In the spring of my senior year of high school, I attended an accepted students’ day at Virginia state school, as I had done with all the schools I was considering for the following fall. That day, in the large basketball stadium, before the student body and all the guests, the president of the university declared that the greatest regret of his life, was not having received the Rhodes scholarship while an undergraduate student. He admitted, that he had made it to the final round for the program, and then, was rejected.
I have often thought about that story. An old white man, president of a university, standing before an audience of 17 and 18-year-olds, confessing that the greatest failure of his life, was being rejected from a master’s scholarship. Yes, arguably the best scholarship in the world, but still, a scholarship. His greatest failure was an undergraduate failure. At 22, he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
I’m sure that the gentleman had no idea his words would lay burned into my head for the rest of my undergraduate years. But they did for some reason. It haunted me, how a prestigious, successful, older white man, could stand before me and declare that his own perceived less-than-excellence in his late teens and early twenties, still was a source of shame for him today. That that was how much accolades mattered. These scholarships and fellowships, the round of applause you get in real life or virtually when you have something exceptional to boast of. The terror and pain that strikes you when you know you were close enough to reaching something, but just hadn’t quite done enough to get there.
That’s how much the degree weighs in America. It isn’t enough to say, I have a BA, you must also hold so many things coveted. You must be envied by the elite to be worth looking at, and they all have college degrees. That isn’t worth much anymore. You need more, you need more, and you need more and it needs to come easy and effortless.
You see, it is not the impossible things that plague us. You know, like jumping to the moon or learning how to speak the language of our favorite animal. No one sits around in their bed moping over their inability to turn invisible at the snap of a finger, or teleport into the past when they so desire. We grieve the possible. The things that other people have proven are possible. The things that we know exist, but due to our own limitations, lack of drive, poor choices, or inevitable circumstances, we are unable to conquer. If someone else could do it, I could have to if I had worked to be good enough.
As a child, you often grow up hearing, “don’t worry! As long as you tried your best”. People often laugh at the “participation” culture that much of my generation grew up on. You know, the kid who loses the soccer tournament but still goes home with a trophy. But there is something to that, the idea that you can rest easy when you have given it your all, when you have worked to your maximum. Then you take the failure as God’s plan, fate, or some other soothing device. You tell yourself this is how things are “meant to be”. You may be disappointed or pained that the job offer doesn’t pan out, or that your final paper did not return with an A, but that is all. It ends softly, the pain, it dulls, and life moves on.
But what happens when you didn’t try your best? When you slept in and missed class, when you made choices you knew you shouldn’t have, when you didn’t have the strength to stand up to the little weak foolish person inside you who needs things too much and produces nothing at all? What happens then, when you didn’t pull the all-nighter for the paper, when you came late to the exam, when you didn’t have the discipline to study far enough in advance? What happens when you rush the application, when you don’t do your due diligence, when you tell yourself it’s okay when it’s not? You see, then, you don’t just mourn the rejection. You take it and sew it to your chest forever. It becomes a punishment, a ritual, you must grieve your own shallow mediocrity for forty-days to cleanse yourself. Turn it into commandment. Recognize that you have only yourself to blame for your own failures (the hardest and most haunting of all).
What happens when it is only yourself? When the tally is totaled and it’s you against nothing?
I have tread the past four years frightened of becoming that man I saw on that stage. Someone who got close to success, but lost it. Someone who knew it was their own lack of drive, or inability, that cost them the golden ticket. But I became that somehow. I am not (and cannot be) satisfied with simply a diploma (though I am grateful, I know that even that I do not deserve. There is shame that rests there too. It rests everywhere). I wanted to swallow it with honors, with gold letters, with prestige and privilege and all things desirous. I wanted to have better posture, have trained myself into a better smile, have learned the art of ironing my hijab before I leave the door. I thought I could make a list of all my bad habits and shed them one by one. I shed them and they grow back. Then I panic. If I can only have one thing at least can it be Goodness!?
May will come and perhaps I will graduate. It seems impossible to imagine it. A thesis that has yet to be finished, four classes stacked in my face, a dozen papers to write, and still, a future to craft that will not scream, *reject from all things worth-ful!!!!*, and still one that affords me some semblance of joy-esque-ness (if you can’t enjoy things in totality, why not in parts). I have become the very system I thought I had the right to critique, the material one, that values accolades and tight resumes, and shiny things. I let that happen too. That too, swells me with guilt. I am ashamed of my own shallowness, I am ashamed of my lack of courage, I am ashamed of my own mistakes, and ashamed of my inability to not grovel in the memory of them.
My father says, don’t care what other people think and I cannot believe the words I’m hearing. How on earth is one supposed to not care. My whole life I have been groomed for the caring, the full caring, the total caring. Taught (and not successfully learned) at a private school (and then another) how to carve and pick and prode my own name into a college essay, how to do an internship and write a resume, how to serve tea when the Ammus come over for dinner, how to not slouch, how to best curate yourself for husband, how to create the perfect domino reel of life, letting things fall into place one after another, after another (the high school, the college, the gpa, the job, the next job, the awards, the recommendations, the prestige, the honor). I have been rehearsing for 20 years and the audience has never left the room. I do not know how else to be (yet?).
(is there a path to happiness that doesn’t seem so fraught with faux-self assurance and a crooked vision of the world?)