Through the Looking Glass

by Cecilia Robinson | 3/28/16 6:30pm

Orientation week, a random smattering of the class of 2016 piled into Alumni Gymnasium Hall for some official-sounding “Welcome to Dartmouth” event. I say “random smattering” because I’m pretty sure half of us didn’t go — like that “Strange as This Weather Has Been” class book lecture that was supposed to bind us all together over summer reading. I think the only thing I remember from that book was that a main character got splinters on her butt from having sex in a shed.

But this orientation event, whatever it was, had a performance by the Dartmouth Aires, and two lectures: one by a visitor and one by a student. The student went first, speaking about the value of failing and giving the “Don’t-be-afraid-to-try-new-things” talk. Then he introduced our other speaker, who told us as she took the podium that her speech was on the same topic. Using basically the same themes and a little more emphasis, she reiterated the importance of trying things out, seeing what worked and what didn’t, testing our limits and not worrying about the fall because the lesson is in getting back up. Starry-eyed and in love with this crazy little patch of New Hampshire, I took their words to heart, and we all sang the alma mater for the first time as a class.

With the start of freshman fall, I failed a lot of things, starting with a Math 8 midterm. Taylor series are the worst.

I was pretty sure something was either very wrong with the test or very wrong with me. Admittedly, I hadn’t prepared very well. Like a lot of Dartmouth students, I’d gone to a high school where the-night-before or even the-day-of preparation could get me through, no problem — and coming from Alabama, I was spending most of my time building a social life from the ground up, worried that if I didn’t make friends now I’d somehow be too late.

I wrote off my failed midterm, studied hard for the final and did fine in the class. I thought that’d be the end of it; but just a term later, I failed yet another test. And again, I blamed it on time management; I hadn’t calibrated enough yet — next time would be fine. So I went through the same process, re-learning all of the material for the final and pulled out at the median.

Now, for sure, I thought that’d be the last time. I mean, fail once, call it the test, fail twice...that’s my fault. So I was surprised when I failed a third assessment in the spring. The difference was that now, I was used to it.

Was Dartmouth just that hard? Was I dumb? My friends were doing fine, so what was wrong with me?

It finally clicked freshman spring: failing was giving me an “out.”

Something about it — maybe the drama of being the underdog, the one who always had to work harder to get the same thing, the one that could still come back and win in the end, made me feel different. It was a challenge. It separated me from the rest of my classmates: in a new place, where I didn’t know if I would be the smartest person in the room, I was scared that I’d discover I was not intelligent enough to be here. So I competed only with myself: how far could I fall, and how far could I climb back up? With my personal ups and downs, I avoided any self-comparison with my peers.

I never really realized this could have repercussions. Oops.

Suddenly, come sophomore fall, some of the people closest to me pitched toward recruitment or graduate school applications. One of my best friends spent hours beside me choosing classes, picking this layup or setting that NRO because she needed to “fix” the mistakes she’d made freshman year: she needed a high enough GPA so that her resume wouldn’t just be tossed into the trash. “Why did I take ‘Humanities’?” one friend groaned. He’d been “trying new things” by taking Humanities 1 and 2, but ended up regretting it because the classes had low medians.

Iwish I could say I wasn’t caught up in the sophomore grind, but the pressure to possess an admirable GPA got to me. My game was up. I had to stop my little drama.

That sophomore fall, I played approximately 50 games of pong. With water. In Thayer. As a study break during the endless hours of problem sets and midterm preparation (try M101 for size). But this time, I decided I would just work really, really hard — and for the first time since coming to Dartmouth, I didn’t fail anything. My report card hit every mark. And I was absolutely miserable.

I’d been a ghost the entire term: I hadn’t seen my friends, I’d barely spent time with my new fraternity-for-women (why did I even join, then?), and my day had begun and ended in a single academic building. Worse — so much worse — I didn’t feel like I’d gained anything by putting in so much more time. It was just the matter of watching every point, going to every problem set session and talking to my professors when I wasn’t sure what they wanted.

What the heck was Dartmouth trying to tell me?

I thought that, like our orientation speakers suggested, I had come to Dartmouth to take risks. I heard “liberal arts” and “Ivy League school” and I thought late-night philosophy, solving the problems of the world and getting head-over-heels over some books that I just couldn’t put down (well, maybe I was a little naïve). And for the most part, the feedback I received from my first two years at Dartmouth said “less engagement with the material, more gaming the system.” My ups and downs had taught me how the system worked. Now the question was what to do with that information.

From that perspective, I think Dartmouth students are presented with a difficult choice. Do you follow your intellectual curiosity, try everything new, mess up a bunch but become a better person for it, and accept the fact that your GPA will never be hot gossip? Or do you guard your GPA with a stick, meticulously watch to make sure every checkbox is ticked, and cling to what you know because it yields results? Both have significant advantages and disadvantages, and I honestly don’t know which path I should have taken when I arrived on the lawn of Robo.

For now, though, I’ve come up with a new game that suits me. I’ve tried to resist putting pressure on my GPA. I’ve done my best to seek out professors who challenge my thinking, and with them I don’t worry about the grade. I throw everything I have at their courses and hope I don’t fail too badly. With the rest of my classes, I’m more guarded, and the numbers tend to balance out in a way that works.

I like to think most Dartmouth students are in this middle ground. I love when I strike a chord with someone like-minded, and suddenly we’re passionately debating whether dogs have souls, regardless of the fact I should be using that time to double-check every answer on my problem set. Still, as Dartmouth begins to feel more and more like career prep, the little voice in the back of my mind tells me to get back to work. “Don’t be afraid to fail” has become more of an ideal scenario than a practical application, but I guess that’s the purpose of matriculation speeches.