24: My Personal Best

24: My Personal Best

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

My Personal Best

Success means doing the best we can with what we have. Success is the doing, not the getting; in the trying, not the triumph. Success is a personal standard, reaching for the highest that is in us, becoming all that we can be.

~Zig Ziglar

“You’re going to make a C?” my mother questioned. It was that I’m-not-happy voice I knew too well. I shrank back as she continued. “Perhaps you have forgotten, but Cs are not acceptable in this household, and you won’t be salutatorian with a C on your report card.”

Oh, I had not forgotten. I knew what was expected of me. From first grade to high school, I had never made a C. In fact, fear of disappointing my mother was so strong that only a handful of Bs had ever crept into the mix of A and A+ grades that I brought home on my report card. But I had hit an impasse in high school—geometry. No matter how much I studied, I just didn’t get it! I truly did not “see” how all the parts of those little triangles and trapezoids fit together. Friends in my advanced track classes tried to help me. I spent hours on the phone every night, going over problems with other honor students. And then the test would come and I’d make another C.

Until the year I took geometry, I was in the running to be salutatorian. It was a family tradition—sort of. My mother had been pre-determined as her class salutatorian. Then, because of a bout with pneumonia and several weeks of missed classes, her grades fell. It had always been quite clear that I was to step in and fulfill that missed dream for her.

I did try to please her—not just with my grades, but in my total high school persona. I was a class officer, inductee of National Honor Society, German Club Vice President, Choir officer, and I got the lead in the school musical. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t salutatorian.

After the conversation about the C in geometry, I buckled down and studied like I had never studied before. I went to my teacher before and after school for help. I worked extra problems, memorizing the steps. The last hope to raise my grade was the final exam. I would have to make an A in order to raise my overall average to a B. It was a long shot, but it was all I had left.

I’ll never forget taking that final exam. My hands were so sweaty that I had to keep wiping my pencil on the hem of my shirt. I worked and reworked every problem. I stayed after class to check and recheck my work. When I finally turned in my paper, I was convinced that it was the best I could do.

After school, I rushed to my geometry teacher’s room. Had she graded my test? She had. I made a B — a good, strong, solid B. While I should have been elated, I was heartsick. The B on the exam was not high enough to change my average. I would make a C in geometry on my report card and that was that.

I hurried home and shut myself in my room. I couldn’t bear to face my mother. With the impending C on my report card, I would lose the salutatorian spot. I was devastated because I knew it would disappoint her so much.

I aimlessly looked around my room. On the walls hung my medals from All-State choir competitions, photos from National Honor Society events, and all sorts of honor certificates from various academic organizations. Was I really a failure just because I wouldn’t be salutatorian? I called my school and asked to speak to the counselor. Explaining it all amidst tears, I asked what I had done to my scholarship chances with the making of the C and my impending drop from the salutatorian position. A little quick figuring produced my “standing.” I would move from #2 grade ranking to #6 of 650 students, still in the top 1% of my class. I would still receive a scholarship. The top colleges in the country would still want me. I stopped crying.

The school counselor paused and then went on. “Let me ask you something,” she said. “Did you study as hard as you could in geometry? Did you give it your best effort?”

“Yes,” I replied quietly. “I gave it my all.”

“And was that final exam you just took a representation of your best work in geometry?”

“Yes.”

“Then you should be proud.”

“But I made a C in geometry,” I sputtered. “That’s nothing to be proud of.”

“Of course it is. It’s your best. And it represents your character. You spent hours studying when you could have been out with friends. You tackled your worst nightmare and brought it to bay. You were fearless and dedicated. You were steadfast and tireless, fighting until the end when you signed your name on that final exam and turned it in. This is a victory, my dear. This is a personal best. Be proud of yourself.”

I’m not an athlete, so the term “personal best” caught me a bit off guard at first. But I have learned that it means surpassing my last effort. It represents pushing myself to be further along than where I was the last time that I met this challenge. And that’s what winning is all about, the striving to be better. It’s reaching MY personal best, not my mother’s.

And what are my dreams? Just what do I expect from myself? That one’s easy now—my personal best—every time.

~Elaine Ernst Schneider

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