Once upon a time, I failed a class.
Actually, at the end of last year, I failed one class and got a C in another. That I'm writing this at all is incredibly taboo, because at Oberlin, we're the types that constantly self-evaluate, learning and growing from mistakes we've made. We seldom fail. We would never talk about it.
Except I am.
So here goes. Last spring, I took two 4-credit English courses, a Rhetoric course on grant writing, and a 300-level Sociology course called "Unequal Educations." I had been eying Unequal Educations for a long time. In fact, I think I first got excited about it before I even came here after seeing it in a course catalog. It's all about how inherently unequal the U.S. education system is to different groups of people. I was especially excited because I felt like this class would give me a bright and shining chance to learn how to help others overcome less-than-stellar educations. I had the vague idea that my rural, public school education and parents without college degrees had put me at a disadvantage, and I hoped to get ideas for perhaps helping more disadvantaged kids as a teacher or school administrator.
However, what I really learned about in that class were people just like me. Low income, minority, and especially first-generation kids that had similar circumstances and didn't make it as far or had to fight as hard to overcome barriers as I did. While it may sound comforting to realize that my struggle to get to college was not an isolated incident, it really, really wasn't comforting. If this was such a common trend, why didn't anyone seem to care, seem to understand or want to help? I had gotten pretty far thinking that it was a fluke that my parents were surprised that I wanted to go to college and a fluke that a bookish redneck girl had made it all the way to Oberlin, my mecca of learning, and these flukes were the reason I felt alone. I assumed that it was because I was alone in this that I wasn't being approached by anyone saying, "Hi. I, too have lived in two worlds with completely different expectations of me. Let's talk about it."
At the same time, one of my English classes met once a week, for 3 hours on Tuesday evenings. I don't self-motivate well enough to read the novel or more of literature each week without other class meetings to hold me accountable, and being a morning person means that I am not an evening person. I often felt lost in class, and one day, I had the first full-scale panic attack of my life. The professor passed around a book called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. This book contains all the information its author, and really much of Western society, deems necessary to properly fit in. Cultural literacy, or cultural capital, is the sociological term for the bits of information and knowledge I've spent my life consciously collecting in the hope of being able to fit in anywhere, but especially in "respectable" or "high class" culture. The professor asked me, as an example, to read a few things from the list. I mispronounced several of the terms. I proceeded to have a panic attack, and quietly freaked out until the class ended so that I could return to my room and hyperventilate myself back to something resembling normalcy.
Unequal Educations was likewise difficult, and I chose first-generation college students as the subject of my final research paper. Needless to say, I couldn't complete it and spent several weeks in bed, panicking and crying and stressing out, when I wasn't faking my way through classes with a weak smile. My friends worried about me, begging me to go to see my class dean or advisor, who would help me get through this, or to get an extension or to take any of my many routes of help. Instead, I listened to my working-class work ethic, which insisted that I was capable of manning up and writing the damned paper. I didn't wind up being able to, and I failed Unequal Educations.
This, thankfully, is not the end of the story.
That summer I worked at the college, and after classes ended I had the free time on campus to finally go talk to my advisor. If anyone has cultural literacy, it's this man. He got all three of his degrees from Harvard, and as I explained my semester and my panic attack over cultural capital to him, I was sitting in his beautiful Assistant Dean of Arts & Sciences administrative office. He surprised me by laughing at my panic attack. Before I started crying harder, he apologized and explained: My panic attack far from meant I didn't belong at Oberlin. In fact, it meant I belonged all the more for it, since someone without cultural capital would never know what it was in order to be anxious about it.
Over that summer I slowly and painfully got my life and mind back on track. I started work in Admissions, where it was incredibly difficult to explain on a daily basis that my parents hadn't thought Oberlin was worth the money, leaving me to spend a year at a state school in Virginia before they conceded to let me transfer. Talking about failing was unthinkable. Luckily, the apartment-mates I was assigned turned out to be wonderfully supportive. At first I'm sure they, as students of color, had no idea what they had gotten into by living with a white southern girl, but we quickly wound up in conversations about race and class that revealed to them how alike we were. Cindy, one of them, turned out to have a remarkably similar family to mine, despite how much our ideologically opposed Mexican and redneck parents might butt heads if they ever meet. Cindy's mentor for her long-term Mellon research turned out to be the professor whose class I had failed, and it was with Cindy's help that I finally approached her to apologize for what I saw as the severe disrespect of failing her class. Working for Admissions by day and talking with Cindy every evening led me to be more comfortable with who I was and made it clear that to help other students like me get to college, I was going to have to be honest about how I got to Oberlin, hard as it was to answer questions about it on an everyday basis.
Jump to this semester. Cindy is in Morocco, terrified and thrilled to have the opportunity to study in such an incredible place when 5 years ago she probably wasn't even sure she would be able to attend college. Before she left, she told me to make sure to help other first-generation students like us, and she encouraged me to pursue the professor in hopes of researching privately with her. I've been working with several offices on campus, including Admissions, to take a look at how Oberlin as a whole deals with the baggage first-generation students bring to college and how to help them get to college and thrive here.
And now, I am officially pursuing a private reading (basically a personal, semester-long, guided research project) with the professor whose class I so thoroughly failed, and I'm reading about first-generation college students and class in the hope that I can inform myself, inform any students or staff who find my research interesting or relevant, and so that I can redeem myself in my own eyes.
Failing was really, really hard to handle, but that doesn't mean that I can't still learn from it.
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