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The Myth of Perfection at Maggie Walker

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Cross Country isn’t the only Cult at Maggie Walker.

Step into our hallowed halls and you’ll be greeted by a far greater force. At Maggie Walker, the expectations people have for you are simple! All you have to do is be the president of 5 clubs (and involved in at least 5 others. Gotta fill up the activities section of the Common App!). It doesn’t matter what you care about or what you’re passionate about. Philosophy is stupid. Try being a nationally recognized mathematical protégé instead! The Arts are a waste of your time, unless you are concert pianist who has performed at Carnegie Hall. Why would you involve yourself in something you can’t easily quantify on a college application?

Welcome to the altar of perfection! Would you like to sacrifice your soul for early admission to Yale?

Your first three years at Maggie Walker are all mere preparation for the Great College Application Void. Learning for learning’s sake is silly. Sure, you may only be technically encouraged to take only a recommended 2-4 AP classes your junior year, but everyone knows that anything less than 5 in a year means you’re lazy. Never mind the fact that American Literature is a demanding honors course, or that some people would just rather take VCU Calculus 200 than AP Calc, or, god forbid, not take Calculus at all. Never mind that you learn just as much from an Honors History Elective as an AP History course.

Your education is merely a means to an end.

The end, of course, being admission to a top college. You might think the College Admissions process is about getting into college, but it’s really just about deciding whether or not you have any worth as an individual.

Congratulations! Your entire value will now be determined by whether or not your GPA is above a 4.5! A 4.49? Why, that simply won’t cut it.

Everyone has something to prove. Everyone has everything to prove.

(But why? To whom?)

Alumni who tell us we’ll be happy wherever we end up must be wrong. You can be successful by doing what you love? Seems fake, but okay.

What do you mean our happiness and health is more important than a grade or acceptance letter? What do you mean we’re worth more than our GPA? What do you mean what do you mean what do you mean-

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To some, this might seem foreign and hyperbolic, but make no mistake: it is grounded in the very real experiences of large portions of the Maggie Walker community. If you have never felt inadequate, like you are drowning under the weight of expectations, consider yourself lucky, and feel empathy for your classmates who do.

In a recent survey questioning students about the concept of a “cult of perfection” at Maggie Walker, One student noted that it’s common to feel as if “[you’re] on a path to failure if you’re not pushing yourself to your absolute limits academically, even if doing so would be to your detriment.”

Everyone doubts themselves, everyone strives to improve. That’s expected. But by letting that doubt become ingrained into the school’s culture, by constantly judging ourselves against “unrealistic expectations,” Maggie Walker creates a toxic culture that is defined by stress and anxiety and unhealthy habits.

Perhaps the most revealing survey question asked whether or not students ever felt like they weren’t “good” enough. When I read over these answers, I cried. One person simply responded with “I hate myself. ” Several students remarked that they felt “inadequate.” One student said “an A is not good enough because it’s not an A+.” Some students listed their impressive stats and extracurriculars, only to remark on how they still felt as if they “haven’t achieved enough, or done enough of the “right” things.”

We view this self-loathing as part of the Maggie Walker™  experience. Are you stressed? Depressed? Do you have straight A’s plenty of extracurriculars and community service hours and lots of friends and a great family and do you sometimes maybe feel like you are drowning under the weight of expectations and the fear that you might not be good enough?

That’s not normal, but we act like it is.

Changing these unhealthy attitudes starts with telling ourselves that we are more than our GPA, our extracurriculars, and our SAT scores. Your wellbeing is so much more important than an unattainable idea of perfection.

Say this over and over again. Shout it from the rooftops. Say it on the announcements, write it on the walls, on your wrists, on your reflection. Make sure the freshmen know. Make sure the message you send to new students and the community is not one of perfection and top ten rankings and all time high SAT scores, but one of a genuine love of learning. One where you are not confined by a 4.5 GPA and schedule that barely allows you time to breathe and rhetoric that teaches you that you are “not enough, never enough.” When someone tells you that you don’t need 17 leadership positions to be happy, believe them. Take every single self-positive cliche you’ve ever scoffed at, you’ve ever exempted yourself from, and listen to them.

Take everything Maggie Walker teaches you about success, and let it burn.

But don’t forget the marshmallows.

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3 Responses to “The Myth of Perfection at Maggie Walker”

  1. Gabriela Monasterio on October 1st, 2016 11:02 am

    Well said. As an alumnus who is now in college, I can tell you that All you need is a 4.17 GPA, 12 years of a single extracurricular and participation in zero clubs-count ’em-ZERO. The college app is all about the essay, and Maggie Walker is all about what you want to do. I didn’t want to destroy my life, so I ignored every helpful tip about how to get into college and took what I wanted to. I got into a top 50 college with a guidance counselor-crushing 7 AP’s, two of which were 4’s. I got in without meaningfully participating in any club, with a mentorship that I barely finished, and a great group of people- shout out to the low end commons. I flat out ignored every “scandal” and bit of drama by not having a facebook and not caring a whit about anyone outside of my meager friend group.

    Maggie Walker is a place to be the you that you never could be in the counties/city. Take advantage of whatever it offers because YOU want to, not because it will look good on college apps (except honor societies, do those for the app). I did no clubs, and I swam and I took classes like Mod Pol with Emily and I got into my first six choices and I am loving life.

    TL;DR: live life in the Low End Commons and you’ll be fine, if a bit obsessed with video games.

    Also- apply to Northeastern, its great.


  2. Mary ann martin on October 2nd, 2016 12:44 am

    That’s why I hope you’ll be a baker! I’d suggest a mindfulness class and some perspective. And, most importantly, write your own college essay, no help or proof/reading by parents or teachers. This is truly a beautiful world that we live in, pop the balloon, relax and volunteer overseas for awhile in a 3rd world country…then you’ll see what real stress is.


  3. Tom Hartman on October 3rd, 2016 5:35 am

    Excellent essay, right on point. My secondary school experience was now 53 years ago at a similarly competitive school, but the issues were the same. The pressure and appetite to excell are going to be there, but somehow a culture needs to be developed which decouples academic “winning” from self-worth. Self-worth is a basic human need but if one may have it only to the extent one is at the top of some heap, most will be denied it. A culture with some screws very loose.

    I invite the author to write further about how a more psychologically healthy culture might be designed and made manifest. It can be done. We seek a world that works for everyone, with no-one and nothing left out.


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