We all sat around in my living room, friends in the fight against those nursing school teachers who seemed hell-bent on making our lives miserable. There were about ten of us crammed into my small living room for this Saturday study group, and I was the de facto leader. I didn’t need to be there. I didn’t need much more than to glance through the notes to get good grades, but I wanted to help these on-the-bubble students pass. I taught what I knew. Everyone wanted to study with me because, well, test scores speak for themselves in nursing school.

Yes, I was one of those, and I always have been. Give me a book, and I can ace a test. It isn’t really genius. It’s just that I know how to take a test. Of course, I was immensely proud of my 4.0. I didn’t lord it over people, but I did feel rather smug I guess, rather superior. I felt this meant the nursing world was my oyster. I was cocky that I would breeze through orientation, but I certainly didn’t feel I knew it all. I also didn’t put my fellow students down. In fact, I enjoyed helping them, fighting the good fight to get them to pass.

One day, my teacher said something that made the bottom drop out of my stomach: “The best nurses are usually those in the middle of the pack. Those who score high tend to not do so well.”

Was she talking to me? She said it to the class, but was she talking to me?

Maybe I was paranoid, but it turns out that there was a kernel of truth in what she said.

When I interviewed out of nursing school, no one cared that I graduated at the top of my class, although I told them repeatedly. They were more interested in how I would handle a crisis and what sort of person I was and whether or not I would fit in with this culture. Despite my obvious hubris, I am actually someone who can work well with others, can care for patients, and can be a part of the team. The only thing is that my work in school didn’t matter a damn to them.

What really opened my eyes was orientation. I was lost. Everything I had learned was so much chaff. It came into play from time to time, but it really and truly did not matter.

I remember the first time I had four patients. It was a juggling act. The fact that I knew all the bones of the hand by heart was completely irrelevant. I needed to look at vital signs and know what they meant. I needed to know when to pass meds and when to chart. Most importantly, I needed to know when I didn’t know something, and I needed to ask for help.

Fortunately, questions have never been a problem for me, and I was able to become a safe nurse because of that. This 4.0 student spent more time with her preceptor or charge nurse than she did with her patients in the first year of nursing.

And still, all that book learning I had was merely peripheral. Sometimes, it came into play. I would know obscure things about electrolyte imbalances, for instance. I was also considered one of the go-to nurses with problems in my later years.

But my knowledge is not what makes me a good nurse.

I found that my personal sense of patient safety was the most important. My ability to handle more and more stress became the calling card of my practice. My life was about looking at a situation and making a decision. Do I call a doctor about this, or do I have the means to fix it myself? Do I delegate this responsibility, or do I do it myself? Should I ask for help, or do I know enough?

My mentors—my preceptor, my manager, the various charge nurses, and the more experienced nurses—made me into a nurse. It wasn’t that huge book I lugged around for so many years. It takes a village to raise a nurse. Not a textbook.

These are skills that are not measured by GPA. These are skills that I have but don’t come as easily to me as multiple-choice questions. The point is that if you are a 2.5 student, don’t worry. Your ability to pass tests and get good grades has nothing to do with real world nursing. Trust me. I’ve been there. I am a good nurse. I worked hard to become one, but it didn’t have anything to do with what I did in school. It was about a fabulous preceptor, a supportive group of experienced nurses, and hard work on my part.

Not graduating at the top of your class? You may just be the best nurse yet. If you are someone who can manage your time well, you will make a good nurse. If you are someone who can stare down a stressful situation and make decisions, you will be a good nurse.

Most importantly, if you can and will ask questions when you don’t know the answers—and accept that you know very few of the answers—you will be well on your way to becoming a fantastic nurse. If you just eked by in nursing school, don’t let it bother you. Take it from someone who has been there: It doesn’t matter at all.

Lynda Lampert

Lynda Lampert, RN, has worked medical-surgical, telemetry, and intensive care units in her career. She has been freelancing for five years and lives in western Pennsylvania with her family and pets.

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