Once I failed a final in grad school.
It made me remember the only other time in school when I’d failed a test.
I was a sophomore in high school. It was chemistry and the test was one of those unit tests. I remember the big, red “37%” glaring at me when I flipped over the sheet on my desk.
I remember going to the teacher—after spending one grueling hour trying not to cry during class—and begging her for an opportunity to retake it.
She said, “I always cancel out the lowest grade. It’s likely it won’t even count.”
I remembered those angry red numbers when I pulled the essay questions from the envelope as I sat in a classroom during Finals Week of grad school. I skimmed over the essay questions and realized, with dawning horror, that I was only familiar with two of the five essay questions.
What the hell? Did I study the wrong material?
Panic began to quicken my heart. My hands started shaking. There was nothing left to do. There was no possible way I was going to pass this final that was worth 40% of my grade.
I only knew two of the five questions.
So I was faced with a dilemma: Put the final back in the envelope, return it to the proctor, and walk out of there, knowing I was going to have to retake the most boring class of all time—not to mention having to dish out the money to pay for it once more.
Or, I could answer the two questions I knew, make up some bullshit for the other three, and then pray that by some miracle I still passed this class.
As I struggled for air, I looked around at the other test takers, hoping one of them would look up and mouth the solution to me.
No one did.
I squeezed the pencil. I had three hours. I was going to fail, which meant I would fail the class, but I had to try. I couldn’t—just couldn’t—give up.
I chewed my lip and went to work.
I used every last minute of those three hours. I answered the two familiar questions with meticulous detail, giving five references where the question only asked for three, checking and rechecking and re-writing, and rechecking again.
Then I added some mumbo jumbo to the other three questions. I think I might have been snarky in my answers—maybe my sense of humor would earn me a point or two.
I turned in my final with no time to spare. In a haze of shock, I left the building with the realization that my perfect attendance, high average on book quizzes, and As on my papers were not enough.
All that work, only to fail in the final (literal final) hour.
And the image of the blaring red “37%” from high school popped into my head.
Not ten minutes later, I ran into my professor for this class. “Dr. P. I just failed your final,” I said. My voice sounded as dead as I felt inside.
He looked surprised. “I’m sure you did better than you thought you did.”
“Nope. I failed. I only knew two of the questions.”
“It’s okay, don’t count yourself out. We’ll figure something out.”
He muttered something about the possibility of retaking it. I clung to this hope. I’d do anything to not have to retake the class.
The next week, I waited in cringing anticipation for my overall grade to be posted.
I waited and waited as the time to go to my family’s for Christmas drew closer.
I wanted to study to prep for the retake but I just couldn’t. I was dried up. Depression began to set in and I realized, probably for the first time ever, that I was a perfectionist.
Not in the sense that everything had to be perfect all the time. Rather, I was a perfectionist in that I set a standard for myself. If I failed to meet that standard, then I failed utterly and completely.
I was a failure.
The memory of this comes back to me today. I find myself depressed. My essential oils and yoga aren’t working, so I know it’s not hormonal or due to something I ate.
The memory of the failed final works its way into my head. And I realize I’ve done it again.
I’ve set lofty, over ambitious goals for myself. I have to. It’s just what I do. It pushes me and keeps me going. I almost always meet my goal—making me that much more ambitions the next time around.
But this time around I have a deadline. This time around the deadline dangles like a guillotine. This time I can’t finish and I am not going to make my goal.
I’ve failed again and the fingers of panic are inching closer to my throat, preparing to choke out the joy of any past accomplishments because I only have this one thing holding me up at this moment: my ability to defy what is humanly possible and the knowledge that I am better than even I thought I could be.
I’m not going to make it.
The knowledge that I’ve failed trickle over to everything else. Not only did I not make it this time, I also am not going to make it ever. This one failure supersedes any other times things have turned out the way I wanted them to. This one failure predicts my future forever.
Two days before I left to go visit my hometown for Christmas, I got an email from my professor for the class with the failed final. He’d graded my final first, he said. He did the math for me in the email, but I didn’t understand it.
It turned out I was counting the failed final as a zero grade. But it was actually factored in as a percentage (I think). The percentage of my grade for the final, factored in with the rest of my grade for the class, came out to a whopping B for my overall grade.
Not a B minus or even a C. It was B. A big, fat, red-lettered B.
I stared and stared at the email.
Then I started to cry.
In true Katherine fashion, I’m not going to conclude this story with a moral or a lesson or a recipe for success.
I’m also not going to wait my typical 24-hours before posting it.
I am going to read it through one time for typos.
Then I’m closing my computer and going on a walk.
I’m not opening my computer again until I get back from vacation: ten beautiful days from now.