“Lessons From Failure”
College Writing 1, Ms. Chelsea Kuhel
I was inspired to write about my experience of learning math in middle school because it was the first time that I had to decide what I wanted from school and had to take initiative for myself. This was the first time I had particularly struggled in school, and I am proud of how I dedicated myself to learning the material in order to be successful. Both this subject and this persistence have shaped the way that I have lived, and continue to live, my life. Writing about my failure gave me the unique opportunity to reflect upon this moment in my past and appreciate the lessons this event taught me.
Excerpt from “Lessons from Failure”
“Walking through the bustling halls of Portage West Middle School that cool September morning of 2013, I am extremely nervous for my first day of sixth grade. The teenagers tower over all five feet of me as I clutch my books tightly to my chest, making my way to my first hour class: Math Plus. Entering the classroom, I quickly take a seat in the front. The whole class is silent as tension hangs over the heads of each of us sixth graders. I observe the room, settling on a poster with lightning bolts along the sides, the words “Knowledge is Power” in large, yellow print filling up the center. After the shrieking bell sounds, a large, old woman enters the classroom, trudging her way up to the front. The woman stares out at us as we stare back, taking in her spiky gray hair, cold eyes behind small-rimmed glasses, and intimidating stance. My nerves intensify. After we absorb our initial observations, she begins to speak.”
Lessons from Failure
by Casey Smith
Here I sit, curled up under a blanket on my bed, computer in my lap. My high school is
streaming the senior awards ceremony online due to the coronavirus pandemic. My friends and I are on Facetime with each other, chatting while half paying attention as we move from video clip to video clip, cheering on our classmates for earning awards in their departments. As the math department video begins, I tune out our mustang fight song, tired of hearing the sis-boom-bas for the fourth time tonight. All of a sudden, my attention snaps back to the screen. Did Mrs. Frink, my junior and senior year math teacher, call out my name?
If someone had told eleven-year-old me that I would be the recipient of the senior math award, I would have been speechless. Math had never been my strongest subject. Sure, I enjoyed it, but I always thought myself to be more of a writer. The process of expressing myself through creative elementary school assignments allowed me to reflect on my work, while I usually viewed math homework as the boring obstacle I had to pass before moving onto something else. This all changed for me when I moved on to middle school, where I learned that math is not a simple, one step chore, but a multi-step process that requires problem solving skills and precision.
Walking through the bustling halls of Portage West Middle School that cool September morning of 2013, I am extremely nervous for my first day of sixth grade. The teenagers tower over all five feet of me as I clutch my books tightly to my chest, making my way to my first hour class: math plus. Entering the classroom, I quickly take a seat in the front. The whole class is silent as tension hangs over the heads of each of us sixth graders. I observe the room, settling on a poster with lightning bolts along the sides, the words “Knowledge is Power” in large, yellow print filling up the center. After the shrieking bell sounds, a large, old woman enters the classroom, trudging her way up to the front. The woman stares out at us as we stare back, taking in her spikey gray hair, cold eyes behind small-rimmed glasses, and intimidating stance. My nerves intensify. After we absorb our initial observations, she begins to speak.
“Hello class, my name is Ms. Nowak, and Welcome to West Middle. I hope that you are all in the right place, although I’m sure by the end of the year we will be a much smaller class.”
At this, I felt myself bristle. I had never had any problems with my class subjects before. Why would she think some of us aren’t capable of taking her class?
The day moved along, and before I knew it, I was already a week into class. We had our first quiz coming up on multi-step equations, and from the homework I felt relaxed about the content. Sure, I missed some questions here and there, but I didn’t think much of it. I simply sat down, took out my pencil, and began to take the quiz.
Examining the questions briefly, I get right to solving them. I scrawl out my work on the side of the test, only writing out the general process of what I am doing. Why take the time to write out each individual step if I know how to do this? After making my way through the thirteen questions on my paper, I take a look back and see blobs of numbers in my handwriting written sparsely across the blank space of the test. Looking through my answers is boring though, so after checking through the first two, I walk up to the basket and drop my paper in.
Two days later, Ms. Nowak passes our quizzes back. I casually flip my paper around, but the second I see my score, my eyes turn into saucers and my heart starts pounding. I earned a D!
I had never earned a D in my life, how have I messed up this badly? While I internally panic over my grade, Ms. Nowak adds to my terror with an announcement: “If you received a D+ or below, you need to have your quiz signed by your parents and return it to me. If not, I’ll be making a call home to evaluate if you are in the right place here.”
Not only have I nearly failed the test, but I have to show it to my parents. My day cannot get any worse. After school, I swiftly walk home through the crisp fall air from the bus stop. There, I collapse on the floor in a puddle of tears, practically shoving my paper into the hands of my concerned parents, crying out that “I just want to quit!” They assure me that it will be alright and tell me that if after my next test I still struggle to connect with the material, I can consider switching into the regular math class. I hang my head in shame and make my way to my bedroom, heartbroken over my disaster of a test score.
Over the next few weeks, I spent hours on my math homework. I double checked my answers and enlisted my parents to help me understand each one. I asked questions going over the work in class and did so many practice problems that my parents became worried I was taking things too far. Eventually, I was able to follow the order of operations on almost any question I tried. As our chapter test approached, however, the fear returned. What would happen if I failed this next test? Would I have to face the shame of changing classes so early in the year?
As I flip my test over to begin, I sit there and stare at the page. Now is the time to show that I understand the material. After working myself up enough to begin, I hunch my back over the desktop and get to work. My eyes move from problem to problem, retracing my work, not daring to stray from the sheet in fear of making a mistake. After checking my answers, I stand up and shakily make my way to place my test in the basket, sweat forming on my face and arms. All that is left now is to wait for my grade.
I survived the test, but anxiety still ran rampant through my brain. Two days later, Ms. Nowak began class stating that the tests were graded, but she was very disappointed with us. Only one student, it seemed, had received a perfect score on the test.
“Casey Smith?” she calls out.
I stand up and look around the room. It’s eerily silent as the class awaits what is about to occur, their eyes dancing back and forth between the teacher and I. My whole body is cold as I fidget with my fingers in anticipation.
“Congratulations. You were the one person to receive a thirty out of thirty on your test.”
What? How could that be possible? I was overcome with emotion, relief and pride swelling in my chest. My heartbeat gradually slowed as I took my seat, but my happiness over the achievement still remains to this day. By putting all of my effort toward understanding the content, I was able to prove to myself and to Ms. Nowak that I belonged in this class – that I was capable of success.
Learning how to work precisely and completely in my sixth-grade math class provided me with more opportunities than I could have ever imagined. I continued taking advanced math classes throughout school, which became my strongest subject. I had the opportunity to be taught by one of my favorite teachers in the world, Mrs. Frink, for my junior and senior year math classes. These two years even further led me to fall in love with problem solving. I was even recognized for my hard work in the course with a senior award. Without my experience of overcoming failure in Ms. Nowak’s class, would not have discovered this passion. As Ms. Nowak’s poster said, knowledge is power, but so is perseverance.