Nearly four decades now since that eventful week, but the feeling remains as palpable as ever.
I was in my first year at an all-boys secondary school. Barely 13, and struggling with the usual teenage issues.
Adjusting to a new school environment. Dealing with triple the number of academic subjects and extracurricular activities. Traveling daily for nearly an hour to get from home to classroom before the sun was up. Reaching home as the sun began its descent. Dealing with intense rivalry and competition because it was supposedly the top boys’ school in the country.
Any one of the above would have sent me into therapy today!
But this was the early 1980’s, and mental well-being hadn’t been “invented” yet.
So there I was. A scrawny, scraggly excuse of a man-in-the-making, navigating the choppy waters of teenhood. What was that song again? “Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered“? Well two out of three for me, that’s for sure.
And the worse thing? I knew no one when I joined the school, having followed my family’s traditional, well-meaning but misplaced advice to join the “best” school; not schools my primary school mates chose.
(Note to parents today: DON’T!)
Yep. That’s right.
Exit stage left — friendship and familiarity.
Enter stage right — loneliness and fear.
What an excellent prelude to…
Act I Scene I — The Setup
My first week in that school felt like Camp Auschwitz!
The teachers seemed to me more Hitler than Keating (Dead Poets Society). Their torture, I mean teaching, methods vary widely. From outright aggressors like “Miss Tiger Lily” (the form teacher for the class next door), whose screams can be heard for miles around; to passive-aggressors like my math teacher Mrs. N.
I recall she was pregnant then so she did most of her teaching sitting down. And maybe her advancing condition also necessitated a more languid approach to aggression, in order to manage a class of 40 boys. Wouldn’t want to go into labor in the midst of explaining complex algebra now, would we?
Still, to this day I will never understand what possessed a trained educator to devise so sadistic a manner of releasing weekly math test results in class.
How did she do it?
I’m glad you asked.
Act I Scene II – The “Torture”
Mrs. N would begin by announcing the score of the top student and calling him to the front of the class to collect back his test paper.
Then the next best student. And the next. And so on.
Until the last boy, who obviously scored the worse (which in some cases was one big “F”!).
And to twist the knife just a little bit more, she would usually stand up for the top ten (like a standing ovation for a concert encore), and hand out the test papers like a Nobel prize for each of them.
For the rest, she would take a seat while we went trembling to her table to collect our paper as she continued loudly calling out our scores and names. Each successive student’s footsteps to her table, heavier. Each look of barely veiled derision from her, more disdainful than the last.
This went on. EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK… I mean, C’MON!
Okay, maybe her maternal instincts hadn’t kicked in yet.
Or, maybe it’s just how educators were in those days.
Either way, it was inevitable my reckoning and first real vivid feeling of failure would come from her. Not to say there weren’t plenty of opportunities from other commanders, I mean teachers (Camp Auschwitz remember?).
I just never expected it to happen the way it did.
Act II — Sudden Success followed by Instant Failure
The details are hazy now but I think it was the week of our trigonometry test.
I must have studied extra hard that week because lo and behold! Not only did I ace the test, but I also topped the class. For the first (and only time), I stood tall and proud when I was the first name she called. She might have even sounded shocked, given that I was usually at the bottom of the pack.
The best part was, I knew I had hit the big time because the most angsty and competitive kid in the class (who decades later went on to head my country’s navy) refused to speak to me until…wait for it…
…the next week!
Why, you ask?
I’m glad you did.
You see, after that stratospheric success with my trig test, I found myself crashing right back to base station Earth the very next week when, guess whose name was called last?
You guessed it.
I don’t remember now what topic was tested that week, but that’s beside the point.
The point was I had failed. Miserably. Publicly. And after I had ascended to the highest heights just the week before.
So yah, the feeling of failure that week still lingers today.
Act III — “Failure’s a feeling long before it’s an actual result”
In her bestselling biopic Becoming, former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama recounted an unpleasant experience she had with a school counselor for her Princeton University application.
In that exchange, the counselor told Michelle point-blank that she just didn’t appear to be of “Princeton material.”
Michelle was appalled by that swift and dismissive remark, but instead of letting it get to her, she turned it around by telling herself “I’ll show her!”
And the rest as they say is history for Mrs Obama, who went on to both Princeton and Harvard!
I wish I had her spunk and determination back then in Mrs. N’s math class.
But I didn’t; I probably still don’t.
For clearly, that event with Mrs. N still rankles me today. I believe it has set the tone for how I respond to success and failure all these years, and why I often find it hard to bury the past and let go of disappointments.
In recounting that event, Michelle also made what I thought was a most astute and accurate observation. In the book, she opined that “failure is a feeling long before it’s an actual result.” (page 66).
That’s certainly true for me.
As I waited and waited with wrung hands that day for Mrs. N. to call my name, the looming feeling of dread far outstripped the actual test result’s impact on me. To this day, that moment forever defined for me what the feeling of failure was.
Though I’m sure back then Mrs. N. might have thought that’s how best to mold boys into men, the “adult me” today would probably have said the following to the trembling “teen me” then (assuming time travel was possible).
And hopefully within earshot of Mrs. N.
Epilogue — “You are not defined by that feeling of failure!”
“K, this feeling of failure you have is unfortunate, but it doesn’t define who you are.
This moment could have been played out a completely different way, but your teacher didn’t understand that. She didn’t understand that while she may get to choose her approach and teaching style, she’s not entitled to choose the consequence of her choice.”
“This consequence (the feeling of failure) may cause some to buckle up, but it also causes others to buckle under.
Either way, a hurt was inflicted and a wound was wrought.
It’s like hammering a nail into a fence. Even if that nail, that hurtful remark, was withdrawn, the hole it created remains.
But I want you to know. No matter the size of that hole, it doesn’t define who you are. You are more than that feeling of failure, that horrid test result, that botched job interview, the friendships you lost, that moment of inattention last year that led to your second car accident, or the quarrels and showdowns you had at home with wife and kids.
For many, the feeling of failure is the worse in the world. Few are spared this unpleasant feeling; fewer survive completely unscathed. Even if the so-called toughest of us appear so, they’re not; they just won’t admit it that’s all.
For to do so is to admit to a weakness, a vulnerability.
That’s considered taboo in this results-oriented, winner-takes-all world.
Yet the truth is even the bravest, who turns adversity into opportunity, will always bear the scar; however much it might have transformed over time into a barely visible scab on the skin.”
Final Word…and A Hug.
“So K, you don’t have to deny what that event did to you alright? How it caused you to feel hurt and humiliated.
You can be real, open, vulnerable, and authentic with it. Yes, you can even cry buckets if need be.
That’s how to release the pressure of having to pretend you’re okay; to act cavalier when you’re feeling anything but!
It’s how you break what would otherwise be a vicious cycle of living with the hurt. Or worse, hurting others subsequently.
Mrs. N was herself probably an unwitting victim of this vicious cycle. But you needn’t be.
You ARE more than that feeling. Live out this truth and you will find the strength and power to truly define the real you.
For now, let me give you a big hug!
And you too Mrs N.