Oberlin Blogs

Failing, and then picking myself back up again

February 19, 2010

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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Responses to this Entry

Oh, Brandi. I can only hope that you revealing your secret will inspire future (and current) Oberlin students. You'll always been an inspiration to me, even if you can't spell "access" :P

Posted by: Patrick on February 19, 2010 11:48 PM

This was, hands down, the best Oberlin blog post I have ever read. Thank you for your sincerity.

Posted by: Melissa on February 20, 2010 12:18 AM

The second semester of my freshman year, I took an Econ course that kicked my ass in a serious way. I managed to weasel my way into a late Withdrawal when I realised I was going to fail it, but by all rights there should be an F on my final transcript. I don't think my opinion of my own academic skills ever fully recovered from that—I spent the rest of my college career playing it safe and only taking classes I knew I could handle.

I hope your post encourages other Obies to talk about their experiences and maybe even ultimately change Oberlin's student culture, because failure is an unfortunate but not uncommon part of life—and one that Oberlin students often aren't very well equipped to handle.

And for the record, Oberlin is extremely lucky to have you.

Posted by: Jonas Wisser on February 20, 2010 12:19 AM

Wow, can I relate. My parents were brilliant, but had only 8th grade educations. I went to a small, rural school where I was a sort of outcast but excelled academically and was a National Merit finalist. I held a job during high school and had chores at home (farm). When I hit college I had a decent vocabulary thanks to much reading--though I couldn't pronounce many of the words--but was pretty much a blank slate otherwise. The first semester I went to my first concert and my first play, and met lots of people who cared about literature and learning. I learned tons. But in one of my classes, I floundered, and having never had to ask for help before (and having been taught utter self-reliance), I struggled on alone and got completely lost. I finished the semester with three As and a D. I felt such shame; I felt I had squandered the opportunity my parents had been denied. I tried to redeem myself by taking a winter term of calculus. In my case this was a mistake, since I did not care for the subject at all, but it did assuage some guilt.

I look back on this, and wish I had been gentler with myself (though I still feel I should have achieved more, somehow, in college). On the other hand, knowing I struggled in the midst of such opportunity, despite being basically an intelligent person, has made me more thoughtful and understanding, I think, and it seems you have gained from your experience as well.

Posted by: Anonymous on February 20, 2010 4:20 PM

This post was incredible--certainly one of the best.

Posted by: Alicia on February 20, 2010 6:09 PM

Thank you all, including everyone who read this and did not comment here but spoke to me face to face, for your positive reactions and support. I was terrified to post this, but felt it was really necessary for me and perhaps for others, and I'm greatly comforted to know that it may be of help. Again, for anyone who is or has struggled with class, please feel free to e-mail me. This is me saying, "Hi. I, too have lived in two worlds with completely different expectations of me. Let's talk about it."

Posted by: Brandi on February 21, 2010 11:32 AM

Wow, what an incredible post!! Your honesty is refreshing-- fear of failure can be so overwhelming that it inhibits progress of any kind.

And it's very awesome of that professor for taking you on!

Posted by: Andrea on February 21, 2010 12:24 PM

What a wonderfully honest and generous post. I'm proud to know you, Brandi.

Posted by: Wendy Hyman on February 22, 2010 7:55 AM

Get it gurl! I am so proud of you my dear friend. It is time to “talk about it” and I am happy that you are brave enough to share your story. Hopefully your story encourages others to share their experiences as first generation students at Oberlin so that we can begin a conversation. I wish you the best with your research project and can not wait to see the results. I am confident that the Oberlin administration will be very receptive and grateful of your endeavor.

Like I have shared with you, college has not been an easy journey as a first generation student. Always feeling like the underdog in every class and carrying the weight of the great privilege that I have as an Oberlin college student is a lot to deal with everyday. It is hard to know that even though I have the great opportunity to be at Oberlin, a lot of people from my community are not in college even though they are brilliant people and this pressures me not to fail. I wait for the day in which the education inequities that different people experience in our country and in the world disappear but until then, we must do what we can support our fellow first generation students in whatever way that we can. Whether it is creating more resources for these students or simply beginning dialogue with each other and creating a supportive community for us all. Keep up the good work Brandi.

Posted by: Cindy on February 25, 2010 11:24 AM

Oh, failing...back in my day (which wasn't really that long ago, but it sounds like it when I say it like that), you couldn't get an F on your transcript. Any grades below a C were a "No Entry," and didn't show up on your final transcript. I ended up No Entry-ing a few classes, actually, and not in the "oh, I just decided late to drop the class" kind of way. It was rough, but was ultimately reassuring to know that it would quietly disappear and wouldn't haunt me for life.

Although, if I had been more knowledgeable, I would have realized that, if you're not going to grad school, no one will ever look at your transcript after you graduate. So it really can't haunt you for life anyway, unless you let it.

Eventually it was kind of reassuring to realize that, despite all your past successes, you really can fail at something, and in the end that can be okay, too. It's nice to know that you have limits, so you can either set more reasonable expectations, or work out what you need to do to expand them.

Posted by: Elizabeth on February 26, 2010 9:10 AM

I love your honesty, Brandi. This is Exhibit A of why college accessibility is so important.

Posted by: Sam on February 26, 2010 10:20 AM

Dude. I wish I knew what to write. That kicked butt, and is really, REALLY important for prospies to read, in my opinion - not only first-generation prospies, but for anyone who wants to understand the high level of comfort and confidence that can be gained at Oberlin and in life. Thanks.

Posted by: Anna Ernst on February 27, 2010 11:46 PM

Thank you for putting this out there. I grew up taking it for granted that I would be going to college, but I think my parents also raised me to be more consciously appreciative of my opportunities than many of my peers are. My Intro to Sociology class talked about class/cultural habitus differences briefly and it was interesting to see how much people's opinions differed on respect, work ethic, etc. Even at Oberlin, people are very touchy about class and that makes creating a dialogue difficult. Thank you for opening one up.

Posted by: Tess on February 28, 2010 12:26 PM

I am just reading the blog post and amazing comes to mind. I think you should sent it to the Review then run for President of the World! Ferrebee|Palin 2012!

Posted by: Kwame on March 9, 2010 8:26 PM

John Maxwell has a great book entitled "Failing Forward." It's a good read. You may want to consider reading it yourself Brandi.

Posted by: Gil Macali on November 15, 2014 10:16 AM

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