“I Failed” —Stuyvesant’s Toxic Fake Failure Culture

Stuyvesant students’ careless use of the word “fail” creates a toxic, competitive atmosphere.

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“I failed!” “I’m going to BMCC!” “I’m gonna die!” These phrases are staples of Stuyvesant jargon, often spoken by students upon receiving any letter in the grading alphabet other than A. While the NYC Department of Education defines failure as any grade below 59 percent, in a school brimming with overachievers, the hurdle of success is set at more ambitious heights.

The hyperbolic nature of Stuyvesant lingo makes the precise definition of failure unclear. For some students, “failing” is synonymous with 85 percent, while other more lenient interpretations place failure at the level defined by the DOE. Though perceptions of failure vary from student to student, the entirety of the Stuyvesant population is familiar with the phrase “I failed” in the context of fake failure (using the word “fail” to refer to grades ranging from the 60s to the 80s).

Sophomore Benjamin Soares said, “For me, anything below an 80 is what I’d be disappointed in for myself… I get kinda frustrated” by the feeling of disappointment that inevitably accompanies the failure to meet such high standards.

The rigor of Stuyvesant’s coursework and the intense competition have forced many students to revise their definitions of failure. Freshman Daniel Jang said, “When I first came to this school, I thought that a good grade was somewhere in the 90s, [a] so-so [grade was in] the 80s, and around the 70s was failure.” After three and a half months at Stuyvesant, Jang places failure at somewhere in the 60s and passing in the 80s.

One of Jang’s peers, freshman Francesca Nemati, proposed a definition of failure that eschews numerical standards and instead frames failure in the context of a student’s individual goals. “A 65 is technically failing,” she said. “But if your goal was to get above a 60, then you didn’t fail. But if your goal is to get above an 80 and you don’t reach that goal, then you failed [in reaching] your goal so you have to work harder to accomplish it.”

The casual sprinkling of the word “fail” in Stuyvesant’s restricting and competitive atmosphere degrades hard work by artificially inflating the boundary of success. Sophomore Kaylee Lin feels the careless use of the word affects her emotional state daily, and said, “It makes me feel like my grade is worse.” Feeling put down by the expectations of her peers, Lin said that she hears their laments “every day, every time I take a test.”

The misuse of the word “fail” both taints a student’s view of his or her own achievement and generates a muddled, warped perception of peers’ academic performances. Junior Cosmo Coen said, “Most times people aren’t serious” when they say they failed, though to many, the joke of failure isn’t funny at all.

Lin added, “I don’t know how bad it really is because everyone says they’re failing but they’re not.” For any Stuyvesant student, it is difficult to keep up with your classes when the majority of your peers have unrealistic standards for failure. Surrounded by peers who call themselves failures, the confidence of many students falters.

Stuyvesant teachers also seem to indirectly affect the elevated failing standard. “Sometimes teachers would even downgrade students by only congratulating those who get the top scores and expecting everyone else to be on the same level as them,” senior Sabrina Xiao said. Despite this perceived insensitivity, many teachers are well aware of the potency of the word “fail” at Stuy. “I hear these kinds of remarks fairly often in the course of walking the halls,” AP U.S. Government and Politics teacher Kerry Trainor said. But, he added that he rarely overhears students referring to grades above 65 as fails, an indication that the phrase “I failed” is not always used hyperbolically.

The definition of failure is not fixed, and numbers are incapable of defining the entirety of a person’s identity. As students struggle with the school’s competitive culture and intense academia, they must learn to take the pen from the all-dictating numbers and write the dictionaries that will define their academic identities themselves.