When the pursuit is the reward

I was not a straight-A student in high school. Maybe that’s why I can tell you this story. Society only seems to accept success stories from people who have failed first. Except, I never truly failed. I just didn’t try that hard to succeed.

Sarah Smiley and her son Ford.

Sarah Smiley and her son Ford.

I was not a straight-A student in high school. Maybe that’s why I can tell you this story. Society only seems to accept success stories from people who have failed first. Except, I never truly failed. I just didn’t try that hard to succeed.

I can’t say I improved much in college. This disappointed me, too. I finally got serious during my last three semesters, but my average—and sometimes below-average—performance all the years before haunted me. I always knew, I could have done much better.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to try again. I didn’t need to go to graduate school, because my profession doesn’t require it, and I had already been writing professionally for more than a decade, but like a runner trying to improve her time, I was compelled to prove something to myself. I entered graduate school at the University of Maine and taught classes to help with tuition. It wasn’t easy because I had three small kids at home, but every time I felt burned out, a familiar vision came to me: those straight-A students in high school going across the graduation stage wearing their special sashes and ropes.

I wanted to be them. I thought I should have been them. I knew I could have been them. But I never tried my hardest. I had walked the marathon instead of running it.

My goal throughout graduate school was to finish with a 4.0 grade point average. I often worked 12-hour days just to keep the dream alive. All along, I pictured myself at graduation with those important sashes and ropes.

And then I did it. I finished with a 4.0. If you are tempted to say I shouldn’t be telling people that, ask yourself why. Why can’t people be proud of something they worked so hard for?

I beamed as I went into the campus bookstore to pick up my graduation robe. A student behind the counter rang up my purchase. It was just an ordinary day for her, but for me, this was the finish line. I was about to run through the red ribbon. I was also about 17 years older than the cashier, so it was exceptionally awkward when I said in the hushed voice of someone who is dying to tell a secret, “This is kind of embarrassing, and I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I kind of finished with a 4.0, so I think maybe I get a sash and rope?”

The look on the student’s face made me instantly realize that no one her age says, “toot my own horn.” She stared at me for a few moments and then said, “Oh, they don’t do that for graduate students.”

In my mind, records screeched to a halt. Time froze. Car tires skidded. Windows shattered.


“I’m sorry,” she said, “but congratulations anyway.” And she handed me my receipt.

“But that’s the whole reason I did this,” I said.

The 20-year-old next in line gently edged past me and said, “Sorry, ma’am.”

I wanted the previous three years of my life back.

A few years later, I told someone that story and they said, “I bet you were invited to join the honor society. If you had accepted you would have gotten a sash and rope.”

In 2012, I was grading student papers up until one hour before graduation. So it’s entirely possible that I did not see said invitation, but it felt like maybe I had left the fair before my number was called in a raffle.

Then last month, three years after my graduation, the invitation came again. I would be inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society as an alumna.

I took Ford, 14, with me to the ceremony because I thought it would be good for him. Also, the other kids didn’t want to go. When my name was called, the president of the society did not mention my grades or academics as he had done for the undergraduate students. He mentioned everything I have accomplished, including my work as a teacher, since first graduating in 1999. I got my medal, and off I went.

Back at my seat, Ford asked me how I felt.

“Proud,” I said. “Except, I feel like maybe this wasn’t for my grades.”

And Ford said, “It wasn’t. It was for something better. It was for who you are and what you do.”

I was stunned—again, by a person much younger than myself.

As we were leaving the ceremony, someone offered me a sash and rope even though I will not be at graduation in May. “Thank you,” I said, “but I’m all set.”

Maybe Ford will wear a sash someday. Maybe he won’t. But that night, as I stood for a photo with my son, I realized that I had modeled for him something even more important: The act of pursuing a dream is sometimes sweeter than the reward itself.


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