Rachel Allen

Here’s to Excellence: A Back to School Challenge

All righty, kids . . . it’s about that time. Whether you like it or not, it’s time to head back to school.

Oh, don’t act so surprised. You knew it was coming. This is much less shocking than Beyonce’s new haircut.

Maybe I’m making some unfair assumptions, actually. Maybe you’re ready to head back. I know I was at the end of every summer. Don’t get me wrong – sleeping until 1pm every day is awesome, but there was always a part of me that would get pretty bored during the summer. Those were B.N.E. days – “Before the Netflix Era,” you guys.

I liked seeing my friends every day at school, and loved all the extras – like sports, clubs, dances, etc. Plus, school itself always came pretty easy to me – although some classes definitely required more work than others (boo, chemistry). But let’s be serious: most of the time, I didn’t have to actually do all the work to get the grade.

Challenge Extended

I was hanging out with my best friend Claire at the beginning of a new semester, talking about getting back into the routine. She had been out to lunch recently with our friend Chris, and the two of them had been talking about virtue and what it means to be excellent (she’s a nun, now, and he’s a priest . . . go figure). They both wanted to not just do their best, in school and otherwise, but truly be their best.

They talked about how easy it was to skate by without doing all the work. It was certainly possible to make decent, even good grades without doing all the required reading. But if they wanted to really be excellent – to get the most out of their classes and really be their best selves – then that would mean doing all the work. Reading every single word that each teacher assigned. All semester.

Claire looked me right in the eye and said, “So, we made a pact to actually do all of our reading, and then we shook on it.” . . . and then she held her hand out to me to extend the challenge to me as well.

I remember cringing, and holding my hand out, then pulling it back, then holding it out again and shaking hers timidly. What had I just gotten in to?! Who had the time to do all that work? Who would actually want to do all that work when you didn’t have to?

But . . . I had shaken her hand. I was in.

Challenge Accepted

That semester was incredibly tough – it turns out, there’s a lot to learn in a semester. And it takes a lot of time to do all the reading, especially with all my other homework, and clubs, and my after-school job, and, oh right, a social life.

But I made a commitment to my friends, so I busted my butt. I did all the reading. Every single word. Not all on time, necessarily, but it did all get done.

Claire and Chris kept me accountable. We would check-in regularly to hear about what the others were learning and to complain about how rough it was. And when I was tempted to skip an assignment or skim through a chapter, I thought of them. I cursed myself for shaking Claire’s hand, and then I got on with it. They weren’t letting me down, so I didn’t want to let them down, either. Excellence or bust.

I’m not telling you this story because it was the best semester of my life, or because I managed to keep up that work ethic for the rest of my school years, or because I remember every word that I read. I’m telling you this story because that semester, I wanted to be my best – and I still do. I want to be virtuous. I want to be excellent. And I want you to be, too.

Imagine that I’m sitting across the table from you, right now, telling you this story about the time my best friend wanted the best out of me. She challenged me to be excellent, and then held out her hand.

Now, imagine that my hand is held out to you.

“Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Have a truly excellent semester.

Categories: AcademicsHigh SchoolMy Life


Rachel Allen

About the Author

I work for a retreat ministry called the REAP Team, where it's my full-time job to talk about sex, love, dating, and chastity (which can sometimes lead to some awesomely awkward moments). I love being Catholic, watching movies, and browsing antique malls. The only thing I have against winter is the fact that there's no baseball. Feel free to email me at [email protected] or follow me on Twitter @rachel_m_allen