Why Grades Don't Matter So Much

I was recently visiting my mom in my childhood home when I decided to sneak into the basement and riffle through some old boxes. I discovered precious childhood treasures inside dusty cardboard boxes, reveling in the nostalgia brought back by old photos, keepsakes, and report cards.

I decided to read some of the old report cards, remembering my anxious days of studying, trying to make sense of jumbled words and confusing numbers. I’ve always been open about my struggle with school, particularly the primary grades, but holding these ancient-seeming papers in my hands hit me with a fresh wave of sentimentality. I remembered that shy, introverted, and nervous kid - the same one who remains inside of adult me.

As I worked my way through my report cards I was shocked by the shift in my academics. It seemed like something suddenly clicked and by the eighth grade I was earning mostly As. I worked my way through my high school years, reading the glowing reports from teachers in my early years of high school. But something struck me as surprising. I consistently earned poor grades in English, especially as I advanced into my senior years of high school.

My teachers wrote that I struggled with basic writing conventions, and I was encouraged to continue working on understanding basic essay structures and clearly expressing my ideas. I felt fresh tears for all those past years of hurt and frustration. I had wanted to become a writer ever since I was a small child, writing precious poetry and sweet prose in carefully bound notebooks.

In high school, I worked hard to prove myself as a writer, and consistently came up short. Based on the feedback given by my teachers, I wasn’t capable of pursuing my creative dreams. I eventually decided that I’d keep my writing where it belonged, stuffed under my bed in notebooks that only I would read.

When it was time to apply for university, I decided to study social sciences, despite not having a firm grasp on what that actually meant. My mom was devastated, and encouraged me to enrol in some English courses. “You’re such a good writer,” she implored. She was desperate to see me pursue what I loved, and as she was my mother, she knew exactly what it was that I loved to do.

Instead, I refused to enrol in English classes. I was afraid of failure, despite the pull I felt to writing and reading. I had consistently felt like a failure in my English classes. My desperation to excel hadn’t proven anything.

I remember my tenth grade teacher telling me that I just didn’t have what it takes to study English and writing, and that I should drop to a lower level the following year. I ended up majoring in Religion and Communications at McMaster, earning mostly B’, but never really feeling excited about the subjects I studied.

I never did take an English class, but I walked past the English building every chance I could.

A few years after graduating university, I was a stay-at-home parent to two young kids, filling the quiet moments of my day by blogging about motherhood. It felt freeing, getting back into writing, telling my story, and receiving positive feedback. I can’t remember what it was that drew me into the blogging world, or how I felt the courage to write publicly, but it was the beginning of a new life for me. Time had made my past feelings of failure grow distant, and I was ready and willing to embrace a new way.

Despite writing on my blog for a few years, I never really felt like I deserved to call myself a writer. I wasn’t earning an income, and I still felt like I’d never be good enough to really write (whatever that meant.) I decided to try publishing my writing outside of my blog, as a means to prove myself. I submitted a story about being a young mom to The Globe & Mail with very low expectations. Within a few days I received an email, the editor was accepting my essay for publication. It felt like the floor dropped from beneath me. This wasn’t supposed to be my fate, I was a terrible writer, my teachers had told me so.

It’s been four years since my first essay acceptance, and I’ve had hundreds of essays and reported articles published in nearly thirty print and digital publications. I don’t have a degree in journalism, or a background in writing beyond my freelance work. I chose to believe in myself and my skill, despite years of negative feedback nearly crushing my spirit.

Years of so-called academic failure, in a subject I loved, nearly tore my future of writing away from me. My teachers didn’t know how passionate I was about writing and reading, perhaps because, at the time I didn’t communicate, that well to them. I felt powerless as a student, afraid of failure, nervous and unsure of who I was. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my grades would not define me.

I am a journalist and an essayist, because it’s what I love. I trusted myself to define what I was capable of, and then I made my dreams come true.


Brianna Bell is a writer and journalist based out of Guelph, Ontario. She has written for many online and print publications, including Scary Mommy, The Penny Hoarder, and The Globe & Mail. 

Brianna's budget-savvy ways has attracted media attention, and led to newspaper coverage in The Globe & Mail and The Guelph Mercury. In April 2016 Brianna will be featured in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less, alongside co-writer Brooke Burke. You can find Brianna's website at Brianna Bell Writes.