Every attempt we make at distilling someone’s life into a number is an exercise in shallow futility. Age is less important if you’re a healthy, good person. Your income says nothing about your happiness or contribution to society. The month for your horoscope is bullshit. But it’s the single number at the end of school I always found particularly cynical.
Even in the mid 2000s we were told our New South Wales UAI, now ATAR, was just a number. If that was true, why were we working so hard for it? The reality is, regardless of your circumstances, interests, even your academic performance, a higher ATAR will statistically make your life easier; and anyone who says otherwise is lying through their teeth.
This of course doesn’t mean your life is over if you get a low one, or even that you’ll be guaranteed of success with a high one. I got a great ATAR, and my subsequent years were self-destructive and painful. And I’m sure the newspapers and social media will be full of well-meaning but pithy comments about how Steve Jobs didn’t graduate university, and Jeff Bezos literally had to lick the road clean with his tongue. Something something shrubberies.
But people pray on that insecurity. There’s an entire industry of after school tuition centres, with smiling faces on billboards plastered around train stations from Epping to Chatswood. I saw this in the high-pressure school system in Singapore, and it’s disappointing and gravely concerning seeing them grow here. A family friend once told me that then-CityRail drivers were terrified of choosing the short straw for the North Shore Line around HSC time, for all the teenagers who’d jump in front of trains after getting their results and not wanting to confront their parents. The pressure from family and educators is real, because people care about ATARs.
Which leads me to this comment my friend Cindy on Twitter:
Don’t bash people who worked hard for good ATARS to console people who got shit ATARS. As someone who got a shit ATAR, trust me that approach just makes peeps feel shittier. If you got a shit ATAR, don’t let it define you. Rather use it to self reflect where from here
I say that because every year there’s always clapback and ridicule of high achieving atar students if they show themselves being proud of their ATAR which is like probs just a manifestation of tall poppy lbr
Australian society does place a high value on humbleness; it’s why blustery Silicon Valley sales copy gets howled at and ridiculed when companies copy it across wholesale. But it does manifest in destructive ways like this.
I was proud that I did well, because I studied my damned arse off while taking care of my terminally-ill mum the entire time. At one point I was in the oncology ward balancing a chemistry textbook while one of her chemo drips had an adverse reaction and she was swarmed by doctors. I was in the Sydney Morning Herald back in Australia for my marks in the IT subjects! I absolutely hated high school; so it felt like a triumphant middle finger to a painful chapter of my life.
But! I could absolutely empathise with people who didn’t do so well. My year 10 School Certificate marks were entirely pedestrian, and while my parents and teachers didn’t say they were disappointed, I felt like I let people down who believed in me. And the last thing I needed to hear was yeah, but those high achievers are only tryhards… remember that slight? It feels like it shouldn’t need saying, but robbing someone of agency doesn’t make one feel better, it just causes resentment.
There’s a pernicious culture around these marks that needs to be deconstructed, though every indication shows that won’t be happening any time soon. So in the interim, we need to be realistic about this stuff.