An Open Letter to Failure

Kaitlin Joshua

To failure: you weren’t poetic.

Academics have always been my “thing.” Even in the midst of the awakening that is high school, my grades have always trumpeted my success. No matter what insecurities or negative interactions I had, I belonged in a space. It was empowering and, most consequentially, self-reassuring.

That tale was common at Vanderbilt. Most students exuded competence: the kinks in their personas were methodically ironed out, replaced with images of success and security. I didn’t find walking defeats meandering through Buttrick as I hustled up the stairs to Spanish. No one wore the losses they’d taken upon their sleeves, or offered up their humbling moments for public consumption. Academic hiccups were more clichéd success stories to be edited into grad school essays than anything else. Thankfully, my first semester fell in line with little fanfare. That December, I took a breath.

And then January cast itself like a somber gray cloud over my coursework. I was a hesitant economics major, and that meant at least one semester of calculus. I was never a math person, and it was with that tentative attitude that I approached Stevenson for the first time last winter. The ordeal was nothing short of a disaster. I spent hours a day poring over practice problems and nights staring holes into my notes. No memory of that semester comes as vividly as fluorescent lights shining onto the glossy pages of my textbook. I couldn’t just not do well. And yet, one day each month, my stomach twisted as each red mark stripped away my irrational belief that somehow I’d save myself come May.

I didn’t. Not by several percentage points. And I had never felt disappointment in myself weigh so heavily. Pervasively.

There was no beautiful mistake blooming from my struggle, and a difficult semester didn’t somehow blossom into a marketable success story. Last summer it was just my body in an endless loop, cycling through yoga, course catalogues, meditation, prayer, grad school programs with minimal math prerequisites, Zumba, face masks, long baths, journaling, bad poetry, painting, classical music, and every other activity Pinterest offers up in the name of self care.

But I didn’t struggle because I needed to add an extra step to my morning yoga routine. I struggled that summer because there were so many questions piling up in my brain: most notably, How do I define myself outside of this? I had to ask myself that question about everything, from academics to relationships to future goals. I began grappling with my insecurities, questioning why I had them in the first place and why I’d accepted them as inherent parts of myself.

It was an ugly process. It took dissecting my assumptions, thought processes, feelings, and interactions with the world around me. It was anger, discomfort, sadness, guilt, loneliness, and anxiety. It was also a sigh of relief. Every time I lay in bed running through the script of my life, I let go of someone’s assumption or projection of me. I released definitions that didn’t align with what I believed about myself, and paid more attention to what I valued- creativity above all else. Open-mindedness. Communication. Justice.

Sometimes when I sit in calculus this semester, I imagine myself back in my original classroom in the very first row. I see myself arranging my already-organized notes and my painstakingly neat handwriting. I look down at my notes this fall: messier, and spotted with random doodles and to-do lists. Sometimes I don’t listen to all the examples. I cross out my mistakes and start anew. When I get stressed, I do my deep-breathing exercises and remember that life works because of the messy bits and jagged edges. I am doing astronomically better.

To failure: you are a journey, one that I’m still on. I’m sure my professor has no clue the self I’ve become because of her spring 11:10 section.

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