This Thursday morning, the entire high school assembled in the gym for the end-of-year award ceremony. I admit to always having been that kid, all perky at the chance of being validated and trying not to show it. But this time, I had a small pit in my stomach at the thought of sitting there for hours clapping for people winning awards and scholarships, and I wasn’t exactly sure why. I think it had something to do with how fed-up I was with the competitive school culture and any sort of yardstick that valued one kind of accomplishment over another.

I ended up winning a couple things myself, and while my teachers’ comments were sweet and touching, I just felt bad about the number of bored and unfulfilled students there must have been in that gym. Just going through the top of my head, I could name a dozen seniors that didn’t go home with a plaque or a scholarship that day who had worked just as hard as I did in their respective interests and made just as much of a difference as I did. I could name a number of seniors who may not have stayed as busy as I did, but are probably better people than I am. Or, if we were all thrown on a desert island, someone would find shelter and someone would fend animals off and someone would cook, and I would be nearly useless. Don’t they deserve awards? Who determined what kind of behavior was supposed to earn public accolades? And why was there this horrible hierarchy of scholarships for different amounts? Who was the school to put one student above another, after the brutal college admissions process the senior class had just barely survived?

I had worn heeled sandals in an attempt to look more beautiful and feel more confident. To look my part, I guess. After receiving my cap, gown, and yearbook on top of the boxes and velvet cases for the awards, my arms were beyond full when I exited the school. I was trying to catch a bus, so even though my feet hurt, I walked at my usual brisk pace down the hill. My awards only felt heavy in my arms, which were straining and beginning to ache. They did not make me feel validated. Adding to the chaos, I had a bad headache, and was starting to breathe heavily. I lost balance on my sandals, twisted my ankle and winced as the side of my foot hit the pavement.

I imagine a world where all the scholarships are split equally between every member of the senior class, and we all receive an award for that one thing we are uniquely good at. We would all receive a couple hundred dollars each, enough for nice gifts for ourselves and our parents or a fancy dinner out. It would be a celebration of individuality, not a fight to see who was biggest, who was loudest. We would spend a morning giving a nod to real, valuable talents, like “best diffuser of conflict” or “best League of Legends player”, instead of hushed whispers and poisonous social media posts about who wanted what and who deserved what. That sounds much better than winning something I feel like I don’t deserve.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel blessed and grateful to have been recognized in the way that I was. But in that moment, as I twisted my ankle and almost let my last yearbook slip from my hands and tumble down the hill, the award didn’t feel much like winning. It felt like toxic competition and the impostor syndrome that had plagued me for years. Why me? Why me above others? What did I do? What kind of person am I expected to become? And even as I rail against this system, can I really face the hypocrisy involved in admitting how my heart skipped a beat when they called my name, how I smiled as I stepped up to the stage?

I liked myself less and less, and the scholarship was not helping. It had become completely devoid of meaning, and all it had done was make me question and attack myself more than usual, at the very end of my high school career. Many of my friends had come up to me that day with congratulations and ‘I knew it’s and ‘you deserve it’s, and all that echoed in my brain was ‘why?’, the thought circling like a vulture, waiting to pick off the remains of my self-esteem.

I was probably additionally frustrated that day from learning of certain social situations that made me disappointed in the things that some of my fellow classmates valued. I realized very few people went home satisfied that day. Not the perceived winners, not the perceived non-winners. No; our education system had been made into a game, and that day, it was a game nobody won. It was a game that made nobody feel like they were enough. It is my sincere hope for the class of 2019 that in the coming years, we learn the ropes of deriving fulfillment from the right things.