch to study again, alone in the prep room, for my next test.
I am valedictorian… It is 2 pm and I have just received my Harvard rejection letter. Tears well up in my eyes again as this has been my only goal and driving force through the two years — my one and only marker of accomplishment — I have to run out of class to see my counselor. I cry in her lap.
I am valedictorian… It is 4pm and I walk to athletics practice. I run hard for three hours and feel nothing but pain and remorse every time my feet step on the pavement.
I am valedictorian… It is 4am and I am still awake, working on my extracurriculars. Yet again.
Hard work and persistence are meritable things.
Pushing yourself excessively past your body and your mind’s limits, putting your physical and mental health at stake, in pursuit of meaningless goals — goals that are forced upon you — are not.
I speak not just for myself but for all of us who have felt the same oppression. I hungered to be categorized as ‘smart’, ‘brilliant’, and ‘academic’ amongst my peers and teachers. I thirsted for external validation in the form of praises, compliments and college acceptances. Who was I?
For years, I floated around in a vacuum like a hamster running on a wheel: all I wanted was more external rewards, but I was lost, ungrounded, and had no self-value — who was I? What do I want? Do I mean anything? I became a hollow shell, surviving on ‘good grades’, people telling me how smart they thought I was, and how they oh-so looked up to me. I was so self-absorbed even if that means I had more faith in my LinkedIn profile than my personality. At my most frenzied period, I lost most of my friends because our values were so mismatched and I’m so sorry that happened.
Like I said, I’m not the only one with this experience. Millions of high school students all over the world, where rote learning and exam pressures are high, are even worse off.
Being valedictorian means nothing if I sacrificed my humanity and spirit of learning for it.
I began to question my sanity and life goals. I’m glad to say, after a constant state of meditation, that I escaped the bubble and vicious cycle.
What completely changed my mindset was 1) realising how useless and ephemeral the information I rotely memorized was to me and 2) locating myself within the larger sphere of life. I realised, during my time at a youth-led NGO, how small and insignificant I was — how test scores meant nothing for those who barely have enough to survive another day, or those enslaved in chains. I realised how little all the things I cared about meant. I realised how little I — life — meant if I continued to stay within my bubble, my vacuum, my hamster wheel.
Breaking out of the “Education” Bubble
I decided life meant more than this, that life was full of spontaneity and passion and warmth. I decided being valedictorian is not worth the sacrifice. It is an empty award, designed to perpetuate the role of rote learning in our lives and the notion of exclusivity and peer competition.
Education isn’t the Hunger Games. Education isn’t 2400 SATs or 36 ACTs or 45 IBs. Education is, at its core, learning how to learn so you can impact yourself and impact others. Education is learning how to be compassionate, aware and informed, so you can make better decisions, which will then create a waterfall effect that will help others who don’t have the same privilege as you do.
Education, according to philosopher Tariq Ramadan, is “giving individuals the tools they need if their minds, being and individuality are to be autonomous… allowing human beings to become the true subject of freedom.”
This is a war cry: one that will remind you all that we set our own standards, not the ones that an arbitrary exam board sets for us. No. It’s time for education to stop stifling our curiosity and enthusiasm for knowledge.
So travel far. Read books — because you like them and you want to. Find meaning and application in your studies. Study for self-growth, not for improved grades. Become free in your intellect, and become free in the acceptance of yourself. Seek no validation.
It begins with how we see ourselves, and it ends when we define ourselves by external standards.
Congratulations, Graduating Class of 2016. I take my hat off to you.