An Open Letter to College Students: Learn How to Embrace Failure

"You can't be a 'professor'!" Pete exclaimed, incredulous, as he almost spat out the scrambled eggs that he busily shoveled into his face. "Look at your hair! And look at how you dress!"

We sat across from each other at the Pleasantville Diner that morning, about 13 years ago. I was a college junior and a Communications major (cue the judgmental yet uninformed laughter); he graduated with a degree in Computer Science the year before. Over a perfect breakfast of diner pancakes, sausage, and eggs (this was loooooong before my life as a pseudo-vegan), I lazily revealed to Pete that I thought I wanted to someday become an English Professor.

I laughed at his startled reaction. I usually laughed when Pete made fun of me. Our relationship was built on making fun of each other. And well, he had a point. My frizzy mop was no more tamable than it was 10 years prior. The difference was, as a young woman, it became much more something of a trademark, as opposed to the source of bullying and incessant teasing that made my life miserable in junior high school.

(It's interesting how things tend to happen that way, isn't it?)

I glanced down at my old, cut-off shorts, the bottoms of my pockets exposed at my upper thighs. They were daisy-duke-esque, to be sure.

Eh, he was probably right. I was on track to finish college, but the only thing I knew was that I wanted to be on Broadway. Professor-ing seemed like a decent backup plan, if all else failed.

(Besides, look at my hair. Look at how I dressed. I did not exactly "look like" an academic...I still do not.)

I've heard the religious say something like, "People plan, God laughs." It is with this life lesson that I'd like to address my college freshmen:

  1. As you busily declare majors (or, as people busily pressure you to do so), just keep in mind that "all else" is likely to fail. Embrace this.

  • I graduated college, and then, to my parents' horror, waited tables for two years as I auditioned (albeit unsuccessfully) for Broadway musicals. I then raised the white flag and went on to put my actual degree to use by working in corporate America where I sold my soul for 10 months (that was all I needed). Post soul-selling, I went on to substitute teach and eventually became a junior high school English teacher. After two years of that, I went to graduate school to earn my doctorate in education. I now stand in front of you 4 days per week and hope that you are getting something--anything--out of our time together. All of this occurred in the 10 years since I graduated college; this is all to say that, when I was a college freshman, I never would have dreamed that I would one day be one of your professors. In other words:
  • When people plan, God (or, in my case, The Universe) laughs.
  • You may be lucky to have friends like Pete who lovingly joke with you; you are also (highly) likely to run into people who want nothing more than to see you fail. Some people might label you as selfish, despicable, pretentious, and even go so far as to wish ill-will on you for daring to have a perspective. Relish in those moments; with the right mindset, they are enjoyable and provide fuel and fodder for creativity. Remember the critics who matter and develop a sense of sympathy for the ones who do not. People have their reasons for their hatred and closemindedness. Those reasons are likely deeply personal and profoundly sad. Perhaps most of all, those reasons are none of your business.
  • I failed my very first college exam ever (despite studying very hard for it). I failed at a professional career in musical theater. I've failed at certain relationships. You will fail sometimes. Failure is necessary. You cannot have success without failure. You will not regret learning how to embrace failure.
  • I realize that freshman comp may not be your most favorite class ever, but mark my words, some of you will emerge as writers. This might be because you'll one day learn to love it enough to write recreationally, or because your profession requires that you write well. I live life with one foot/leg in both of these boats, and I'll bet you a dollar that in ten years, some of you will be sitting beside me in one or both of those boats.
  • I am so looking forward to that boat ride.
  • I spent last year writing my dissertation and looking for a job so that I might one day meet you. You remind me of how much fun I have when I teach, and for you, I am grateful. With your help, I am able to look back on that day at the Pleasantville Diner and laugh.

    Hey! Come hang with me!

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