She must have seen my body trembling, my hands sliding off my laptop’s keyboard when she rescued me from making a fool out of myself. The forty-eight-hour freak show was finally settling into its bitter end. I had gone two nights without sleeping since my health condition made it impossible to sleep comfortably. I already had a long record of absences and I did not want to add to the number. So, I decided to crawl through the rest of the day for the sake of attendance and hopefully redeem myself.

My instructor was quick to have me gather my belongings, escort me out the door, only to turn to me and say, “take better care of yourself… okay?” Her advice was purely direct. Holding back my tears, I refrained from speaking and we exchanged nods. I returned to my dorm to sleep as guilt had swallowed me whole.

Drop from A to B.

I was making every possible attempt yet I could hear the voices of peers, mentors, and instructors judging me for not living up to what a valedictorian from my border town should be. I should be an overcomer. I should think about the day my grandparents became U.S. citizens and push harder. I should remember my dad graduating with his bachelor’s degree when I was in second grade and push harder.

For many of us, we see our grades as personal judgements, either validations of success or indications of failure. Grades measure us from a black and white perspective but the given circumstances of our lives are quite gray. We recognize our roles as spokespersons for our cities, school districts, parents, values and cultures and thus search frantically for symbols of prosperity. A letter grade seems to be the most recognized and respected evaluative symbol each student can grasp and adopt in showcasing their finest attributes. Unfortunately, such symbols are viewed in isolation, giving rise to the same shadows I felt haunting me. These were the shadows of past triumphant moments, days of being able to eat food without fearing how my stomach might react to it, and the list of goals I had intended to accomplish this year being left relatively untouched. Two years of dealing with an unpredictable stomach meant frequent interruptions were always guaranteed. Even when the most generous of extra credit opportunities appeared, I never found the time to complete them effectively. Playing a constant game of catch up made any additional tasks seem as self-torture. My many absences, my days spent at the side of a toilet, had finally claimed their victory.

I called my parents sobbing, after a meeting with my Advising Dean ended with a recommendation that I consider taking a health leave of absence. He feared I would return to Cornell in the Spring to fail worse than before. He believed that the next time I found myself in his office, it could be to finalize any documents for a required leave of absence. I felt convicted for not cracking the code on balancing an untreated health condition while getting acclimated to college. As a result, I became a student under hours. I merely survived my finals. This meant late essays once more. This meant not reaching the minimum requirements of a final research paper for the instructor who had spared me of embarrassment just a month ago.

Drop B to C.

Once the whirlwind had vanished, I checked my emails feverishly to be sure I had completed everything required of me. To my surprise, I found a message I had overlooked from the same professor in response to my final paper submission. “Don’t let this worry you,” she wrote. “Sometimes grades and other formal systems of evaluation fall short of actually evaluating students holistically. You are much more talented, capable, conscientious than your grades this semester will reflect.”

I thought to myself afterwards, if the people in charge of evaluating my abilities don’t choose to value me in isolation, why should I? And why should we?