“Life is going to present to you a series of transformations. And the point of education should be to transform you. To teach you how to be transformed so you can ride the waves as they come. But today, the point of education is not education. It’s accreditation. The more accreditation you have, the more money you make. That’s the instrumental logic of neoliberalism. And this instrumental logic comes wrapped in an envelope of fear. And my Ivy League, my MIT students are the same. All I feel coming off of my students is fear. That if you slip up in school, if you get one bad grade, if you make one fucking mistake, the great train of wealth will leave you behind. And that’s the logic of accreditation. If you’re at Yale, you’re in the smartest 1% in the world. […] And the brightest students in the world are learning in fear. I feel it rolling off of you in waves. But you can’t learn when you’re afraid. You cannot be transformed when you are afraid.” Junot Díaz, speaking at Yale
I’m sorry about your computer troubles. I hope you can get everything up and running again soon. Also, I hope everyone reading this is safe and warm.
I spent May of 2013 at my aunt’s house in Georgia. I lived in the basement and spent a lot of time reading Murakami and Ian McEwan, listening to Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” and hanging out with my two-and-four-year-old cousins.
That month I dealt with a lot of shame. I made awful grades my freshman year of college. I was in this program where I could have been pre-accepted to either of two Texas medical schools, but because of my grades neither let me in. I knew my GPA was below my honor program’s standards and wondered when I would get the email that I was kicked out. I had enormous opportunities offered to me and I wasted them. I felt like I had managed to mess up my entire future in my first semester of college and that the repercussions of my failures would soon set in.
I felt the same way Elsa feels in the beginning of Frozen after she curses her sister. She feels the shame of hurting Anna and the fear of what will happen if Anna and the rest of the world find out about it. Elsa worries that something crazy-awful will happen to Anna’s brain if she learns her secret because the troll-magician told her Anna shouldn’t know about any sort of magic.
Back to my aunt’s house, where I was listening to Joni Mitchell and awaiting my impending doom, too scared to talk to anyone except my mom and eventually my aunt about my situation. The storm never came. It stunned me to realize that, though I had made bad grades, life continued. I had one beautiful day after another. Life didn’t suddenly lose all of its precious moments: I continued reading and playing and working on weird projects (I was trying to come up with the solution to Australia’s cane toad infestation). In other words, I didn’t lose E when I lost her impeccable GPA. I didn’t feel dumber and the word “failure” didn’t brand itself on my forehead. I will always be me, always be resourceful, even if it took me a little while to learn how to make A’s in college.
My shame was blocking me from doing better. During my freshman year, I was embarrassed to talk to professors and ashamed to ask my friends for advice. I felt like the grades gave me a shroud of stupidity that kept everyone from respecting me and my ideas.
My transformation from scared girl to fearless diva has taken a lot longer than Elsa’s. I still make decisions out of fear some days. Grades are powerful. They have bolstered us up for our entire sentient lives. What happens when they no longer back us up, whispering yes, this opportunity is yours, you earned it, you’re smart, you work hard, your ideas are valid?
Only you hold the answer to that question. Rip off the band-aid, pick off the scab, let as many people as possible know about it. It’s the only way people can help you and, more importantly, honesty is the only way to help yourself. Grades are not mysterious, undeniable measures of self-worth. You can easily improve them, and I have.
My mom asked me today if I knew who Brené Brown is and I said, “Yeah. She’s the anti-shame vulnerability lady.” It clicked to me that shame is what I have slowly been shedding since May, shame is what was holding me back, and shame is why I identified so deeply with Elsa. I no longer learn for the grades and I no longer write for the accolades, and because of that I am free from the fear of not reaching them and the shame of not having them.
Since I read your post about choosing one word to think about this year instead of resolutions, I’ve been considering what word I want to base my life around this year. I chose the word “brave” today. I want to move beyond the fear of failure, the fear of feeling like I’ve disappointed the people I love, and the fear of traveling to unknown places. I want to live my life so mindfully I have no mental room for fear. When I feel fear and shame I want to tell people so they can help me, love me, give me advice and know that I have failed.
Bad things happen and life usually turns out okay. Some of it doesn’t. My mom, after she asked me about Brené Brown, told me that her friend was taking a course based on Brown’s teachings. My mom’s friend has experienced a devastating amount of tragedy in her life. Such sadness put my problems in perspective and reminds me of a quote from Dear Sugar:
“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
So unclench your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Say some prayers for people you love. Create something, like Elsa created her magnificent ice castle. You can fail miserably and still have a brilliant life. In fact, you can’t not fail miserably and have a brilliant life. Shed the fear and enjoy yourself. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.