The Rewards of Rigor

Every Menlo student has gotten the brunt of Menlo's rigorous nature. We've been pushed to take "more rigorous classes," and pushed by our fellow students in our own classes, which sometimes in turn makes us feel stupid. Investigative Lead Zoey Lieberman explains how dealing with Menlo's rigor has helped her blossom.

Photo by Marc Allard

By Zoey Lieberman 

At the top of Menlo’s value statement planted firmly on the wall of every classroom in both the middle and high school is this principle: the pursuit of high standards of academic excellence. While this is one of the myriad principals that Menlo holds in high esteem, I think there is significance to this phrase in particular. I guess the placement make sense, right? In order to fit the mold of a college prep school, academic rigor is essential--a paramount component of the school’s value statement for those who are fulfilled by college acceptance from top tier universities.
However, in the context of the real world, (aka outside of the Menlo bubble), “high standards of academic excellence” is a polarizing concept. On one extreme lies those Ivy-league and non-Ivy-only-Northwestern-or-WashU obsessed students who dogmatically believe that taking nine AP courses and 12 honors classes somehow leads to success. On the other extreme are either the chronic senioritis students (regardless of what grade they’re in) or the students who seek a fulfilling educational journey without living with their head trapped in a textbook all day.

Although I see myself as the latter type of student with a slight twinge of early senioritis, my conclusions on academic rigor have evolved to resist the polarizing effects of this concept. And evolved is a key word. Take my experience in freshman physics as the birthplace of my emotional evolution: to say I dreaded physics everyday was an understatement. How I was doing in the class ultimately was an irrelevant factor in my overwhelming hatred for the class. The thing that really got me was how I was feeling in physics. My confidence grew inversely to that of the majority of my classmates. As they nailed the discussions, crushed the labs, and killed the tests, my status as a student became defined by an overwhelming sense of stupidity and shame. I felt absolutely, 100% worthless.

I wish I could say that that was a lowpoint in my time at Menlo. But in all honesty, I think I have felt stupid in 50% of my Upper School classes. This, of course, is to no fault of Menlo’s teachers, who work tirelessly to prevent worthlessness from eating away at the souls of the students they teach. If I were to self diagnose my confidence deficiency, I think it would ultimately come down to one factor: academic rigor. I am simply not wired for the pace of class, the amount of homework, and the frequency of major assignments that permeate Menlo’s curriculum. But some people are. And because I am constantly surrounded by those who can keep up with the pace, handle the homework, and prevail despite the prevalence of tests and essays, my confidence has become temporarily diminished.

But temporary is another key word. They say that age and wisdom are directly related. As a senior, I can proudly say that my confidence is on the mend, because in retrospect, I think this academic intensity has been weirdly beneficial for me as a student. In middle school, I had this false perception that I was the smartest kid in class, believing wholeheartedly that I was on an academic trajectory to the Student Hall of Fame. But in 9th grade, school got real for me. My entire class could have been inducted into the Student Hall of Fame their first day of kindergarten. Menlo’s curriculum, coupled with the brainpower of my classmates, jolted me out of this perception of unbreakable intelligence. I will never be the smartest kid at Menlo. Ever. And I finally accept this reality, because the lessons that I’ve learned through my internal struggle in class have been far more valuable than any grade has ever been. I’ve realized that there is never a stupid question, and those who think that such a thing exists are stupid themselves. I’ve recognized that intellectual grit is the most effective counterattack to a turbocharged class. And I’ve learned to appreciate the gifts that I bring to the table, regardless if they’re obvious or not. 

To whoever is the smartest kid at Menlo: this status is temporary. Samsung captures it best — there will always be the Next Big Thing. To those who think they are the smartest kid at Menlo: I admire your confidence, but please listen to Samsung more often. To those who accept they aren’t the smartest kid at Menlo: I admire you. Next time around, appreciate what you bring to the table. Because I know you bring a lot.

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