Classmates are Friends, Not Competition

Camryn Chehreh, Staff Writer

I was in the third grade when I first realized that what class I was in mattered. This teacher taught only the smartest students, this teacher taught kids barely getting by; my peers and I would begin to whisper about it at this time, and began deciphering the code that put us into these groupings. We referred to them as the “smart” classes, the “average” classes, and the “not smart” classes. From this point on, this ranking of classes made a huge impact on our education and school lives. The stress of making it into a higher-level class burdened most students. 

My fifth-grade teacher told me I would never qualify for an advanced math class- my solution was to prove her wrong. At only 11, I felt the pressure from my peers that my current class was not enough, even though I was doing fine where I was. By middle school, these class groups were given names; we had narwhals and the unicorns, and the gargoyles and so on. I was in the narwhal group, which was considered to be one of the higher-level classes. Different classes would compete to find out who was truly the smartest group, putting their resident “smartest” kids out like chips in a poker game. We traveled in packs. The group you were in was the group you traveled in for all of your core classes. People tended to associate with people in their group only, and it was made very clear who was considered superior. 

By the time I was in eighth grade, these groups had been disbanded for the majority. Parents of students in the classes considered “lower-level” went to the school’s administration to complain about the nature of the school with these segregated classes. Some teachers expressed their dismay with the decision to disband this ranking system, and at the time I was upset too. Being in a highly competitive and praised class had become a part of my personality, and I depended on this aspect of my education to make me push harder. In our newly mixed classes, formerly smart group kids would point out the kids they thought shouldn’t be in their class. The same kids used as smart group mascots continued to be pointed out as the sign of a higher-level class. 

It wasn’t until I reached high school that the true impact of separated classes was. I became very competitive and proudly showed off my high grades. I would get upset with myself if another classmate scored better than me on a test. I felt defensive when asked why I wasn’t in more honors or AP classes. But most importantly, I found out that a lot of my peers were afraid to talk to me because I stayed with the kids in my class group. Their bad experiences with my class group became their bad experiences with me. I was labeled as mean and cliquey by people I had barely spoken to. I had to wonder- were they right?  I spent a lot of time trying to scrub these labels from my name and subsequently trying to leave my time in those classes behind. I had to learn to be myself and not the image of my former group.

I realized during this time that I had assimilated myself to the people in my classes; I didn’t really know who I was on my own. I got lucky freshman year- I found a few people who I had always known casually, but never really got to know. Then the eventual pandemic and evident isolation that came with it forced me to reevaluate not only myself and my relationships but my learning environment. It was during this time that I saw the flaw in these programs that clung to me like glue: dependency. I depended on validation from my teachers and peers and thrived on the ability to show off my intelligence. Students in my classes reflected these behaviors as well. Most importantly, I depended on the competition. My peers were my greatest threat, and the goal was always to be better, score higher, be greater than great. This idea was subtly pushed through the separated classes.

These issues only begin to scratch the surface of problems students face in these programs. Students mirror the behavior they are told they should exhibit; a student told that they are only at a certain level may stay at that level because that is what’s being pushed on them. Students encouraged to aim higher will do just that, so why aren’t all students being pushed to that level? 

To this day, I’m still learning the impact of these classes on not just my peers, but on others. I’ve come across countless comment sections tearing education systems like this one apart. I’ve discovered a whole world of “gifted kid burnout”, a result of the pressure and environment of “smart” versus “not smart” classes. Kids are terrified of being labeled “average” but exhausted from the lifestyle and workload of a “gifted” student. Even my own classmates have talked to me about the impact of these classes on their mental health. Students in “lower” level classes knew that specific classes were considered superior, and felt like their self-esteem was impacted by this ranking system. 

Looking back, I wish I would’ve known what I do now. I am only competing with myself, and grades do not define me as a person. Students are so much more than a test score or a grade or a class ranking. People are complicated and have many aspects to them; students are no different. I also wish I would have stayed in standard-level math classes because I hate math. The idea that students need to compete with their classmates and be at the highest level of every class has to end if we want students to truly flourish and succeed. Students deserve the opportunity to take the classes that are best for them, not the classes they feel they should take to keep up. My peers are my friends, not my competition.