In high school, I was a good student. The caveat is that my public school education was a little, well, let’s just say iffy. There were a few teachers that were effing gems (hi Steph), but when I look back at a lot of them I actually sort of wonder how it is that I became a functional learner at all. I mean, my 9th grade Algebra teacher was a guy who looked like Barney Rubble and had such a rage problem that one time he kicked the underside of a student desk WHILE THE KID STILL SAT IN IT and we all sat there and yawned because we saw that shit every day. 11th grade history consisted of our teacher making us read aloud from the text book all hour while he read the newspaper at his desk. My AP English class taught me nothing other than how to write a 5-paragraph essay in order to pass the AP test, so when I actually got to college and it was not 4 years of 5 paragraph-essay writing I was sort of fucked. So, when I say I was a good student, just realize the context and understand that this is not a brag.
By the time I hit 11th grade, I had gone through the rigors of natural science in 9th grade (my teacher there kicked me out of class because he told us that having a bowel movement 2-3 times a day was normal because science, and I argued that he was getting pooping mixed up with brushing his teeth), and biology in 10th grade (my teacher there brought in his skull x-rays to show us that he had a 6-inch nail lodged in his brain from a nail gun accident, which I guess is sciencey?), and it was time for chemistry. My chemistry teacher was actually not too bad, relatively speaking, and he kind of wanted us to pay attention and learn stuff. Which, what? He wasn’t that great with classroom management though, which I fondly remember because one day the shy little kid that sat in front of me and my friend Heidi who had Orville Redenbacher hair revealed that he knew the entire dance from the Thriller video and we coaxed him into busting it out in the middle of class which sort of caused a classroom mob and my geeky chemistry teacher looked terrified. That is probably my favorite science-class memory ever.
So I dug into chemistry, and listened to my teacher, and did the lab work, and learned some formulas. Pretty good, right? Wrong. The problem was that this teacher was wanting us to understand why we were doing these things, concept-wise, and not just memorize a bunch of stuff. This is not a thing that my teachers often asked me to do, especially in science. So the first test of the semester came around, and I took it, and I got it back, and dudes. It was not good. I do not remember the exact grade but it might as well have been–as my pal Nick would have said back in the day- a Q-minus. Like, I had bombed it, baaaaaaad. I was not a student that bombed anything, so this was shocking to me. I had played with the test tubes successfully! I had filled out my lab sheets! I had done all of the tasks! I had just not done any actual learning. DANG.
I went through that class, bomb after bomb after bomb. Not only did I continue to bomb, but it got progressively worse. Turns out if you don’t understand the basic stuff, you won’t understand the stuff that goes on top of that either. I remember being supremely stressed out about chemistry in a way that I had never been stressed out about school before. Why couldn’t I understand this? Why wasn’t it getting better even though I was trying (and truth be told, I wasn’t really trying in school most of the time)? And really, what it all boiled down to was a fear about something that I had labelled myself (and been labelled by others) my whole childhood: SMART. HOLY SHIT WAS I NOT SMART? Because look. Look at this test score! It has gone from a Q-minus to a Y-minus! These numbers are what determine our smartness, yes? And more than the numbers, the fact that I DO NOT GET THE CHEMISTRY SCIENCE TALK must mean that I have been falsely classified and my true identity as Dum Dum McStupidface is only now just being discovered! SHITTTTT.
This is the part where I am supposed to figure out how to ask the teacher for extra help and he turns into Howard Hesseman from Head of the Class and my brain is activated by science! Or maybe I realize that I need to look behind the homework tasks into the concepts behind them and I have a science epiphany where I realize that I have to work harder, work smarter, and that I can get myself out of this parade of Q-minuses. Or I find my own personal Brian Krakow who will sweetly tutor me with patience by day and ride his bike past my house at night, and have secret adult times with himself as he thinks about me but his love is unrequited because I only have eyes for future man-bun Jordan Catalano.
None of these things happened. What did happen though, was even better. I took an exam, I felt confused the entire time I was taking it, I got it back, and my score was a 0.0.
Do you hear me? Not an F. Not even a low F. A ZERO POINT ZERO. I got no points. None of the points. Not even a partial point.
And you know how I felt about that, after all the cowering I was doing about my identity as a smarty britches? I am not lying to you when I say that, surprisingly, but almost immediately, I felt awesome. Like, great, awesome. Almost euphoric. I will never forget it. It was a big moment in my young life. The reason I felt so elated was that the thing that I had feared for months had happened. I had FAILED. Not just done badly, but done so badly that I literally could not have done any worse. I did not pick up a crumb of a point off the floor. NOTHING, NADA, ZIP. But after I got that exam back, I went to my next class and still felt like me. And then I went to play practice with pals after school and felt like me. And then I went home and my mom and dad kissed me just the same, even though they weren’t excited about that score. Unfortunately I can’t say that I didn’t feel dumb, because I did. I was a kid, I didn’t know better about things like that. But fortunately, I had the things in life up until that point that added up to me basically feeling good about myself and my ability to handle things. I liked myself, and thought myself mostly capable, and able to learn things, and that I was a good person overall and that that was more important than knowing my chemistry lesson that day. There would be other days to learn that chemistry lesson and I would do that. I had faith in myself.
I feel like the zero point zero experience is one that every little (and big) overachiever should have. To crash and burn on something just so we can have the subsequent experience of realizing: huh. Look at that. I’m ok. I’m still me. And now other things will happen from here. The world did not come to an end.
I have been thinking about this today because as I am sure you are tired of hearing, I have had a rough year. The thing I feared most happened. This was followed by a lot of me flailing around (and failing around) not really knowing how to live in that reality, for months. Then a few months ago, some work stuff happened that made me confront some fears about where my career should be. Then last month, another scary medical emergency happened to a loved one, which also crashed right up against the fear and worry I carry around about losing people I love. Then, last week, another thing happened where some fears I had had about being a bad friend and a bad person were flashed in front of me quite unexpectedly that had me truly mortified. And now that all that has happened, I feel strangely like I felt when I got that Zero Point Zero. I don’t know if it even makes sense for me to say that for me, all of these things put together add up to me basically getting a Zero Point Zero at life 2013-to-present. But I feel good, y’all. Like, post-chemistry-test euphoria good. Because I’m still here, I’m still me, I’m still trying hard, and for every last thing that has happened that has earned me a Zero-Point-Zero, I have so many more things that are straight up Honor Roll. What is it about feeling defeated that sometimes turns into feeling triumphant? I’m going to say the cheesy thing. It happens when, at the core of all of these fears, the thing you have to hold onto is loving yourself. So when all the fears come to pass, you still have that.
So crash and burn is fine by me. I’m going to strut out of there right after tho.