There was one semester where I almost flunked out of college.
It was the first semester of my sophomore year–I’d always been a good student, and had managed to get through my freshman year with good grades, while also doing all the silly experimental stuff you’re supposed to do as a freshman. For some reason, the weird transitional college breakdown happened to me a year late.
That semester, Fall 2002, I remember four of the classes I was enrolled in, though it must have been more: Personal Essay, Persuasive Argument, Intro to Sociology, and Biological Anthropology. By December, I’d withdrawn late from Personal Essay, had a D- in Intro to Sociology, and outright failed Biological Anthropology.
This isn’t actually a story about how it’s important to take your education seriously, and what an enormous opportunity college is — though you should, and it is. This is a story about how I seriously fucked up, and ultimately, it was ok.
This is a story I’m telling you in hopes of countering the voices you’re probably used to hearing, often from your other professors or people who finished college decades ago, the voices that say you’re not working hard enough, or, life’s hard, so suck it up, or, worse, I don’t care that you’re having a hard time, or, even worse, the silence, the disbelief that comes along with ignoring what a hard time you’re having.
Here’s the big secret you won’t hear many professors admit, though I don’t know why: We all had a hard time, all of us, at one point or another. For many of us that hard time happened in college, when our world had been turned upside-down, when we didn’t know who we were or where we were going, when it didn’t feel like there was anyone else who understood.
So I’m going to tell you my story because I want you to know that I understand.
Here are some things that happened around the Semester of Nearly Flunking, as it shall henceforth be known: the one-year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, then-President Bush’s decision to go to war with Iraq, my becoming a vegetarian, and my high-school boyfriend dumping my ass.
Guess which one actually explains why I fucked up.
The Sunday before classes were to begin, I was on the phone with N—, my first serious boyfriend, who I’d been dating for about two years, who was just starting his freshman year at a state college near our hometown, six hours away from me. We’d been in a long-distance relationship for the last year, and he was the first boy I loved, the first (and at that time, only) boy I’d slept with. And here I was, on the Sunday before classes began in my sophomore year, crying on the phone in my dormitory hallway, because he was telling me he didn’t want to be tied down when he began college.
At the time (and, ok, even a little bit now), I was pretty pissed. All I could think was, dude, you couldn’t have said this when we were together, like, five days ago? All I could think was I spent my first year of college being tied down to him but now he was leaving and suddenly… All I could think was, but I love you. All I could think was, but, I thought this meant something.
In the first few weeks of the semester, by outward appearances, I recovered pretty quickly. I developed a crush and a kind of relationship with another guy, and then another. I joined student government association. I went out with my friends. I had fun.
But I was not ok, though even I didn’t know it at the time. Because I stopped going to my classes. I skipped classes like mad, and this is totally unusual for me. I’ve always loved school, but school was suddenly much less important than the only thing that came to be important to me in those few months: being with my friends.
I know that sounds like a healthy thing but it quickly devolved into something unhealthy. I couldn’t not be around my friends. I couldn’t go to class because I couldn’t stand being in class and knowing they were off doing something together, even if it was watching Law and Order reruns in someone’s dorm. I needed to be there for those Law and Order reruns because if I didn’t, they would leave me.
Obviously, this was not true, and I certainly didn’t articulate my fears to myself this way, but that’s how I understand them now. I was afraid of being alone. I was afraid of being left behind, left out, cast off.
As a result of this fear, I also stopped sleeping. If one of my friends had to pull an all-nighter in the computer lab to finish her paper for Contemporary Latin American Politics, I was there with her, pretending I was working too (usually we were just sending each other dirty jokes via AOL instant messenger). If a friend wanted someone to hang out with him at the station while he did his midnight to two am radio show, I was there, even if it meant I couldn’t concentrate on my Personal Essay homework. If the guy I was casually sleeping with sent me an AIM at 2am to see if I wanted to take a walk around campus, I couldn’t risk missing that. I was awake all the time, which meant I could only sleep with my friends were in class which meant I didn’t go to even more classes.
Unsurprisingly, my grades began to suffer, in part because of rampant absenteeism, and in part because I was too tired and too distracted to complete any of the assignments. In November, when it became clear I couldn’t recover from my failing grade in a Personal Essay, I withdrew from the class. It remains the only class in which I received a C- on a paper, and the only class from which I have ever withdrawn. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I went on to write personal essays for a career. That failure motivated me. The empty, socked-in-the-gut sense of disappointing myself helped me see how much I cared about writing. Even if I didn’t say this right away, falling flat on my face like that is the only way I learned for sure that, when it came to writing, I wanted to do it. I wanted to work hard and get better and not run away.
I didn’t know it then, that the failure would come to mean something. I was pretty blind in my fumbling. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can say for sure that my most spectacular failures have been the most crucial learning experiences of my life.
Here is what I remember now, more than a decade after The Semester of Nearly Flunking Out:
I remember what I learned in Intro to Sociology, because sociology is incredibly cool. I remember readings by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler and Karl Marx and Daniel Quinn. I remember talking about Daniel Quinn on a bench by the pond with the guy I was casually sleeping with who had asked me to go on a walk at 2am. I remember that it started raining and we ran back to his dorm and made out on the floor soaking wet, and, frankly, that was pretty awesome, too.
I remember how shitty it felt when, about two weeks later, that same guy was making out with someone else on the floor of a basement where we were all staying on our way to a protest in D.C. I remember that, just a few weeks after that, I started sleeping with another guy, one I didn’t even like, and that felt pretty shitty, too.
I remember that protest, driving through the night to D.C. to make signs and march around the White House. I remember how amazing it felt to be part of something bigger than myself. I remember writing a passionate letter to the editor against the ramp-up to the invasion of Iraq.
I remember I got an A in Persuasive Argument, and that even though I could’ve taken it as a sign I could coast my way through a writing class, I took it as a sign I was meant to be a writer and I’d better start working at it. I remember that in Persuasive Argument, we watched a PETA video about factory farms, because it was that video that made me decide to be a vegetarian, which set me on the path that would eventually lead to me writing my first book about becoming, and un-becoming, a vegetarian.
That’s right: even in the midst of all that failing, I was writing. Even when it seemed like everything I liked about myself was crumbling, I was taking tiny little steps in the right direction, towards becoming. Turns out, it’s hard not to be yourself. I will always remember there is evidence of success even in the detritus of failure.
I remember how utterly and completely my friends were there for me. How they came with me to the computer lab at 2am when I had to write a paper and then sent me dirty jokes via AIM. How they drove around with me in the 4am dark of upstate New York, blasting Taking Back Sunday and pretending they didn’t notice I was crying in the passenger seat. I remember staying up all night with them making zines — making art and writing that didn’t have anything to do with class, or assignments, that I still have black and white photocopies of in a drawer in my office.
I remember the last week of the semester, when I decided, out of pure shame, not to even bother showing up for my Biological Anthropology final exam. I remember the massive lump of shame and disgust in my throat.
I also remember eventually swallowing that lump and retaking Biological Anthropology because the next semester, I remembered I love Anthropology. I am fascinated by the intricacies of biology and the various forms of human civilization and the artifacts we leave behind, so I declared a minor in Anthropology with meant I had to retake the class — with the same professor. I remember how kind he was when I was the kind of student I could be proud of. I remember he asked to keep one of my projects to show his future classes.
I remember how fucking good that felt.
All of this is to say, I remember what it’s like to be in the midst of crazy amounts of fucking up. I remember how good it feels to make mistakes, and how awful. I remember how it feels to be a striving, growing, discovering, ditching, skin-shedding, wild, smart, dumb person. I remember all the reasons, good and bad, a person might skip a class. I remember all the reasons for sleeping with the right people and the wrong ones. I remember all the reasons for lying to my friends, my family, my teachers, and myself.. I remember learning that sometimes the mistakes you make really matter and sometimes they really don’t and the truth is, you don’t know which times are which until years later.
And that is absolutely fucking ok.
You’re not going to open up a new black hole to the center of the Earth with your mistakes–you’re not actually that important. Your parents are not going to disown you (or, if they are, you’re going to be ok).
You’re going to lose it sometimes, but you’re not going to lose yourself. You’re going to figure it out. You’re going to discover you are way more capable, and way less significant, than you imagine yourself to be.
The next semester, when my parents found out how badly I’d done, they threatened to drive to my campus and take me home, for squandering thousands of dollars of their hard-fought money. The university put my on academic probation, which meant I’d be kicked out if I didn’t pull up my GPA. So, I just did it. I got scared enough of losing my education that I finally realized how important it was to me, and I didn’t get lower than a 4.0 the entire rest of my time in college.
The answer to how I turned out ok, even though I fucked up, is mostly privilege. I came from an upper-middle class family and I went to a private liberal arts school, so I had a lot of people pulling for me, and helping me recover from the fuck up. What I learned from the process of recovery was that I wasn’t going to make it through this world all on my own, and how incredibly lucky I am not to have to. Ultimately, that’s the reason I became a teacher, though, again, I wouldn’t figure that out for many many years. I didn’t get through these mistakes by myself, and I wanted to pay the universe back for that by helping as many other people find themselves in education as possible. You won’t do it alone, and I don’t want you to have to. I’m here to help.
Some of you, I’m sure, have stories that are far more complicated than mine. Some of you are also juggling full-time jobs, sick parents, siblings you have to care for, children or partners of your own, serious financial burdens, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, disability discrimination, or any of the other massive, systematic forms of oppression that thousands of people experience in big and small ways every day. Don’t hear my story and its relative ease and steer clear of explaining your difficulties to me.
I want to hear them. I want to understand your life, too. I want to be a part, along with you, of dismantling those awful, heavy, problematic systems.
I’ve spent most of this semester telling you over and over again how reading and writing essays can make you a better person because it makes you a better listener, a better empathizer, a better friend. What I see in the letters and essays and emails you write is that you all have big, beautiful hearts, and you all are struggling and yet you are all capable of reaching out to and helping each other. And it’s truly fucking amazing.
Let this letter be a reminder to me, and to all my fellow teachers, that I got into this business to be part of a support system. Let my letter be a missive, a reaching-out, the beginning of a bridge between your experience and mine. Let me do the work of connecting to you and trying to understand you, because that is my job, as your teacher.
Marissa is a college professor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Guernica, The Rumpus, Paste, and elsewhere. She received my MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, and currently teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown. She can be found online at marissalandrigan.com and her Twitter handle is @mklandrigan.
Featured image courtesy of Tiffany Lucero.