The flight of the dreaded “B”

Everybody is afraid of bees. Some may be in denial, but when they picture a bee’s gaudy yellow and black striped coat, veiling over its immensely painful stinger stabbing its way into their tender flesh, a chill runs down their spine.

Yet, oddly, that same chill is felt when receiving its undesirable homonym, a “B”. No matter what grade level one finds themselves in– elementary, middle school, especially high school, and even college, the fear of receiving a “B” on their report card is a fear unrivaled by any other academic challenges.

While a certain amount of stress towards academics is normal and necessary to push students to be the best version of themselves, this stress has amplified over the years into a phobia of receiving what is, theoretically, above a passing grade, and only slightly below an “A” — what is seen as “perfection.”

Senior Aamna Khan and freshman Emelina “Emi” Pappalardo, despite being years apart, share a similar outlook on the anxiety of receiving a “B”. When asked if they were afraid to receive a “B”, they both responded with an overwhelming “yes!” 

“I’m scared of getting a B because of the stigma geared towards it,” freshman Pappalardo explains. “Just the fact that straight A’s is what people see as smart makes me want to get A’s.”

Though Khan often finds herself experiencing the same anxiety, she’s learned ways to cope with the stress that once used to consume her. “I used to be deathly afraid of getting B’s, but now if it’s a harder class, like math, I give myself some more leeway. But, getting B’s in general freaks me out – mainly because of my mom, and my own expectations of myself and how I need to be performing.”

As she briefly noted, parents play a large part in the way students perceive their own self worth. The way a developing child’s mind reacts to getting what is seen as less than perfect on a report card or assessment greatly impacts them, as they could feel the inability to fit into the mold their parents have set for them. 

A study conducted by the American Psychological Association consisting of over 2,000 children and adults showed that nearly 70% of parents do not believe that their own anxieties affect their children. Another study from the Caron Treatment Center in Florida, a non-profit rehabilitation center, revealed that most parents are unaware that their children view them as the highest source of anxiety, rather than friends or other students. Additionally, the study found that over 8 in 10 teenagers feel that their parents influence the way they, ultimately, choose to deal with pressure.

From beginning their high school journey to finishing it strongly their senior year, many have changed their views to become accepting of a ‘B’. However, the mental footprint parents and teachers leave on students to become nothing short of perfection is one that can last a lifetime- as in the case of Khan.

“I do let my grades define me a bit. I’ve held myself to really high expectations for a long time, and then after a while it gets to the point where, if you’re doing badly in a class, it freaks you out so much.” 

Khan still finds herself disagreeing with this perspective — though she recognizes the impact it has had, and will continue to have on her. 

“I wish I had a better mentality on grades, but I don’t think much is gonna change.” 

While personally receiving a less-than-perfect grade is nothing short of stressful for many, when another student is given such a grade, students often find themselves short-coming in exactly how to respond. Students often reply with pity or sorrow, as they’ve been conditioned to see it as a failure rather than an objectively good grade.

Khan answers that, personally, it all depends how she would react. “If I know it’s someone who really cares about grades then I’ll be super supportive. But, other than that, I don’t really care if other people get B’s.” Pappalardo also agreed that her initial response would be to show pity.

“It’s terrible, but that’s just how I’ve felt toward it my whole life, as awful as it is.”

Gaining students’ perspective on an issue that currently affects them is vital to understanding the problem. However, it is also important to seek out perspectives from those who have finished their schooling – that being, adults.

Stacie Hoover, a secretary at Canfield High School, and Frances DeFabio, a registered nurse at the Assumption Village, are both high school graduates currently raising children of their own in the public schooling system. While their views on grades differed when they were in high school, their opinions presently tend to fall similarly..

While attending high school, Hoover tended to put just as much pressure on herself as children nowadays do. 

“I always put so much pressure on myself when I was in school,” she begins, “I received one ‘B’ throughout my high school years and it felt like the end of the world at the time. It knocked me out of being valedictorian which was something I was working hard to achieve.”

Hoover reports that receiving a ‘B’ made her feel like a failure in high school. However, looking back from an older perspective, she realizes how ‘silly’ it was to feel such pressure about a grade.

“I wish I would have just been proud of the accomplishments I made and not let that one B define me.”

On the contrary, DeFabio shares that her high school environment was not as competitive, nor stressful, as it tends to be nowadays. “I was a ‘B’/’C’ student, so I was very happy to get B’s! B’s were considered very good when I was young,” she laughs. 

“The competition back then was not what it is today. There was less pressure put on children to get straight A’s when I grew up.” 

DeFabio also states that she never compared herself to others growing up, as students in her class did not openly talk about their grades.

Both Hoover and DeFabio have raised their children not to fret about receiving a ‘B’ on a test or a report card. Though they might’ve felt stress in their own ways growing up, it is not a feeling they wish to impose on the generations to come. When asked how they would respond to their child negatively reacting to earning a ‘B’ grade, both parents share words of encouragement.

Hoover details, “I tell my son that as long as he tries his best, that’s all that matters.. I remind him how proud I am of him and that a ‘B’ is still great.”

Similarly, DeFabio is “perfectly fine” with her children receiving ‘B’’s, even commenting that “they’re the ones who get upset if they ever get a ‘B’!”

While not all parents put an exuberant amount of pressure on students to receive a perfect 4.0 GPA, the same can be said for teachers. The stereotype that all teachers care about is that the letter a student receives on an assessment is nothing short of false. Though many teachers certainly do fall in line with this generalization, Canfield High School teacher Michael Ruark is not one of them. Ruark is an Honors and AP English teacher, who feels that grades are the less important factor in a child’s education.

My goal is to inspire students to learn and create on their own; to find a passion in education and harbor it for life…that is the true goal of education,” the English teacher details, “With this in mind, grades become secondary.”

Ruark believes that mastering a concept and being able to apply it into a real world context is more important than any grade will show. While he realizes the importance of how a grade reflects this mastery, he allows his students to retake and revise an assessment until they truly understand what he is teaching. If a student is dissatisfied with a ‘B’, he encourages them to take an honest look at how prepared they were for the exam.

“There is nothing wrong with a ‘B’. The times were different when I was in school, and a B was not frowned upon. I got all A’s and a few B’s in my weaker subjects and I was fine with it.” 

Ruark holds the opinion that the modern education system is the reason for such high anxiety surrounding grades. He believes that the standards for the average student have greatly increased, and that receiving high grades in all courses is much more difficult thanks to the likes of AP and CCP courses that are now offered.

“This question has many nuanced aspects that need to be dealt with such as grade inflation, student mastery, helicopter parents, etc…” 

Though he recognizes the concerningly large number of students who view a ‘B’ as a failing grade, Ruark reminds students that most students are fine with receiving the grade, and that it is those who are loud that do not represent the majority. 

“…the top 20% of our students see a ‘B’ as a death sentence, an additional 20% might stress a little about getting a ‘B’, and the other 60% of students would be just fine or even happy with a ‘B’.”

A ‘B’ does not have a stinger; one that can rip and tear into your flesh and suck the blood out of your system, leaving a nasty mark. What it can do is leave an emotional scar on the already stressed honors student; one, who might rather take the pain of a wasp than that of a somehow tarnished GPA.

Earning a ‘B’ is not the end of the world — in fact, many students, not often spoken about, try their hardest to earn them. A ‘B’ usually spans anywhere from an 80% to an 89%: which not only shows general mastery of the material, but also is only a point or two away from an ‘A’.

So, is it really worth the crying, the lack of sleep, the abysmal amount of coffee drank while studying, and the turmoil over one or two extra points? 

The pressure to be perfect in today’s society is nothing short of intense and hard-hitting. If there’s one thing we, as a collective, can do, it is to fight the little things. Start with baby steps. It’s no cure to world hunger, but what it can do is save even just one child from another panic attack or trip to the hospital.