It is hilarious the way things turn out sometimes. We are always told never to fail our classes, but what if there was a very good reason why you failed? I’m not talking about vain reasons like the teacher didn’t like me or I didn’t understand the homework. My reason for failing was something far more fantastic. It took me years before I could finally look at it a different way and realize how valuable it was to fail and retake the class. It gave me a chance to examine my life up to that point and gain some perspective; something desperately needed by a manically depressed teenager at the dawn of the 21st century.
To put it bluntly, my sophomore year of high school was utter dogshit. Most of the reasons why I honestly can’t remember at this point, but I’m sure most of them were forgettable foibles thanks to adolescence. As a result of my selfish descent into depression, my grades started to slip, naturally. By the end of the school year I had failed my English (or what my high school called “Humanities”) class. The reasons for the actual act of failing are twofold: my personal difficulties dealing with my own identity and juvenility at the time, and the 80-something-year-old Skeletor teacher on one final doddering education spree before retirement. Whatever it was I was going through (I swear, it seemed like a big deal at the time), it simply did not conform to the teacher’s disjointedly lethargic and senile style.
For some strange reason, there was a haze over me every time I was in that class. Half the time I didn’t even know if there was any homework. At the time I remember attributing it to the teacher simply not caring anymore, something I recall accusing many people of doing back then. Now I realize it was more than that. There was some outer force tying my hands behind my back and gluing my eyelids shut whilst covering my ears. I felt cornered, powerless to help the situation, kind of how I felt about everything in those days. Succumbing to the spell, I failed English. When the final grade came down from the rafters there was not an iota of shame or guilt about it. There was a time when grades were my life and a failure would have prophesied certain doom, but I had reached a point where I knew they weren’t that important, anymore. Getting an F was like overdrawing your bank account for the first time; now that it’s happened, you know it’s not the end of the world. I simply looked at it and let it go. All that needed to be said was, “Well, let’s do it again.”
The summer had waxed and was beginning to wane when school resumed. I then had to confront the stigma of being a junior in a sophomore English class, which really didn’t bother me. I was already perceived as a hopeless case by many of my peers anyway, why would I care if they spread another layer on top? I was just going to show up every day and do what needed to done so I could get the fuck out of that place before it killed me. Distractions and cute boys in class made it difficult at times, but Huck Finn is much easier to tolerate the second time around, anyways.
About halfway through the semester, the class was given a writing assignment that had not been assigned to me the year before. Write the story of your life up to now in no less than eight pages. That’s an ambitious request for a group of teenagers in a college town somewhere out on the Illinois prairie. These kids are 15, going on 16; what is there to write about? How are they going fill eight pages with tidbits of their lives? Failing that, how am I going to fill eight pages with my own tidbits? It’s not like I had an interesting upbringing. I certainly didn’t want to dispel some ugly truths about the past. Sitting in class holding the assignment in my hands, I suddenly wished the paper would grow until it was big enough to pull over my head and hide me. I felt extremely vulnerable at the mere thought of having to expose the details of why I am the way I am. No one else needed to know. I was not about to put my life under the public microscope to be analyzed by 3rd rate psychology professors from the community college.
In the couple days that followed, my mind involuntarily drifted to past memories. Feelings long thought lost suddenly shuddered me, flooding my thoughts with quick glimpses of my own history. I reminisced about the family trip to Canada, the only true vacation we ever took. I relived the frightening wonder I felt staring at the Hale-Bopp comet as it silently streaked across the carbon paper sky. The pain from having my head slammed in a sliding van door thumped back into my brain. I started to think about how these various experiences have affected me. Maybe there was something interesting in my personal archives, something I could learn from. Plus it would be nice to write an actual story for a change, instead of the unhinged, abstract, stream-of-consciousness nonsense I usually write. I resolved to take a good look inside and behind me, confident that writing down some of the calamity would help the healing.
I reached as far back in my memory as I could. It’s daunting looking back and seeing so many locked doors and there’s only a couple keys that you’ve kept. My first memory ended up being one I technically don’t remember; it has been told to me so many times I have simply constructed the memory in my head. I was 2 or 3 and liked to suck on the index and middle fingers of my right hand. One day I’m out in the backyard and mom is mowing the yard. She finishes and walks away, explicitly telling me not to touch the lawnmower. It’s really freaking hot. I know, because I touched it with the two fingers I sucked on. Never sucked those fingers again after that.
The more I perused the dusty microfilm reels tucked away in my temporal lobe, it became very apparent that my most distinct memories are ones involving pain or embarrassment. Some negative action or emotion is always depicted in some form. The most traumatizing ones are under lock and key, of course, and are being reserved for my analyst. But I realized how much I focus on the negative and unpleasant things in life, consciously and unconsciously. I always seem to see what is wrong with the picture, instead of enjoying what is there to see. Since that was how I apparently saw the world, that had to be what I wrote about.
I proceeded to pour out a series of lamenting anecdotes portraying my struggles with depression, alienation, self-injury, and self-identity. Horrifying school days with children teasing and ostracizing, torturous nights watching blood trickle from a freshly cut wound, the miracle that I let myself survive to tell the tale. Leaving little room for analysis and merely presenting the cold truth, I conveniently omitted certain events I found too shameful or psychotic. I didn’t want a high school paper to land me in the booby hatch. The story simply depicted a teenager’s reflection of his journey through the minefield of life. There was some reflection done for the sake of the grade; it was supposed to be an autobiography, not an encyclopedia entry.
After some introspection and mad hammering of computer keys, I had composed a nine-page confession. It felt like a confession to me, printing it out neatly on letter paper in green ink since the black cartridge was empty. Reading it over in reality instead of the fiction of a computer screen, a sense of pride started seeping into me. After revisiting all the events I experienced and realizing that I am still here to tell the tale, it became clear how lucky I am to be alive. An unbiased third party reading my story may think my struggles have been tame and self-centered, that things could have been much worse. And they are absolutely right. But I am still here. I am a survivor, in one form or another. We are all survivors. Each one of us have endured hardship and weathered the storm. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be alive to talk about it.
When it came time to turn in the story, there was a part of me that wanted to read it in front of the class. Putting it down on paper was good therapy and closure, reading it aloud could have released even more demons from their corked bottle stowed away deep inside, next to my pancreas. Another part of me worried about how I would be perceived after disclosing my story. My ego was adamant that it was all too disturbing for these wise fools and they wouldn’t be able to handle it. I know now that thinking of it that way was very self-absorbed. If I, merely a year older than these kids, had gone through what I considered to be warfare, then I’m sure they had also gone down the wrong fork on their own paths. These people didn’t magically appear in class every day at the simple flip of a switch. They are just like me: imperfect, vulnerable, clueless. Still trying to make sense of this interconnected complexity, trying like hell to find ourselves.
By giving into my own self-centered cycloptic woes, I was forced to learn from my mistakes. Having to retake English gave me the opportunity to take a long look at myself. I didn’t like what I saw, as was per usual at the time. But instead of seeing what I didn’t like and dissolving into a despairing vortex of my own creation, I had resolved to do something productive about it. I no longer had as big an egocentric view of the world. I started taking my life a little less seriously, at least tried to. Through it all, I learned there are consequences to my mistakes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most mistakes are made because there was something missed the first time through. Failure is not contemptible. It gives us the chance to do things over again and learn what we didn’t know before. As long as you have survived, you have another chance to succeed.