Monday, November 8, 2010

When at First You Don't Succeed

Picture it: Columbia, SC 1997

When I was young, and idealistic, and thought the job I wanted would be there waiting for me the moment I graduated (complete with welcome banner and funfetti), I decided I wanted to be a Marine Scientist. I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I received a scholarship to attend the University of South Carolina.

All fresh-faced and shiny, I showed up on my first day of college ready to take on the world. I was young, idealistic, and thought that a degree in Marine Science would take me places. Literally. Me, a research ship, a wetsuit and a pod of frisky dolphins—you get the picture. Just call me Erin Cousteau.

With my shiny new backpack and a sturdy pair of new shoes, I huffed it to the quad to attend my very first class on my very first day of my very first semester of college ever. It began at 8am, but despite the trouble I had getting to sleep the night before (excitement, you know) I was all chipper and ready to begin the next chapter of my life.

Unfortunately, the next chapter began with Calculus. Calculus! What that heck kind of a way is that to welcome a newbie? As I slipped into the huge auditorium, I chose a middle distance seat and slid in, pencil sharpened (that’s right kids – no laptops!), notebook open, and the $150 calculator I had to purchase in high school perched on the corner of the desk. The class began, and within moments I had a bit of a sinking feeling. Now, I don’t know a lot about math, but I was prreeettty sure it involved numbers. Not x’s, y’s, z’s, and quirky, oversized, angry-looking backward 3’s (You know—this guy: ∑. What the heck is that thing, anyway?).

The biggest shock of all, however, was that we were not allowed to use our calculators. Gulp. Didn’t she know that my precal class in high school required calculators?? This is the fun part: that wasn’t a university wide edict. Oh no, my friend in the other calculus 101 class happily tapped away on his calculator.

As I navigated my way through the week, I was relieved to see that I had saved the worst for first. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had that stupid calculus three days a week – all at the crack of dawn in the eyes of a college student . . . ok, who am I kidding? 8am is still the crack of dawn for me ;)

What was even worse than the content of the class was the professor herself. She sounded like Barbara Streisand, looked like John Lennon – slap a pair of round glasses on her and she’d be set—and had all the charisma of Ben Stein (Bueller? Bueller?). A couple of weeks into the semester, I was walking to class with some friends and was letting them in on my observations. I got a good laugh out of everyone, and when the giggling subsided, I realized that there was a sound coming from behind us. Click clap click clap . . . Someone was walking directly behind us. With heels. On a college campus. Holding my breath, I peeked behind us. Oh schnikies – it was the White Album all over again.

Talk about egg on the face.

Nothing like openly mocking the professor of your weakest subject. By halfway through the first semester, I had come to the conclusion that I had mistakenly placed into Calculus, while some Mensa member languished in precal. There was no way around it: I needed help. Swallowing my pride, I went to professor Barbara S. Lennonstein, tail tucked between my legs, and asked for help. She sat behind her desk, steepling her fingers and smiling blandly. Have no fears, she said, you’ll do fine.

I muddled through the rest of the semester, all the while terrified I’d end up with a grade I had never even seen before. Would it be a C-? Dear lord, a D? Or, horror of horrors, D-??? The mere thought made me break out in a cold sweat. It couldn’t be. It would be okay. I would get a (cringe) C, and somehow life would go on.

At the end of the semester, I headed home for the holidays, finished with classes and anxiously awaiting the grades that were due to be released within the week. Come Christmas, I was wrapped in the bosom of my family, the tree glittering merrily as the smell of baking cookies filled the air. With Christmas music tinkling in the background and a fire crackling beside the desk, I sat down to call for my grades. (Yes kids, in the old days, you had to call an automated phone center to receive your grades. The computer system wouldn’t come into use for that particular task for another two years.)

As if sensing my anxiety, the system was busy the first time I called. And the second. And the third. By the tenth redial, I was a jittery mess. It was suddenly the most important thing in the world that I know my grades, and the phone lines were conspiring against me. When at long last the stupid system picked up, I pressed each button with utmost care, terrified I would do something wrong and be disconnected.

First my social, then my password, and finally the mechanical voice began to read. Each word is slow and precise, and it seems to take years to read through the list. With pencil in hand, I copy the words on paper:

Chemistry . . . B+.

English . . . A.

Marine Science . . .A.

Marine Science Lab. . . B+.

Mathematics . . . yes??

(still waiting)

(longest pause in the history of mankind)

(Dear God, what is my grade????)

. . . and then it said it.

I sat in shock, staring blankly at the foreign symbol I had written on the page. What was this tall vertical line adorned by two, short, horizontal ones? Had someone deconstructed a B? Alas, they did not. No, my dear cake readers, it was indeed my very first—and only—


That, my friends, was the most monumental failure of my entire academic career. It haunted me for the whole of my four years in college, since my school did not have freshman forgiveness despite the fact I earned a B when I retook the class under a different professor. I was shocked, embarrassed, humbled, and disappointed.


This, my friend, is not a story of failure, but rather the motivation failure offers if we choose to view it that way. I worked with single-minded purpose after that, determined to never repeat such a disaster. After that semester, I enjoyed four semesters on the Dean’s list (all A’s and B’s), and my final two semesters even made the President’s list, despite including such classes as Physics, Organic Chemistry, and Master’s level classes. In the end, I graduated with honors, in spite of the fact I had a four-credit F hanging like a 50 lb weight from my GPA. It was a triumph, and a lesson that I have always carried with me.

In writing, it is difficult to ride the roller coaster of the business. Agents rejections, contest wins, contest losses, scathing feedback, sweet praises, long silences from agents and editors . . . the list goes on. But guess what? I plan to keep pushing. I want to learn from every rejection, to absorb the good advice while repelling the bad. I want to soldier on, and in the end, I want to be a success. I can visualize it, I can work towards it, and I can believe in it.

What have been some failures that led to your own successes? Has there been a recent setback in your life? A triumph? Did you suffer through calculus with me and get an F too but also went on to overcome it? (I’m talking to you, Jacob!)

Me and Kirk on Graduation Day! Notice the yellow ropes for graduating Cum Laude!

All this month, I will be ending my blog with something I am thankful for. This month, I am grateful that my dog is too cute to kill, especially when she decides to do a little redecorating . . .

No matter how great the success your failure may eventually lead to, you are always entitled to a little chocolate wallowing initially :)

I found these cookies on, a recipe submitted by Nigella Lawson, and try as I may, I can’t seem to improve on them :) If you are looking for all the best things combined in one cookie—shortbread, chocolate, icing, and sprinkles!—then I recommend giving them a whirl!

Click Here For Buttery, Chocolate Goodness!


  1. Great post! I was actually holding my breath with you! How did I not know this story? Well nevermind, I know it now, and it is great. Failure is indeed a key ingredient to success (incidentally, my one and only F in my whole school career was an 8am Chemistry class Freshman year, so I feel your pain:)
    One day, long ago when I was still acting, I came back to my apartment building feeling really low about a bad audition. There was this wise old Jazz musician that lived in the building and liked to hang out in the grand lobby that must have been really beautiful in it's heyday. Anyway, he saw my long face and when I confessed I messed up royally and cried that my life was ruined he just said with a long slow smile "You're bound to make thousands of mistakes in this life, so you might as well get on with making them, because the sooner you do, the sooner you'll get on with living." That always stuck with me -- I still don't love making mistakes, but I do love pushing past them, and getting on with the living. I applaud you for doing the same thing -- just keep writing:)

  2. Marquita ValentineNovember 9, 2010 at 7:45 AM

    I had this class in college (freshmen year...aren't they all?) that everyone had to take to learn their way around the library. That's right...the freaking library.

    And yes it to was at the butt crack of dawn. I miss two classes due to something...what I don't remember and even though I aced the final (Yes, Virginia, there was a final in how to find your way around the library.) I got an F. Cause apparently in the fine print, one could only miss ONE class.

    I feel your pain. That was the only F I ever got. UGH! It sucked. And unlike you Ms. Smarty Pants, I can't even claim mind-bending Calculus, lol! :)

    Can't wait to see you Saturday!

  3. Kara, I don't know how you didn't know about that F (felt like it was emblazoned on my forehead!), but I didn't know about yours either, so I guess we're even ;)

    Amazing piece of wisdom from the old Jazz musician. A wonderful thing to pass along!

  4. Oh my, Marquita, that does suck! Library-get-around?? Well, I guess we know what's important to that university ...
    Looking forward to Saturday :)

  5. I am SO making those cookies :) Also, your dog is adorable. My kitty makes similar innocent-angel-eyes when she demolishes something of value.

    Despite being a complete slacker, I'm one of those annoying people who always manage to pass quite well despite not working. I did fail an assignment once though, I was taking Sign Language 101 and part of the course was Deaf Culture, which basically boiled down to "Hearing people are bad; memorize the dates and contents of these government papers relating to disability rights." Failing that was a pretty big blow to my ego, but in the long run it didn't do much for my work ethic :P

  6. Too funny, Das! I'll try not to be *too* jealous of your superpower, but no promises ;)

    Thanks so much for dropping by, and you'll have to let me know what you think of the cookies!

  7. Erin, I just love these trips down memory lane. And thanks for the hopeful lesson as I deal with the son who is an artist, not a mathematician. Does it really matter if he passes French? Probably not.

  8. Great post, Erin. It's funny how we define ourselves by our failures and they loom so large to us that we think everyone else defines us by them too -- and then it turns out nobody even knows about them. :)

    It takes a lot of years and experience to realize we NEED failures so we can learn valuable coping skills. We're not meant to get through life with an unblemished permanent record. LOL So I think the jazz magician's advice is perfect--we don't want to be paralyzed at the thought of failure. Just be prepared and learn how to deal with it when it does appear. :)

  9. I cannot believe you outed my F like that! I still maintain that your Lennon comment is what sealed our fates! Remember also that the teacher took a vacation for 6 months after that semester and we couldn't even question her???? The wound is still fresh! :)

  10. I'd say French is definitely not high on my list of must-knows in the universe, Clarissa (although I'm surprised -aren't you fluent?). Enjoy his strengths and hope he learns from the weaknesses :)

    So glad you stopped by to say hello!

  11. LOL, Donna, for the longest time I felt like that F was tattooed on my forehead :) But so true about needing failure - and learning from it when it happens.
    That jazz musician sounds like a great character in a book, doesn't he?

  12. Dark days, Jacob, dark days indeed ;) LOL, so glad you read this. And yes, I'm trying to be all wise about it, but it still hurts. Oh yes, it hurts.
    And for the record, you were one of the people laughing at the comparison when she was behind us, so I think you at least share the responsibility!
    Thanks for stopping by - nothing like a call-out to bring you out of lurkdom :)

  13. Erin, I never, ever took a calculus test and I never want to. I did however take a combined undergrad/grad art history course. This class required a lot of class participation and when the professor would call on me, I'd give her a deer caught in the headlights look. Her test were all essay and I do not write well when someone intimidating has a timer in hand. By drop add I was failing miserably and had to go to her and ask (insert "beg") her to allow me to drop her class. She gave me a long lecture on the public school system's failures of which I was so kindly included. I kept my mouth shut while fuming and waited for her to sign my slip. The next semester I wanted to go back sooo badly and rub my A research paper in her face(same class, different teacher). Unfortunately, this is only a small failure in a heap of monumental failures. If we learn from our defeats then I am a wise, wise women.:D

  14. Didn't that professor know the only way to pass calculus is to plug the formulas into a graphing calculator? My TI-85 is the reason I passed any math class in college.

  15. Gees, Lisa, I'm glad I never had that particular teacher. Talk about high and mighty! As for rubbing your A in her face, I was tempted to do the same with Barbara S Lennonstein. The next teacher was miles better than her, and I had no trouble comprehending the math under his tutelage.

    And don't worry, you may be wise, but I doubt you're thhaaatt wise! I don't you've made half the amount of mistakes you think you have :)
    Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Ahh, the good old TI-85. You know, Jennifer, I still have mine somewhere. I was bereft without it that one semester!