I could feel the nervousness in the air as I walked into the cold lecture hall. The atmosphere was grim; everyone knew we were getting our midterm marks back. Students began rushing to the front as our test papers were strewn across the tables. Unable to resist my curiosity, I eagerly joined the hoard of students desperately searching for their test papers.
After minutes of scrambling, I recognized my faint handwriting amidst the chaos. I quickly reached out and grabbed the wrinkled pieces of paper before it was whisked away by another student. As I walked back to my seat, the booklet of questions began to weigh heavier and heavier in my hands. It was a difficult exam, that was no secret. Even before I saw my test results, I already knew. I knew it would be rough, but maybe, just maybe by some miracle I might just walk out the doors with a decent score.
That didn’t happen.
My stomach dropped as I weakly lifted the wrinkled pages. The abundance of red marks carved into the paper was enough to burn the retinas of my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’d done poorly on exams before, but never to this extent. It felt like I had unlocked a new achievement in a video game, except it was an achievement that I never wanted: failure.
I desperately scanned through each page, hoping to spot a marking error, but it made no difference. Emptiness began creeping into my mind as I felt the room drain of oxygen. Failure leached onto my skin and sunk deep into my bones. Energy and motivation started bleeding out of my limbs until I slumped against the back of the chair like a ragdoll. The rest of the lecture felt like an eternity. It felt like time had stopped, but only I was held back. Whispers and chatters were muffled as my senses began to numb. I couldn’t hear, feel or see anything except for the burning red marks on my test papers. The words “disappointment” and “failure” echoed within my skull as the classroom walls caved in, drowning me in a void of darkness.
The weeks that followed were agonizing. The shell of my body kept attending class but I was nowhere to be found. Lectures, labs, and exams all passed by. A new semester began but it all felt the same.
Notes were regurgitated, and classes were failed. Semesters began to blur and lectures were increasingly dry, and yet the shell continued on.
I probably left myself in the remnants of that dark classroom. The walls shrunk from shoulder to shoulder, front to back with barely enough air for me to breathe. There were no cracks to escape from nor light to illuminate the space. Just pure blackness. My mind was simply stagnant.
I wasn’t sure how much time I spent existing in nothingness until one day, something felt different. It almost seemed like the room was finally able to exhale. Suddenly, I was given the freedom to move. Maybe I was bored, or maybe I was tired. Maybe I became aware of how miserable it was to repeat the same things everyday and expect the same results each time. Whatever the reason, I was glad that something had changed. The newfound space allowed me to restack my confidence. With each new accomplishment, big or small, the room kept changing.
Eventually, the room expanded until there were no walls, no restrictions, and no confinement. The once dark space was now replaced with a flood of light. It almost seemed like there was never a room to begin with. It was simply just…
Looking back, I now realize that the person that placed those walls was none other than myself. I put myself in that room. I bullied myself into believing that grades were the most important thing in the world. I prescribed absurd amounts of stress on myself that ultimately amounted to nothing. I didn’t just fail an exam, I also failed myself.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself failing an exam is not the end of the world. It isn’t an evaluation of one’s self worth nor is it a premonition of the remainder of one’s university career. Rather, it’s a signal to improve. A failed exam is both the catalyst and motivator to push us further towards our goals. University isn’t about getting good grades, it’s about developing skills to become a better learner. Failing just happens to be the first step.