Hiding Behind Achievement: Why A Valedictorian Makes Great Grades

As my law school career wrapped up in 2003, I wondered if I would be asked to give a speech since I was the valedictorian.  What would I say? 

From wikimediacommons.com

From wikimediacommons.com

 Lucky for everyone, my law school didn’t do student speeches during graduation. 

A decade later, I still wonder sometimes what I would have said.

I wasn’t as snarky funny then as I am now, so I probably would have been very serious and made a heady speech about how we have to use our degrees for the betterment of humankind.  I would have quoted famous lawyers like Lincoln or Kennedy or Ed from that TV show about the lawyer who runs a bowling alley.  I wouldn’t have had the chutzpah to mention Costco because I couldn’t afford a Costco membership until I had a few years of that phat firm salary under my belt.

I probably would have tried to skew my experiences to make myself sound more service-y and socially conscious than I had time to be.  Because guess what? When you are busy over-studying and convincing yourself from DAY ONE that you should make every sacrifice possible to make spectacular grades or maybe something awful will happen (like death or being “merely average”), there isn’t much time to recycle your Diet Coke cans, much less give back to society in a meaningful way.

It’s a pretty self-absorbing enterprise to study so hard to you end up first in a law school class of 170 other students.

So I guess I could say a few things to those law students starting out this month, even though I’ve heard that millennials don’t give a rat’s tooter about what an old fogie like me has to say.

I’ll say it anyway.

First tip: Don’t leave thirty minutes into a St. Patrick’s Day parade to go sit in a Caribou Coffee alone outlining the principles of interstate commerce for a final exam that is still 8 weeks way.   Don’t cancel a date scheduled for Sunday because your ungraded property law mid-term is on Tuesday afternoon. If you look around and there is no one else in the library on a Friday night at 6PM, then maybe you need to take a hard look at yourself and ask, “Why am I here without a single one of other students in my class?”

Because here’s what you may find out if you are a law student like I was: It’s awfully lonely sitting in the library when everyone else has decided, sanely, to have dinner with their families or head out of town for the weekend or to home to watch the OC while doing laundry.  The whole damn thing is so unbearably lonely it makes my heart spasm to remember it.

To be clear, when the registrar confirmed my GPA, I had moments of total euphoria.  I’ve worked so hard for this.  And I had.

I loved everything about law school:  Intellectual challenge.  Great professors.  A promising career waiting to greet me with open arms and billable hours requirements.

But I was also hiding.  I was hiding behind the studying, studying, studying because that was easier than dealing with my personal life, which was stunted in ways that would be painful to grow through.  Law school achievement was a shield I used to distract myself (and others) from what was obviously missing in my life: Deep and meaningful relationships (especially the kind that could be celebrated with sexual intercourse).

So it was amazing to land where I did in the heap, but I knew the truth:  I didn’t have the courage then to take my foot off the gas and un-bury myself from my studies so I could also work on relationships and my personal life. 

I would have traded a few tenths of a point for some of the social skills I was missing, if I’d only known how.

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48 thoughts on “Hiding Behind Achievement: Why A Valedictorian Makes Great Grades

  1. Me too. I didn’t know how to navigate my personal life (which was a train wreck), so I buried myself in my studies, which I absolutely loved. In retrospect, I wish I had done some more normal young-person things, like travel.

  2. Being the valedictorian is quite an accomplishment.

    I, too, have buried my head in books to avoid socializing or addressing those pesky emotional issues. I missed out on a lot, too, so your post rings true for me. When I did decide to try dating, and I really wanted to find out what sex was all about, I fell for a gay man. Of course, he didn’t really know he was at the time, so there was lots of misery before we parted ways. That’s when I decided I would never date another man whose name was a verb. Marshal.

    I can’t imagine leaving a St. Pat’s parade after 30 minutes. I didn’t think that was even possible!

  3. Sorry Tate, I might have been responsible for one of those dates😜 Anyway, I remember your hysterical, pervasive laughter, biting wit, and awesome friendship in law school. And I probably should have skipped Flapjaws a few times to hang with you in the library! But look where we are today. What is the saying? Hindsight is 20/20?

    • I didn’t cancel that date– he was cute and sweet and I learned a lot! And oh sweet hindsight, where was it when I needed it?

      Ha! I didn’t step foot in flapjaws til third year. That should be a crime.

  4. I’ll add another one: DON’T skip a family wedding and bar mitzvah because you think spending that day studying criminal law will be helpful and productive. It won’t. You’ll end up obsessing about everything you’re missing, calling your family members every five minutes for updates on the festivities, and not getting one single little bit of studying done. Also, you’ll never understand the difference between robbery and burglary anyway. Just go.

  5. I am so glad we didn’t meet earlier in life. I partied my way through law school and though I still graduated at the top(ish) of my class I once got a B-. Even I was horrified, but I can only assume you would have unfriended me. I am very grateful we met at the perfect crossroads.

  6. ooooh man. this was me. only I didn’t go to law school. I went to Columbia (Chicago not NY). this particularly was me: “…was a shield I used to distract myself (and others) from what was obviously missing in my life: Deep and meaningful relationships (especially the kind that could be celebrated with sexual intercourse).”

  7. Hiding behind a book is the greatest social mask ever invented. I didn’t stop carrying one around til I was in my 30s. But congratulations on a very significant accomplishment. And congratulations on overcoming it!

  8. Wow…well written! I was often student with decent grades (top 5% of my class) but I never challenged myswlf, just taking the easier courses and doing what might get an A grade ,even if I were capable of “better than an A” had it existed. My freshman year in college I decided to apply myself and ended up the lonely depressed girl and my grades weren’t stellar,
    you know, a 3.7 is so not steller haha.

    Someohw throughout college I was the most studious of my friends ,who would ditch a class or ignore an assignment, so perhaps even if I was not valedictorian…I was the workaholic.

    My lengthy point here is…I ennoyed your perspective and ended up trying to figure out wherre I fit on the studious scale.

  9. I tried to do the “work hard; play hard” bit in university and cover off both ends. It wasn’t law school – and I wasn’t valedictorian; but I did manage to keep my scholarship (so the required A average) through it all with only one nervous breakdown. Overall, I’d agree the balance with social life is so worth it.

  10. I did not have an experience like this. I was a good student in grade school (not top-ranked, but good), but college and university was disastrous. Four different schools in that mix, and I was pushed out the door from university after failing student teaching. The university was embroiled in press allegations of hostile work environments and the music department had a very dirty political battle between two professors, and students in the department like myself were called in to sort that nasty shit out.

    I found my soulmate during that time period, but years of neat- and control-freaking started to dissolve as I saw that my in-laws… do not. I am slowly realizing that hyper-organization and all that didn’t stop the abuse at home or school, but more especially, even though my in-laws are not neat, they have been a lot better at loving me as I am, and will come together when the chips are down (not saying that my family of origin isn’t loving, it’s just… fractured).

  11. I love this.. And what i love even more is that i can relate to it even though I’m not off to school. ( the thought of ever attending law school makes my blood crawl.) But I can relate to it in that these days I spend most of my days alone, steadfastly hiding from everyone. i rarely ever go to any family event or go out and I definitely need to change that.

    • I suppose there are seasons for hiding and seasons for being “out there.” I still struggle with the balance of them both.

      On Wed, Aug 28, 2013 at 10:12 AM, Outlaw Mama

  12. Great tips! I wasn’t much of a studier in law school and settled for being in the top third (so more average, as you’d say.) But what an accomplishment for you! In the end, we all realize once we get our first job, grades in law school don’t matter much anymore (thank goodness.) I also like this saying: A students are judges, B students are professors, C students are rich. 🙂

  13. Um….a short note from exactly the same person (as an undergrad): Nope. I was closing down the library Friday nights because I was a better person than the partygoers. They were pursuing frivolous interactions that wouldn’t last, and I was building something important. The feeling is similar to disordered eating: I will control this and I will succeed because I am closer to awesome than all the rest are. Coffee is for closers. Etc.

    I had very good relationships with people who similarly confined human time to two hours on Saturday afternoon.

    I think the heathen are going to fight you on this one, Reverend. We know what it takes to feel worthy, and it doesn’t come from peers.

    P.S. As scary as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve moved much beyond this insanity. I’d do it the same if I had it to do over again.

    P.P.S. Taking therapist referrals.

  14. I did embrace life in college. And it was good. I was daring and adventurous and pushed myself to my limits. And even over my limits and it made me sick. Our valedictorian was a theology major and I thought it couldn’t get any easier than that. I was beginning to see where mastery was and wasn’t. As I soon begin my next degree to study the mind, I will remember I am really studying suffering and maybe that is what you had to study too in order to find meaningful relationships

  15. I can totally relate. Everyone scares the crap out of you before law school. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But you can still have a life too.

  16. So do you know what I love about your posts?
    How you are so honest about looking at past decisions and what you would do differently now. Obviously things have worked out pretty good for you, what with your a-freaking-dorable babies and devoted husband, (let’s not forget your attentive therapist, haha) but it’s refreshing to read people say “You know what I would have done differently…..”

    You rock.

  17. I just plain old hid a lot of the time, as opposed to channeling my energy into something else. I do appreciate the diligence and discipline it must have taken for you.

  18. we all hide. but yours was a fabulous accomplishment even if it was somewhat dysfunctional. and look at you know, you’ve got it all. i know a lot of super smert gals who hid behind their brains and threw themselves into work and never – at least so far – stepped out from behind the paper work to get a real life. you just keep getting better. now go get a massage – or is laying down for an hour of relaxation like torture for you? 😉

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