The story of how I changed from being a competitive person.
Featured image sourced from Daria Liud Naya of pexels.com.
Written 4 February 2022 (After much procrastination).
I was 15 when I was at the crosshairs of one of the most key debates in education, through one controversial company. Crimson Consulting, now Crimson Education, is a business which proposes university entrance into top universities in the United States and Europe, with offers to study remotely at prestigious schools. Its branding is based on Harvard’s crimson red and the idea of a ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, the phenomenon of a society who cuts down tall poppies, a symbol of those who stand out. This implies that the NZ education system is not suited to the needs of tall poppy students. The company has now faced accusations of unethical business, including findings of secretive litigation, and a business model based on deceptive contracts and encouraging cultural cringe. Facebook netizens have since compared to the business to a Theranos-esque scam.
I was once scouted for Crimson Education’s services. From the outset, I was the ideal candidate, I was a high achieving high-school student who frequented debating and Model UN circles. I was a confident and cocky speaker who had internal competition with similar peers, and I was subject to the tradition of tiger parenting, where prestige was sought through my achievements and university plans.
I am a different person now, but my outspokenness hasn’t changed. I present that Crimson Education represents what is tearing education apart: increasing unequal treatment of the public good of specialised education, quantifiable means of academic success through accolades and the encouragement of competitiveness and achievement through external validation.
Inspired by Severn Cullis Suzuki, I knew that I wanted to change the world somehow. I loved school and Humanities subjects even more. But to achieve my dream of being a humanitarian, I knew I had to be the best of the best for my dream, and more importantly, for my family’s love and acceptance for deviating their path. I adopted the mindset that I had to take every opportunity to get there, to get community prominence and to outdo anyone in my way.
Facebook was the LinkedIn of my time, where the UN Youth circuit was (and still is) the place for students for this mindset. Crimson students were frequently UN Youth participants. I sought public speaking opportunities and leadership experiences at these events. After a speech, I was approached by a Crimson representative who told me I had a ‘knack for leadership’ and that I could have a chance to do my university education abroad as a Crimson ambassador. I remember registering my details with her for an information evening, where a steep payment plan in thousand dollar increments was presented as an investment. In hindsight, my country role was identified by my school. From the outset, I looked very much the part of private school pearls. I went to Baradene College, a Catholic single-sex school which had a reputation for its affluence. I was not in this bracket. I bussed in from Glen Innes. G.I do or die. Where we witness fights in the underpass and recognise local locations in the background of ‘Police 10/7’ (The New Zealand version of ‘Cops’). The Crimson staff did not know this. I later found out that prospective clients are assessed based on income and their connection to the Asian community. I received nightly texts of an insistent tone from personal numbers of the staff, emphasising the loss and regret and the ordinary life I would have here if I were to turn this down. The only other time I had been spoken to in such a way was for multilevel marketing or an Infomercial.
A gut feeling was not ok with private conversations of shaming educational choices in New Zealand, and for portraying a university as an accolade to prove a student of ‘above’ their counterparts.
Adjacent to this, was the experience of a friend who was selected for a job as a tutor within Crimson. It became apparent that the other tutors were merely students fresh out of high school chosen for grades and not the effectiveness of their pedagogy. This resulted in inconsistent services; a far cry from a service presented as an academic serum to greatness.
Another part of Crimson’s services was coaching towards a favourable college application, suggesting UN Youth as a prestigious filler as opposed to for an interest in politics. This explained the high ratio of former Crimson students playing on their phones in the UN Youth circuit. This frustrated me, as I could only attend these events on scholarship. This meant these people had money to burn.
Through my struggles at school, I was close to the former Director of Student Support. Beyond the gold crafted jewellery, tailored clothes and coral manicure, was a lady who was well-versed in the cultures of her students, held anti-war views and read Audre Lorde in her lunch hour.
Ms. Marguerite* always instilled to me in her manner that you can be provocative for change and still be softspoken, that a revolution in a school comes from love and care, and that money shouldn’t be a barrier for someone using their education for good. She got me in touch with embassy staff and informed me about the US Embassy’s education expo, which gave information and preparation programmes all for free. I ended up attending and selecting this path over Crimson.
A family emergency and sudden financial hardship meant that I would stay in New Zealand. As I grieved what I thought was a lost opportunity, I saw a post from ‘Humans of Kabul’, which read, “being openminded is not limited to borders, you can shine and be a leader anywhere, but only if you want to.”
I then thought to myself, I’m not grieving the education, I’m grieving the opportunity to appear competitive, to be prominent amongst my peers and to have the acceptance and respect of my family. Crimson wasn’t selling a service, but a way to alleviate parent and student anxieties about one’s future, using competition to block out the fear. For some, Crimson has helped students achieve their dreams, but for many former Crimson students, I see them getting into it for the wrong reasons like me. I recognise a hyper competitiveness, yearning for accolades and a yielding to unhealthy parenting. Education wasn’t a public good, but a blade to cut perceived opponents. Learning wasn’t to change the world, but to be better over opponents. The world wouldn’t be improved upon but created for those who could pay for it.
Not everyone had a Ms. Marguerite to help through insecurity and to instil unconditional self-acceptance.
My dream is that we reach a level of education where regardless of education level, we respect others for who they are, for we see education as a tool for public good for teaching critical thinking and curiosity. Perhaps access to all this is becoming more unequal.
*Name has been changed for privacy.