By: Revanche

On failure, academics, and real life

March 27, 2017

It's best to learn how to fail, and get up, early on in life I was an Honors and AP student in high school. I passed enough AP credits to skip half my freshman year of college, at $75 a pop, and it might have been more except my college only took several credits. On the old style SATs, I scored something like 1450. 1540? 1450? I can’t remember now but back then, academics were kind of Important.

My great shame that I’d hidden forevermore, until today, was that I failed at something. It wasn’t just a little thing, like a midterm or a final, either. Though in retrospect, calling a midterm or final something little says quite a lot about how far I’ve come since those testing days.

I did so poorly in my Honors math class sophomore year, failing week after week to grasp the materials at the pace that others were absorbing it, that I dropped out of the Honors track for math. Correction: I was dropped. That wasn’t my choice, though it would have been the wisest thing I did had I made the choice.

Miraculously, the world never stopped turning. This was in part because I hid it from my parents. This is the biggest secret I’d kept from them up until after college when I hid the extent of my illness from them – I hid my report cards and let them think that everything was fine at school. This worked because they trusted me, my sibling was a far greater worry to them so they assumed they could continue to trust me, and I didn’t flip out and overcompensate.

I failed. That royally sucked. It was humiliating to slink back into a lower track math class. And if you believe all the teen-pop movies, that’s the worst thing in the world. It felt like it, anyway.

Then I remembered that I had friends in those classes too and no one thought less of them. Absolutely no one cared if I wasn’t competing with them for the number one slot at the top of our graduating class.

This is where lack of constant parental pressure was key – I don’t know how I’d have reacted if my parents were pressuring me and judging me for not excelling. There have been times when I wished that they had, but by and large I’m almost certain that the fact they didn’t only helped me grow my own intrinsic motivation.

The lesson I took away at first was that there was safety in mediocrity. And that wasn’t completely wrong. But the important lessons were: there are always people smarter than you, working harder isn’t always the answer, and most failure won’t kill you unless you let it.

I could have started drinking and doing drugs to mask the pain. Apparently the latter was readily available at our school though I learned much too late for it to do any good! Some overachievers of my acquaintance took failure that badly, flunking out and quitting college entirely because they had no idea how to deal with failure. Instead, I dusted myself off and got back to work. I didn’t have to mask the pain, I could let go of it.

No one said a thing. It probably helped that they all knew I’d make mincemeat of them if they mocked me but I’m sure it had a lot more to do with people being people: people pay far less attention to you than you think they do. I didn’t lose any friends over this stumble. My friends were academically gifted, naturally smart, and just not that shallow.

Looking back, now, I’m grateful that I failed in exactly that way.

I made mistakes that couldn’t be denied, suffered consequences, accepted the consequences, and worked my way to graduation without further mishap. That my parents didn’t get involved was likely a good thing, their reaction wasn’t predictable since my failure would have been considered a betrayal of their trust on so many levels. But their lack of involvement helped me learn how to navigate a failure long before it did true harm. I didn’t have Ivy League aspirations or it would have much more devastating, but since a state school of one kind or another was what we could afford, the blow was a glancing one at best.

In real life, this ability to recognize and rectify failure, and to work hard even if I didn’t have the raw or native talent, served me incredibly well. I might have done well at a tougher college, but I doubt it. At a certain point, my academic smarts plateaued and my life smarts improved exponentially. There’s still a step or three between me and that CEO title, but I’m not just dreaming airy castles in the sky when I consider the possibility of starting my own business.

:: What have you learned from flaming out? What’s your most memorable failure?ย 

16 Responses to “On failure, academics, and real life”

  1. Joe says:

    Interesting…
    My most significant failure in academy was the freshman chemistry class in college. It was at 8 am and I rarely made it to class. When I did, I never absorb anything. The first class was pretty easy because the professor gave out the previous year’s final. All you need to do is to learn those topic and you’d pass. Then we got a new professor for the next quarter… I really thought I flunked the class after the final because I had no idea what I wrote. I got a C, though. I guess other people did even worse. Whew, dodge a bullet there.
    I learn to never sign up for an 8 am class.

    • Revanche says:

      Half my college career was 8 am classes so I can agree heartily that it was so much harder to absorb anything at that time in the morning! But it was necessary if I was also going to work full time.

  2. Linda says:

    High school math…sigh. I was placed in Honors classes for high school, too. I understood why I was placed in Honors for English, etc, but not math. My preparation for algebra was about 3 weeks of “pre-algebra” in 8th grade, while several of my cohorts had a full year of it before high school. That first Honors algebra class my freshman year was awful. I nearly failed it and was considered passed by earning a C on my final exam, for an overall class grade of D. Ouch.

    There were mitigating circumstances that hindered and helped me. First there was the teacher. He came off as a truly pervy guy who thought it was funny to insinuate that I may be pregnant when I asked for a pass to the nurse’s office once. He got too physically close for my comfort more than once, too. So when it became clear I needed extra help to pass that class, the last thing I was going to do was schedule one-on-one time with him after school. Neither of my parents felt able to help me, as I recall. Luckily, we had a neighbor who was good at math and algebra and who helped me master the concepts I needed in order to pass the class.

    I was able to get out of Honors math classes after that. In hindsight, that teacher should have been severely reprimanded at least for being such a creeper to a 14-year old girl, but this was the early 80s and no one was dealing with that stuff.

    I guess what I learned was how sucky the patriarchy is? I’m not really sure.
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    • Revanche says:

      About placement – my experience was that if you qualified for the Honors track at all then you’d be in all Honors, until or unless you lost your way. Maybe it was the same for you?

      Few things make me as mad as creepers in positions of authority over minors: teachers, administrators, religious leaders, and so on. It’s an important lesson to know when the society seems to support them, though. We know there’s little justice for us because of that. :/

  3. I wish I flamed out more. I wrote something about choosing bravery over perfection a while back. That’s my biggest regret. I chased grades and missed out on learning. I even begged my mom to get me a tutor for my honors chem and honors trig classes. Not because I was really struggling. But because I was afraid of getting a B. I missed out on so much learning because I stressed over grades. It’s the most important thing I try to teach my students every day. Positive risks will change your life.
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    • Revanche says:

      It’s awfully hard to see the point of learning when you’re focused on your test results, isn’t it? I had that same trouble for a long time.

  4. Sense says:

    Ditto Penny. I wish I had tried and failed a LOT more when I was younger. I’m learning how freeing and awesome it can really be–I was recently diagnosed with ‘unhelpful perfectionism’ and just completed a whole therapy course last week. It was eye-opening.

    Biggest regret: I was offered a place in the gifted and talented extracurricular programme in 6th grade but turned it down because I was too afraid of the extra work and leaving my social circle comfort zone (my closest friends in middle/high school were smart but not in the honours programs or highest-level classes with me). I talked my mom into turning it down–it was my parents’ decision in the end. …I’m still not sure why she let me do that! I would have been fine, and would have made better/more friends with the people who were in my classes the next 6 years of my life. Ah, hindsight…

    My biggest upset: I got my first ‘D’ grade EVER on the first midterm I took in my first semester of college. I worked my ARSE off to bring my grade up the rest of the semester and ended up with a B- or something. I had never gotten a B on a report card ever, but I also had never been more proud of a grade, either. Every bit of that B was earned through tears and sweat. And my parents knew about the bad grade but never reprimanded me, I was inconsolable as it was. They knew I was harder on myself than they could ever be.

    I also had to withdraw from an 8 am Calculus II class my second year of college because I knew I’d flunk if I continued. The teacher was horrendous & I AM NOT A MORNING PERSON. I took a 1 pm class the next semester with a great teacher and got a solid B. I was so ashamed to have to withdraw, but sometimes you have to admit that the environment is working against you a bit too much! (I also did it because I knew my Uni granted everyone 1 get out of jail free ‘withdraw’ that didn’t show on your final transcript.)

    Good lessons: just go for it. Set yourself up to do well, but don’t be afraid to try. Failure is not the end, it’s just the beginning of success. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Revanche says:

      As I get older, I understand more why parents make decisions for their kids and then we wonder why they aren’t allowed to make those calls themselves – I never had a choice about testing into the GATE program, I didn’t know it existed but Mom made it her business to know and pushed for it. I got to know some of the best people because of it, in addition to my friends who weren’t in the program.

      Congrats on that well earned B – I knew a lot of people who would have just rolled over and quit with that first D!

  5. It took so long for me to learn to actually study because most things came easily. When they didn’t I struggled. And now I see the same thing in Little Bit, who doesn’t like math, mostly because she has to work harder at it than she does anything reading-based.

    The thing is, I eventually figured it out, and hopefully she will too. You have to learn some things that don’t come naturally, and that takes more effort.
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    • Revanche says:

      Did you come to that realization on your own, or did your teachers or family encourage you to keep trying?

  6. It’s frustrating how much emphasis our culture places on grades and measurable test results-style “achievement” over actual learning and personal development. I grew up in a pretty well-off area with very highly rated public schools, and every single school year, there would be at least one or two student suicides apparently due to grades — usually a failure to maintain a 4.0 average. Atrocious and heartbreaking.

    I relate to Penny’s comment above. I chose too much of my college coursework
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    • based on my perceived ability to get A’s rather than interest level. That’s a shame in an environment that’s supposedly all about learning.

      • Revanche says:

        Oh gosh, yes, that’s the case now where we live – students are driven to suicide over grades. GRADES! It horrified me even before I had a kid and knew the visceral fear you have of losing your child.

        Our educational system really needs a total overhaul – we should be about learning and critical thinking, not rote memorization and jumping through hoops.

  7. SherryH says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever failed a class, though I have dropped college classes when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up or balance the workload with my other obligations. But I have distinct memories of walking down my high school’s corridors unable to stop the tears streaming down my cheeks–not because I was upset about something that had happened, but because I had so damn much to do–homework, classes, extracurriculars, college apps, job–and no idea how I was going to get through it all. I’ve wondered since if the tears were some form of anxiety attack.

    I do consider myself to have failed at blind rehabilitation training.

    I could (and probably should) write a whole blog post about this one. Basically, since I lost my eyesight, I’ve been figuring out workarounds and ways of getting things done. But I was convinced that the residential rehab program would give me all the skills I needed to get along. In retrospect, I was in a terrible place to take on the program–I wasn’t physically recovered from the effects of my brain tumor and surgery, we had a very stressful situation with a roommate, and I was already pretty busy writing and doing story and novel critiques for the writing groups I was involved in.

    Some of the classes were really useful. But some seemed to want to go back to the beginning, take me by the hand and lead me over ground I’d already covered myself. It also felt really smothering–I’d be busily working something out for myself, and some helpful person would come along, ask what I was doing, and give me directions I didn’t want or feel I needed. I officially “interrupted” my studies to come back when things settled down at home. That was nearly two years ago, and I’ve never gone back.

    I don’t think it’s a bad program. A friend went through it and was thrilled with the classes she took and all she learned. It was just a bad fit for me–or I for it.

    From that experience, I learned that I need to trust my instincts and my ability to guide myself, asking for help when I need it. When I listen to others’ experiences, I sometimes feel like I’m doing blindness wrong–but I have to believe I’m doing what’s right for me.

    • Revanche says:

      It would make sense if your tears were a sign of anxiety or a panic attack. It sounds like you were overwhelmed!

      I don’t know for sure but I tend to think that you can only be doing blindness wrong if it’s not working for you the way you’re doing it.

      That’s not to say there’s no value in trying to learn new skills through a program but it sounds like a more customized program would make more sense for you.

  8. Nice post!

    At the university, if I knew I couldn’t do well in a class, I would try to avoid it; if I was getting a C by mid-term, I would drop. Hence: a nice shiny Phi Beta Kappa key…

    There was one course and only one course that I determined to stay in, even though I could not earn an A or a B in it. That course was taught by THE single most amazing, brilliant, eye-opening and engaging human being I have ever met. I would have stayed in that course all the way to the end even if she was flunking me. Worse yet, after that semester I even went so far as to sign up for ANOTHER of her courses. “Success” or “failure” seemed irrelevant in the face of genuine learning — not something that’s routinely dispensed in undergraduate courses.

    Back in those days, one summer I was lucky enough to have a roommate who would deliberately sign up for courses that were so alien to her and so challenging that she was likely to fail them. That summer, she took a calculus course — and like me, she was a person for whom math was not second nature.

    She worked on that class all day, every day, from the time she got up in the morning (early) to the time she went to bed (late). And she passed it — just — with a C. That, IMHO, is success.

    Which is just another way, I suppose, of saying that we need not measure ourselves by other people’s standards. ๐Ÿ˜‰
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