As first semester draws to a close this week, the usual stress associated with finals seems to seep into countless conversations and thoughts. Water … bubbles … chemistry … final. Library … books … English … essays.

Except, this year, my perspective has changed. I don't think this is because of the infamous "senior slide," a mindset of "it just doesn't matter anymore." Nor do I think it is related to any particular maturation of the mind. When I compare this year to the preceding three years, the most glaring difference is my willingness to fail.

I remember writing an introduction letter to my freshman English teacher, in which we stated our goals for that year, high school, and life. I remember, among dreams of making the varsity soccer team and trying new things, hoping for a 4.0 my ninth grade year (and, timidly, maybe for the rest of high school). At that point, I knew I wanted to push myself to be the best I could be and a 4.0 seemed to be a measurable way of going about it.

Although, as of the day I am writing this column, I still have a 4.0, I would no longer list that as one of my top aspirations.

Toward the top of my goal list today would still be to try new things, and I feel more honest putting it there now than I did as a ninth grader. Now, I recognize that trying new things means taking risks, which might affect some numbers or other people's perceptions of me. Then, I thought sticking a quick toe outside the line, poised at the ready to yank it back in at the slightest hint of failure classified me as pretty wild.

I don't think any single moment of letdown or struggle led me to this reorganization of my priorities. Instead, it has been experiencing the detriments of perfectionism both within myself and among my peers. Tears have been shed, fun events have been passed up, and exhaustion has set in.

I notice these things now, but in my early years of high school, they just seemed the norm.

From ninth grade to 10th grade, the definition I had for "my best" went from a necessity of 100 percent on everything to an A is OK (as long as all available sacrifices are made). From 10th to 11th grade, it changed further, with the focus largely on the letter grade but also hovering around having lasting interest in the material. I found success, but I don't think I made the most of all the opportunities that came my way.

This year, curiosity in the material I am studying and the well-being of myself tend to be most prominent in my perspective of school, but not always. I still cringe when my percentage in a class drops down toward the threshold between an A and a B. But now I also recognize that the only standards that will stand the test of time are those I set for myself, and those can be adjusted as needed.

With college and more life around the corner, I know failure is inevitable. Finals and GPA can seem like matters of life and death now, but what happens when I am truly introduced with such matters? Could I handle them? I hope embracing the smaller failures now will help equip me for whatever else is out there.

Katherine Dougherty is a senior at Century High School. To respond to an opinion column, send an email to

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