When life already seems hard, dealing with failing grades in a class in which you’re trying your hardest possible is one of the most discouraging things I can empathize with.
When I was in college I decided to get a minor in German. I took every possible German class—learned the language, read the literature, practiced conversation every chance I got. But it was not enough. I hadn’t the money to go somewhere that I could become fluent, which proved necessary near the end of the coursework.
A roadblock appeared on my path in the form of a required German cultural history class that was conducted in German, with German texts, tests, and research papers. I was okay with the reading and writing though I had to work hard, but listening to the lectures was murder. I could not follow fast enough and catch all that I needed to know. This was back when recording a class was technologically difficult and probably wouldn’t have been allowed anyway.
I worked harder than I had ever worked for any class, and still my grades on the tests were failing grades. They were just on the edge of passing, which was very frustrating as the semester went on and I couldn’t seem to bring my scores up any further. At the end of the term, I received a failing grade, just barely, but it was perfectly fair as far as I could tell.
Still, it felt unfair that I had worked so hard and yet not succeeded.
I talked to the professor before registering to take the class over. I told him I had to have the class and yet was not fluent. He seemed understanding but unbending—the class had to be conducted in German and that was that. I should just take all the time possible in the break to study the language.
I did not take his advice. What would have been the use? If I had studied vocabulary the entire two weeks I could not have learned enough to “think” in the language and to follow the rapidity of the teacher’s and other students’ speech.
The next semester was marginally better because I knew what to expect in terms of what would be covered, but still I could not understand enough. I did better on the quizzes and tests, but now I was just over the threshold of a passing grade, and I had found out I had to have an average grade or it wouldn’t count toward the minor. What a blow. I studied harder than ever, but I could not perform at an average level when I could not speak the language.
I had a full load of other classes to pass too.
Feeling hopeless, I endured the class and did what I could to maintain that barely-passing grade. I made new plans to take time off school for a year or two to earn money to take an extra year so that I could take all the classes for a different minor.
I think the professor grew to dread the sight of my hopeless face as much as I grew to dread going to the class. But I did not dare miss a single class for any reason.
The weight of failure is real. You feel a lump in your stomach or somewhere that is hard to carry around. You feel stupid. You begin to wonder if everyone has always known how stupid you are and nobody has ever told you—you wonder if everyone looks at you with secret pity or contempt. Even if you know that somehow you’ll get through this terrible time, you feel as if you will never completely recover; you’ll always have this wound deep inside that is the result of your Failure. You wonder if it will ruin your whole life and suspect that it might, and then you begin to fear and to expect that it will. You start looking for a hole or cave to crawl into where you can hide from life.
You plod through your days with a huge weariness overtaking you about everything. If you are prone to depression anyway, this triggers a huge, sucking bog of it that you do not escape for a long time.
But you do escape. Time passes. After a long time and a lot of experience, you look back at it. (And you remember that the third time you took the class, you earned a barely average grade, which was enough.) You realize that it barely did anything to your path through college, and that you learned a great lesson in perspective in the years that fell between the Failure and your decision to look back at it. It was not as bad as you thought at the time.
The pain was real and it was hard, but it did not ruin your life. It made you able to empathize with the college student you are trying to help now. It gave you a story to tell—there is hope inside the Failure. There is hope outside it too, and hope all the way beyond it.