View From South Campus: On Failure

I’ll be straight: from my perspective, this is
the time of year when things are beginning to look a little less rosy. We
finish our first semester in a last-dash blaze of passionate productivity, are
met with a month to reflect on what we’ve learned, and return to school with
renewed focus and a plan assured to guarantee maximum success returns (and all
of this is, of course, if we’re me). After all, we’re second-semester college students now; the training wheels aren’t
necessarily all the way off, but, having survived a few harrowing mistake-laden
months (and sometimes having gained a few sick battle scars to show for them), we return holding ourselves accountable to a higher standard than we did
before. Now that the rules have been explained and we’ve finally learned to
locate the library on a map, playtime is over. As students of highly
competitive, elite liberal arts colleges, we’re blessed with the tools to do
meaningful work, win acclaim, and blossom into the true movers and shakers of
the Free World we were always meant to be. Unfortunately, it’s not really
working out that way.

Attributing last semester’s spectacular a cappella failure (hereafter referred to solely as “Black Saturday”) to either a
temporary tone-deafness/insanity epidemic afflicting the heads of every group I
auditioned for or (more statistically
likely, I decided) my subconscious desire to distance myself from everything
and anything Wainwright (O, Odious
Name! Yet how I lean so heavily upon thee for Google hits [and how I have you
to thank for my relatively comfortable and pleasant childhood, but that’s
beside the point]), I tried out for the spring musical, the results of which
were, unsurprisingly, not in my favor. Thinking I had it on fairish decent
authority that I had a fairish decent way with words, I applied for Jonathan
Lethem’s creative writing class and was subsequently rejected.

I signed up for Beginning Social Dance
because it seemed like a popular way to fulfill one’s PE requirement, and I
made the rookie mistake of equating the vagueness of the course title (Social
Dance, as opposed to… dancing alone in a locked room?) with the easiness of
the course (perhaps significantly, I made similar miscalculations with “Interpreting Religious Worlds,” “Introduction to American Cultures,” and “Spanish”). I realize now that partner
dancing effectively incorporates all of those things that I am very bad at:
learning kinesthetically, comprehending and incorporating verbal instruction,
swaying rhythmically and, perhaps most telling, partnership. It’s February,
and I’ve reached that point where everybody else seems to be applying for
internships and swinging sweet research deals with professors, and the only
thing I’ve accomplished of late is gaining
status as that one girl nobody wants to dance with for fear of losing a toe.

I have to tell you—given the current hyper-competitive,
Protestant-work-ethic-y socioeconomic climate, abject failure (or what’s worse:
mediocrity) can really make a person feel low. This whole time, my tacit understanding
has been that high school was supposed to be the hard part—we were supposed
to shuffle through four years of classes and dutifully fulfill various
extracurricular requirements and come out of it with a complete picture of the
kinds of talents we had and knowledge of exactly what to do with them, and in college
we were supposed to hone our skills
and make our moms and pops back on the farm proud of us. Okay, the first time we
got really sunburned or blackout drunk or a less-than-stellar grade, maybe we
sort of realized that we were owed some transitional leeway, but we were supposed to
have gotten through all that part.

So how do we go forward? It’s not an easy
question to answer, given the crippling, all-consuming influence of the “I suck”
feeling that often arises from repeated misfortune of this kind. Personally, I
find a public, soul-baring exposé of one’s personal failures in list form works
as a pretty good pipeline to catharsis.

Right before the break, I took a trip to my old
elementary school in Los Angeles, which was a total head-trip, partially
because I realized that none of the kids that go there now were there when I
was there. Mostly, though, what got me was being back in those classrooms, and
how it reminded me of how many times I’ve beaten myself up over the years for not
having figured my stuff out. These feelings of discontentment are not unique to
second-semester first-years, or college students, for that matter. In elementary,
middle and high school, you tend to have this idea that college is the be-all and end-all, the point at which everything finally makes sense. That concept stems
from the Point-A-to-Point-B-With-Higher-Education-As-The-Final-Destination
attitude that permeates a lot of the official K-12 practices in this country,
as well as from the informal assertion of our slightly older peers who are so
quick to tell us that “college is so
much cooler and easier and more fun than high school,” forgetting to
remind us that we’re never going to
be perfect and there is no final
destination and that college is still school and it’s really about learning.

If we
try our hand at something we were really good at in the small pond and fail
miserably, it might just mean that it’s in our best interest to stop moping and
start thinking about how we can do it better the next time, but that, maybe,
our talents lie elsewhere anyway, and it’s never too late to start exploring
other options, because we really are so young and there’s just so much going on
and who cares if everybody else seems
to have a resume and a set track and a life plan? I’m not good at Social Dance,
but I’m glad that I took it, because otherwise I would never really have known
that I’m not good at it or thought about all of this and realized that it’s
okay and it doesn’t say anything fundamental about my character and I can try
other things. I seem to have some sort of disability that actually precludes me
from learning how to Cha-Cha, but, I mean, I learned something about myself,
and that’s equally important as the other thing (if not more so).

Unfortunately, it’s on the final, so I do
sort of have to find a way to at least minimize the damage I do to others on
the dance floor by May (sometimes with no-cut binding commitments all you can
really do is grin/bear it/try/try again). I will, realistically, probably be as
bad at dancing at the end of this semester as I was at the end of last (I’m
serious here, I really can’t do it),
but I will feel different—I already do. I feel (if I do say so myself) a
little more mature. Feelings of inadequacy will always be there in some form or
another, but recognizing that and learning not to give up all hope is a second-semester development. It’s first-semester naïveté, the setting of a magical
deadline at which point everything will be fixed and perfect. And that’s okay,
because we wouldn’t want that, and
this way, there’s always that strong possibility that things always will keep
getting better, right?

Right???

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