How One High School "C Plus" Changed My Whole Life

I moved to Fairfax County, Virginia, when I was 12 years old, and it didn’t even take a full year for me to learn the new landscape and live it. Notorious as one of the most competitive school districts in the nation, all of us Fairfax kids were conditioned to want and achieve the same things: Get amazing grades, knock your SATs out of the park, devote every ounce of your existence to filling out your resume — and, most importantly, get into a brand name college to validate all of that work.

As a teen, I had no idea what was supposed to come after I got into the mythical brand name college I planned to attend, and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t consider failure a possibility. I would get in somewhere good, and that would be the ticket to the rest of the goodness in my life, like a collegiate Easy-Bake Oven. Neat, clean, simple, done.

And then, my sophomore year of high school, the unthinkable happened: I got a C plus.

In all fairness, it was not an actual C plus. It was an 83.4 percent — a B in any other county, but a C plus in ours, thanks to a grading scale that I will share with you at the risk of giving your high school self a retroactive heart attack:

  • 94-100: A
  • 90-93: B+
  • 84-89: B
  • 80-83: C+
  • 74-80: C

They have since made adjustments to this grading scale, but they had not yet gone into effect by the time I graduated; when we were sending out our college applications, my classmates and I were at an automatic disadvantage, with GPAs that were reflected lower than our peers in any other district in the country. Because of this and the added pressure of living in a community that considered anything less than a Top 50 school something to frown on, we worked at a capacity that I look back on now and realize was far from typical for a normal high school kid.

I was two test points away from that B. The fact that I remember this, a full nine years later, is a testament to just how deeply ingrained the grade culture was for me back then. This class had been a particular struggle for me, and the teacher had not been the most attentive — rather than teaching the subject material, he often handed us out packets for each unit and called it a lesson plan. So I came after school two or three days a week. I badgered him about problems I didn’t understand. I turned in lengthy test corrections not-for-credit, and wrote massive, disgustingly thick study guides that took me entire nights to write.

But the C plus was nonnegotiable. The moment it was final, I piled into my mom’s car, all gulping inconsolable sobs — even then, I understood that that C plus had power. It wasn’t until two years later, however, that I would understand just how much power it held in this particular district.

By my senior year, I was inarguably a model "good student." Despite that C plus, I had a phenomenal GPA, impressive SATs, four varsity letters, more extracurriculars than I could count, and several steady jobs I had kept from the literal day I turned 14. (I know this all sounds like bragging, but now that I am an adult and know that none of this matters or is in any way a measure of my self-worth, it just sounds kind of sad.) My point is, I was a shoo-in at the top academic colleges in my state — or, at least, I should have been.

Nothing prepared me for the slap of getting a rejection from The College of William and Mary. I wasn't cocky by any means, but I felt that certainly there must have been some kind of oversight. I compared myself against the stats of every student they had admitted from my district in the prior five years, and I was healthily in the middle of them. (Several male friends of mine who had lower scores and significantly less involvement in clubs or organizations got wait-listed over me, but that, my friends, is an essay for another day.)

What made this particular college unique is that they were more slightly more personal about responding to students' concerns asking why they were rejected. I probed, and although the reasons weren't made specific, one implication was clear: I had gotten a C plus in my sophomore year, and other candidates with similar stats who had gotten into the school had not.

You would think that I would be able to dismiss that school as easily as they dismissed me, but I was 17, and of course it didn't work out that way. I spent the summer wallowing, crying on my bathroom floor while listening to Miley Cyrus belt "The Climb" on repeat, ignoring the words of wisdom from my supportive parents and anyone else who tried to offer me any comfort. I didn't have much teenage angst growing up — with all the crazy academic stuff I was doing, who had the time? — so I fit it all into three months of existentially fraught rage.

I went to another school, a "lesser" one, and at first I was miserable for it. I had for so long defined myself by my grades, and how they hinged on the brand name school I planned on attending, and the brand name life I planned on living. I felt stripped. I felt undefined. I felt like the whole experience of high school had been a waste of time. In one fell swoop, I had dismissed all of my experiences, every lesson I learned, every friendship I made, every trial and error that defined me, over one dumb grade.

At my most bitter, I felt like I was living two lives. There was the life I was living, at the school I hadn't planned to attend; parallel to it was the life I could have led at William and Mary, with its other opportunities, with its influence and its prestige and its supposedly superior education. Every failure I experienced — and believe you me, there were a ton — I would blame on that C plus, until it became the root of everything, The Original Failing from which all other failings came.

I wouldn't understand until long after it happened — but it turns out, that C plus was maybe the best thing that ever happened to me.

Eventually, of course, I failed at enough things in my life, and watched other people fail at enough things in theirs, that my teenage brain finally came to comprehend that failure was a part of the whole living shebang. I may have been bitter to go to the school I ended up at, but it was there that I first watched other people embrace their failures, and learn from them. They bombed their tests. They changed their majors in their senior years. But what really threw me for a loop, after years of conditioning my life so that these things never happened to me, is that they didn't care. Their identities weren't wrapped up in ways to measure their success, or what was they thought looked shiniest on a resume. They were motivated by their own inherent sense of what was right for them .

So slowly, excruciatingly, I followed their lead. I started to let go of that stupid grade, and all of the strict standards I had similarly wrapped myself up in — and learning to let that go made all the difference.

I stopped fighting against circumstances that had already happened, and became a person who looked ahead for opportunities. I stopped working for the sake of work, and started working for what I loved. I stopped defining myself based on the grades I got, and started defining myself based on the things that made me happy. I let myself make plans, but with an important difference — I didn't hold myself to them. I accepted that things weren't going to go the way that I wanted. I accepted that life is its own big, fat C plus sometimes, and really, that C plus is just whatever the hell you decide to make it.

Over the next few years, I made something of that C plus. I transferred to the University of Virginia for their psych program. (I got into William and Mary, too, but this time I was the one who told them no.) I taught myself to play guitar. I started songwriting and playing out at bars. I moved to Nashville to be a singer, and failed epically, and then came back home, and failed again and again (and again!), but picked myself back up every time. I stopped looking at failure as the end of something, and started to see it as the beginning of another. I figured out what my dream job was after failing at getting a dozen others, and now I get to go to it every day, smack dab in the middle of New York freaking City.

I stopped being angry at the version of me with the B, the girl who was leading my parallel life. I have no idea where she is now; probably in some itchy work pants, working in an office building back in my hometown at a job she doesn't particularly love, with all her ducks precariously in a row. I don't think of her often, but now when I do, I feel kind of sorry for her. If her life went the way I planned it for her, there would have been so much she'd have missed. So much that, when I look back on the life I have right now, I wouldn't have traded for the world.

I don't know if I believe that everything happens for a reason. I think things happen, and the way you react to them makes all the difference. It took me a long time to react to that grade the way I was supposed to, but it was the nudge I needed to let go of the very unhealthy way I had planned my life — a life that, ultimately, could never have been as interesting or storied or ridiculous and great as the one I have now.

In conclusion: suck it, Fairfax County. I win.

Images: Emma Lord