by Minh Bui
Dancing with fire, a seemingly nonsensical emotion, a real-life reenactment America’s Next Top Model, and a different side to the gifted kid burnout.
A year ago, I enrolled in my first ever screenwriting class at Northwestern. Wide-eyed, eager, and never once doubting my creative abilities, I began writing a short script titled I Can’t Set Myself On Fire. I got an A.
A year later, I am sitting with the terrifying realization that not only have I caught fire, but that I have also completely burned out. It’s not so much like lighting a match and getting engulfed in flames. No, not quite. It’s more like performing the most graceful dance around a raging fire, trying to do the impossible task of avoiding it, forever. It’s more like getting the hem of your dress caught on fire, then the soles of your feet, then a few strands of your hair, then the tips of your fingers... all the while so convinced of the beauty that comes with dancing that you allow your body to slowly, painfully burn to dust. Look at me, I’m perfect. Look at me, I’m doing fine. Look at me, no, I’m not hurt at all. Aren’t I pretty?
No one, perhaps with the exception of fire dancers, can dance around a raging flame and avoid getting burned forever. Today, I gathered my ashes when my world came crashing down following an unsatisfactory grade on a midterm exam. Having been a straight A’s student since first grade, getting accepted to a specialized class then a gifted high school, and now pursuing my undergraduate degree at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, I consider a B- simply unacceptable.
Rationally, I was able to reassure myself that such a grade was more than satisfactory—objectively, I should have been happy, if not celebrating. This theory was immediately confirmed by my boyfriend, who never wastes a moment obsessing over his GPA. I messaged him: “I just got a B on an exam.” His reply: “That’s great news!!”
In reality, though, I did not celebrate. The first feeling that emerged was that punch-in-the-gut sadness, but what truly horrified me was the emotion that followed: shame.
The recognition that I was more ashamed than sad was alarming, because unlike sadness, shame is an emotion supposedly felt in relation to others. Think about the last time you were ashamed – Did you make a nasty remark to someone you so desperately wish you could take back? Did your roommate catch you stealing their ice cream from the shared freezer? Did you walk around your apartment naked with the blinds wide open then realize the neighbor and their two cats were staring at you from their window? (One of these examples is more inspired by personal experiences than others.) So, then, if the score on my exam could be seen by no one other than myself, why was I so ashamed when I had no one to prove my competence to?
Walking to class, I racked my brain to find an explanation for the overwhelming sense of shame that almost prevented me from taking that walk altogether due to my fear of strangers somehow being able to peer into my thoughts and finding out that I did not do so well on an exam.
It did not take long before I found myself transported back to an afternoon in eighth grade. It was math class, and my teacher was about to return the geometry exam we did the week prior. Usually, I never struggled with geometry, but on that fateful day, despite all the furious hand-sweating and anxious nail-biting, I could not figure out the answer to the one single question that turned out to be worth half of that paper.
On exam result days, my math teacher used to always perform a ritual – she would stand at the front of the room with a stack of our papers in her hands, and the rest was almost exactly like the nerve-wracking weekly elimination segment on America’s Next Top Model. She would have our papers organized by score, from highest to lowest, top to bottom. All the exams with a score above 90% would be personally handed to the owner by my teacher, followed by cheers and a round of applause from the entire class. My teacher would then give the rest of the papers to a student to return to each person in the class, and the last person to get their hands on their exam was always the one with the lowest score. On America’s Next Top Model they would be the only contestant whose photo was not in Tyra Bank’s hands and who would be eliminated from the competition.
That day, with a score of 50%, I was the person who would have had to immediately pack up and leave ANTM. It stung being the last person in the class to receive my exam, but it hurt even more to see everyone’s utter shock upon finding out that my name was not called among the top scorers. For me, doing well was the norm—that’s why the one time I didn’t do well became somewhat of a sensational phenomenon. It was like finding a real-life unicorn, except the unicorn failed a geometry test. Amidst the gasps of disbelief, the applause never meant for me, and the compliments my teacher gave to more deserving people, what I felt was shame, creeping up from deep down in my guts, growing bigger until it threatened to swallow me whole.
Growing up in Vietnam, my academic performance was always a public matter, as was every other student’s. It was never rude to ask your friend how much they scored on an assignment. It was not uncommon for a student to be scolded in front of their classmates for unsatisfactory performance. Teachers would compile spreadsheets of students’ grades, in which each person would get one neat row for themselves—comparing yourself to others had never been easier. As the cherry on top, these spreadsheets would then be shared with all parents, giving them everything they needed to chew out their child for not doing as well as the kid on row # 37. For me, it was never just about the praise and recognition that came with success. It was also about making one attempt after another to avoid the public humiliation and social rejection that came with failure.
That sense of shame is something I have never been able to shake. Even now, in an environment where my academic performance can be as private as I want to make it, the shame I felt all those years ago continues to haunt me. It sparks the irrational fear that strangers might find out I got a bad grade; it makes me almost skip class because I am convinced my professor will use my paper as an example of what not to do; and it makes me want to immediately drop the course, which I am otherwise doing quite well in. I constantly feel as if there were eyes on me watching me perform this delicate, life-threatening dance around the fire, dissecting my every move, critiquing my every turn, never allowing me to be anything other than perfect.
So here’s how it works. Either you tell me you enjoyed this piece, or I will forever agonize over whether sharing it was a good idea. Either I realize that this is something I am naturally good at, or I will never write again. Either I get positive feedback, or the shame will eat away at my already burned out mind until all that is left of me is an unsalvageable pile of ash.
Minh Bui is originally from Hanoi, Vietnam and is currently based in Chicago. Apart from being a writer in her free time, she is a film student, cat foster parent, astronomy enthusiast, and pin collector. At her core, Minh is a lover of all things pretty. You can find more of her work, in both English and Vietnamese, here.