The Thing About Burnouts

In my 12 years of being a student of the same school, I've made history and brought glory to the name and reputation of the institution.

Peers and alumni might have recognized me as that little girl who spoke and understood English more fluently than the rest of the class; the little girl who was appointed by her homeroom teacher as president of her first-grade class despite having no experience in team building or leadership but was put in that position anyway due to apparently being the most 'responsible' at the time; the kid who had the reading comprehension of a 12th grader; the kid who read both the fourth and fifth editions of the American Heritage Dictionary for a spelling bee; the kid who made it to the nationals for a science quiz bee; the kid whose diary assignment was kept by a teacher due to it being so incredibly written; the kid who was never missing in her school's speaking competitions and poster making contests.

By the time I finished 6th grade (the end of elementary education in the Philippines), I had collected over 30 medals from academics and extracurriculars combined. Not a very amazing number to be considered a prodigy, but at the time and maybe even now, some would kill to achieve that sort of personal record.

I was indeed a trophy child. Every competition I was in and every achievement I earned, my parents took pictures and posted them on Facebook. Every certificate I earned was put up on the social media network before they were even framed on the wall. It didn't matter if I was 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place--as long as I went places and my name was present at an event, my parents were proud. I earned praise and admiration from their friends and have even been compared or used as an example to their kids. I could see that my parents were incredibly proud of the child genius that I was.

And I took pride in that, of course. In the Philippines, before the age of toddlers watching Baby Shark and Frozen, when your child speaks an awful lot of English starting at a young age due to influences from cartoons and books, that child is bound to grow up into a genius. Parents are bound to have high expectations from their children considering the talent and gift they were blessed with. With the gift of advancement in literacy, what could go wrong?

Many things, apparently.

Up until 5th grade, I was the most admired student in the class in terms of academics. My English and Science grades were through the roof. My other grades were decent, definitely above average, but I will admit Math has never been my strongest suit. Never. In kindergarten, I cried because of 5-2. Numbers have always been complicated for me. I've never heard of anyone being super at both Math and English at the same time, but even if they were, one subject was always more superior tot hat person. So why only until 5th grade?

You see, my class got a pair of sisters for new classmates and one of them was gifted in Math. Like, extremely gifted. When she came to our school, my life changed forever.

Our school was the only one in the city that revolved around STEM. We were the 'cream of the crop', the best among the rest. We were always present and always topped every competition in our city division and I know I contributed to that reputation. But when it came to mathematics, I had nothing significant to pitch in. But this new girl did. She was the one you could rely on when it came to math. If I had earned the nickname of 'Walking Dictionary', she was the 'Walking Calculator'.

She surpassed me in terms of academics, naturally. And though it may have hurt my younger self's ego then, we actually ended up becoming very good friends, including her sister. Before the school made the decision to no longer consider extracurriculars in a student's grade and class raking, Miss Math Wizard here helped me make sure I didn't forget any curriculars I took part in so I could earn extra credit. That's how good of a friend she was. I no longer so her as competition.

The two of us took an entrance exam for one of the most prestigious STEM-aligned schools in the country. It was one of my dream high schools. My teachers always said I had potential to get in that school.

She made the cut, obviously, with her superiority in Math.

However, I didn't. My English and Science scores--two other core subjects--were just as good as hers.

But as I mentioned earlier, math is, was, and will never be my strong suit, and my score was not even half of hers. My pride was hurt. My ego was shattered. My world fell apart then and there, and for a whole month after that I mourned myself and I questioned my place in my school and then I started to question myself--am I really a bright bulb, or was I just fluent in something that couldn't be really deemed as a basis for intelligence?

This was in 6th grade. I started having this crisis when I was 11-12 years old. For the last 12 years of my life up until that point, I questioned all my achievements and my intelligence. Maybe my teachers saw potential in me growing up into one of the best and brightest students my school has ever had, just because I spoke English and was a fast reader with good comprehension skill. Was I really an intelligent child with a brain beaming with knowledge, or was I good at memorizing information from sources on subjects I studied on for quiz bees? Was I really smart, or was I just able to retain what seemed to me as the most interesting pieces of information that I learned and picked up from all the books I've read as a result of my passion for reading?

Then I learned what the word for it was--mediocre. I was mediocre. I was only acknowledged as one of the best because I was superior to others in a field I was gifted at. I had no form of competition at my age because there was no one that shared or competed with my level of skill. Most of them I would later find out to be my 'competition' at a later age, and I realized, maybe I grew up too fast. Maybe my 'intellect' peaked at a very early age where I could be seen as more advanced than the others because they hadn't achieved what I achieved for children of that age. The rate at which my brain functioned as a child was like an Olympic swimmer competing with 4-year-old beginners. And now that I was presented with a match of the same level but with a superiority in a field I was extremely weak at, that's when everything came crashing down for me. Because when you're used to being 'the best', defeat is usually more painful to accept.

What makes this situation worse for burnouts like me is the fact that I had an audience. I had teachers. I had parents. I had extended family. I had these people who witnessed all my successes and have never seen me at a low point, and for the first time in a long time which just had to be at a critical stage of my life and development, I had a downfall.

It was like a domino effect after that.

When I entered junior high school (7th grade to 10th grade), I encountered a teacher who called me pretentious for calling the aloe vera plant, 'aloe vera,' when one could simply just call it aloe. I had no intentions of being pretentious or trying to look like I was better than anyone in the room, at all. That contributed to the shame I carried. I had never been criticized like that before, because like I said, I was used to bring acknowledged as one of 'the best.' The only students who would get mildly to severely criticized like that were the students who were below average and on the brink of being on probation.

The first time I was ever pressured to do 'better' at something I thought I was good at was when I joined the school paper team as a feature writer. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, a teacher once kept my diary assignment among the entire class', because she loved my writing. I have not once gotten any form of criticism for my writing, so being advised to improve and make adjustments on something I thought was and should have been satisfactory enough came as a bit of a shock to me, but I was comforted by the way it was delivered.

Ever since I entered high school, I knew I had to get used to criticism. I know it's supposed to help me grow. But, I took advice as 'pressure' because the realization that my first, unpolished products were not good enough felt like a hit and run. As the years went by, I felt the bright bulb in my brain slowly losing its light. It was flickering more often than usual. So when I first learned the word, 'burnout', I had figured out a perfect example in no time--myself. It was like the fuel for my intellect had run out and completely vaporized and dissipated, and no matter how hard I tired, there was no way for it to condense back and precipitate on my brain to bring out the genius that my younger self was before.

It's a scary feeling. It eats you up. It make you question your worth and your ability and worse, your intellect. The more it gets to you, the more you start believing that maybe you really aren't good enough, maybe you were never really good in the first place. You were just good at something and no one could compete with it at the time, but now that everyone else is catching up, you've just faded into the background and you're not as relevant anymore. Remember when LMFAO came out with Party Rock Anthem and Sexy and I Know It? Yeah, what happened to them after that? That's what it's like. Being a one hit wonder. Eventually, I think I manifested being 'stupid' and 'dull' in the end, after questioning myself for so long and disregarding every achievement I've ever had.

I'm in my last year of senior high school (11th grade to 12th grade) and it's college and scholarship application season. You need decent grades from the past few years in order to qualify for scholarships. For the average person, these grades are to die for. Even if not all of them are above 90%. But to me, and probably in the eyes of my teachers who have definitely seen my academic performance degrade, these are half-assed grades.

These are the grades of someone who barely made minimum effort in the subjects with the half-assed grades because they know no amount of effort could have made a big difference in those grades anyway, and in the end, those grades don’t really reflect how much that student has learned. To some, it is some sort of proof that student is doing well, but for burnouts like me it’s just the luck and gift of surface knowledge gained from reading a limited selection of sources that were only interesting to them.

But now, I find that it doesn’t really bother me as much anymore. Sure, they’re crucial for my scholarships, but in terms of how much they mean to me? They don’t seem like a life and death thing for me. I don’t feel like I’m being held hostage and held up to a certain standard I’ve set for myself that others have expected of me, too. I don’t feel as pressured and suffocated anymore. Why is this so?

Despite not having the best grades in terms of academics, I do excel at my extracurriculars. They may not be credited in my grades, but so what? I’ve been to places as a student researcher and a journalist. I’ve met and worked with people and now my name is more familiar to them when I leave them with a good impression with my performance. In one academic school year, I’m out of school at most 5 times a year because I have a contest to attend to.

Meanwhile, I have classmates who are performing much better in class than I am, but are not the ones they throw in for competitions. I don’t mean to brag, because honestly, I see these classmates of mine as wasted potential. They could have gone as much places as I did, too, had they wanted to go to such events. They could have left a mark in the school for good reasons. But I respect their refusal or unwillingness to do so, it’s their choice. Do they find extracurriculars tiresome? Costly? Pointless? Who knows. But for me, curriculars are my way of making up to myself for my performance in class. One way or another, I’ve made myself not only my parents’ pride, but also the school’s, too. From pageants to contests in fields that they know I’m good at or have potential in, I appreciate how they acknowledge me still.

Things may not be the same for me as they were before. I may not have made my imprint on the school as one of their prodigies in terms of academics, but I feel if they were to talk about future students one day about a particular former student who was always carrying the name of the school and making them proud in every contest they went, I pray I’m that student. I pray they use me as an inspiration, a role model. I pray they remember me for the talent I had that still brought the school the same glory I brought to it when I used to be their child genius.

Sometimes, being a burnout isn’t so bad after all.