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Authentic Eagles: Carolyn Muller on Failure

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

Carolyn Muller, MCAS ‘18

Having twin older brothers who performed better than me in school, I dreaded the moment when I would rush to the mailbox during the summer to grab the manilla envelope and rip it open to see who my new teacher for the school year would be. And then it would be one of my older brothers' teachers. My “new” teachers already had intelligent, hardworking, innovative Mullersand two of themso why would they need another one, especially one who did not measure up to the previous Mullers?

Year after year I received the hand-me-down teachers that didn’t fit properlya bit snug in one area, a bit roomy in another. These teachers that taught my brothers and then me were a bit too pinched regarding my lack of performance on tests, a bit too nonchalant about helping me to understand an assignment in a loving, caring way. When taking a statewide exam, my fourth grade teacher hovered over me and said, “Are you sure that’s the correct answer?”

“Yes?” I timidly replied.

“Oh kay…” she said, dragging out the word. She paused for a second before turning her backand her hopeon me. I wanted to be confident in my answers so badly. But I couldn’t be.  

I couldn’t escape academics with something else I was good at either. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, I played sports but I wasn’t fantastic at them, and I wouldn’t try out for theater since I was so scared. The only thing I could possibly do was recite movie lines to you, but even that was looked down upon because I wasn’t an avid reader like every kid at my age should be. During my childhood, I was not aware of all the other activities I could enjoy and be good at like  decorating, cooking, baking, medicine, and many others. It’s hard to see all the alternatives as a kid when you’re surrounded by only certain activities. I wondered why I was put on this earth if I couldn’t do anything special.

This story line riddled my elementary and middle school years. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I wasn’t the best kid. I didn’t seem to understand assignments clearly, even though everybody around me did. Most of my friends were smarter than me. I felt so inferior, and I felt people around me wonder, Why are they friends with her? Sometimes, I couldn’t understand why they were friends with me either, especially when I heard something they said incorrectly, or interpreted something in completely the wrong way.  

Through my elementary and middle school years, I often felt like a failure, and come each gloomy June, I was glad that I had one less year of grammar school left. My family experienced two life-altering changes while I was still in middle school: My brothers applied to college, and my dad received a job offer in a new city and state.

My dad started this new job the summer after I finished fifth grade. My mom, brothers, and I didn’t follow my dad to his new job. My parents wanted us to stay so my brothers could finish high school since they were “performing so well.” It was going to be their junior year, the critical year in college admissions, so why disrupt their studies, since they performed so well at the local high school already? Not moving proved to be one of the most testing moments of my parents' marriage and in all of our relationships. “We’ll move when she,” my Dad jerked a thumb in my direction, “begins high school, since we know Daniel Hand [the school in my hometown] isn’t a good fit for her with the larger size of a public school and without the personal attention of teachers.”

I became more determined after this to prove myself worthy to be considered smart, just like my brothers. I threw myself into each thing they were experiencing: SATs, competition among friends, recommendations, and essays, and I made lists of colleges I would apply to or imagined myself attending. I remember texting one of my friends my list of colleges: King’s College and University College in London, Scripps in California, Middlebury. I finally felt in control. I could prove everybody wrong with my impressive skills and knowledge about a process some kids my age didn’t even know existed, but I also needed the academics to back it up.

This is what drove me to really kick it up academically the next year, when my brothers finally left the nest. It was also the year that I would be applying to high schools in what would be my new home, where I imagined the kids would be even more intimidating and intelligent than the students from my hometown.  

I worked especially hard that year in eighth grade, and gained acceptance into a high school near where I would be moving to.  I worked hard throughout high school, motivated by that college admissions letter I so desperately wanted. Although my academic drive waned as I continued high school, I graduated and was ready to set off for my college years at Scripps College in Claremont, California.

You would think that with all of that college preparation I had been doing since I was in middle school, I would know which college was the right fit for me. When I arrived at Scripps, however, I didn’t feel that this was the place for me. Not only did it not match what I pictured college to be like, but it was also not the type of college environment I wanted to be in. I knew it was not the place I wanted to graduate from and spend the next four years of my life at. It was tough to admit that this college wasn’t right, especially after the display I put on, parading myself around like I knew what each college in the United States was like. I didn’t know what was right for me, and I chose Scripps since I knew the reputation and the name was good, all due to my brother’s attendance at Pomona, another college partner of the Claremont Consortium.

After many tries to convince myself not to transfer, all to save face to the world of social media that I would be attending a different college, I finally admitted that I needed to transfer.

It seemed like I failed my first go at college, so when I arrived at Boston College, I experienced this feeling of determination and motivation similar to what I felt in eighth grade. I knew what things I needed to change to make my college experience how I wanted it to be. I went to auditions for singing groups confidently, knowing that getting involved early on and not being afraid to try new things was key to a successful college experience, especially now that I was at a school that allowed me to feel comfortable in my own skin.

Although I didn’t perform extremely well in school before college, I was somewhat confident in my knowledge of history and languages. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have any skill at all; I go down a deep, dark hole where I don’t remember any of the attributes and quirks I have.  But I enjoyed history and languages and decided to be a classics major (the study of Ancient Greece and Rome) since it combined history with the study of Latin, a foundational language. It also was an interest I developed in high school, so how bad could it be, right?

I grew to really like this major. I imagined myself as a Roman woman and my daily life roaming the markets and baths, but I struggled a bit. I was surrounded by students who grew up reading the tales of Homer and Virgil and knew so much more about cultural practices in the ancient world than I did. I still liked it, though, and I felt this need to just finish college and decide what to do with my degree later.

Until this past month of my senior year, when the chair of the undergraduate Classics Department called me into her office, and explained that “this isn’t the best major for you” and that I should “consider transferring to a school where they offer a major more suited to your abilities and needs.”  The word “abilities” stuck out to me like a sore thumb.

Talk about failure.

I’m a senior at my second college, past the add/drop deadline, and I feel I’ve had the core of my identity ripped from inside my chest, held up in the air like a sacrifice, and tossed to the side.  Not only had I failed early on in school academically and at my first go at college, but now I also failed my college major. Just how bad of a student could I be?

I couldn’t help but go back yet again and compare my present self with eighth-grade me. How had I failed at this so badly? How did I not take college seriously enough? Eighth-grade me would be so disappointed, and wouldn’t want this Carolyn, this Carolyn who first had to transfer colleges, but now couldn’t even succeed at a college major. Eighth-grade me knew what I was doing then, I knew what I liked, and I knew what I was going to study and how life was going to pan out. But it didn’t.

I took one week off from school and moped around, feeling bad for myself with that steaming side dish of scalding hot blame. It was my fault for failing so many times in a row: academically in school, transferring colleges, and now my major. The fact that I let my mind wander so far back and feel guilt for things that happened so long ago showed how much was weighing on me. I fell into a major depression, to the point where I had to speak with a therapist every single day for fear of what I would do to myself, in addition to multiple, shameful FaceTime calls to my parents, who I believed I had embarrassed and disappointed so badly. Why would they want a child like this, especially with two other children who succeeded so easily in school?

Often my Mom would remind me, “Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can realize what’s wrong and make a change.” I certainly thought that up until that point, I'd hit rock bottom perhaps a few more times than I’d like to admit in my life. But this time, it was different. I felt awakened. I felt the chains at the bottom of the ocean break away from me, free of gulping for air and free to ask, “What am I interested in?” Since I hit rock bottom, what damage would it be to honestly ask myself these questions? And anyways, could I really say I “failed” at something, while other people, in lands far away from me, were experiencing real failuresfailures of power, in politics and in electricity? Why couldn’t I handle being given the gift of an education, when girls my age were fighting for their right to go to school?

I realized I had to let go of these worries and focus on myself in the present momentnot the past moments of a perfectionist Carolyn. I took a step back and looked at myself as a whole. I’ve never been one to hold my identity to just one thing, meaning my entire being and self didn’t lay in one hobby or one interest. Instead, my identity and my being laid in many interests and even just personality traits that maybe everybody else hadbut I didn’t care since I possessed them too. I’m sensitive and emotional, which enables me to read people and be in tune with my own feelings. Occasionally, I’m funny, and I love a good holiday party.  What I also started to do during this downtime, was look at other career paths or majors that would work for me: namely, event planning and decorating. While this new “core” to my identity helped me out of my depression, I also took a step back and realized that sometimes it’s the things that don’t find themselves on a career test or a resume that really matter and really make you who you are. I had to stop coming up with a new major, a new career path, to feel like myself because who I am isn’t dependent upon a career or a major.

I would be lying if I told you that after this latest failure, I’ve jumped the hurdle and stopped comparing current Carolyn to eighth-grade Carolyn, and I’m now free of the anxieties of failure. I still wonder what would have happened if I had never “lost” my determination to do well in academics that my eighth-grade self had or if I had chosen the “right” college or major my first year. I still compare my current self to my past selves a lot.  

But I like to think that it’s the failures that truly make us. And we’ve heard this story before, but rarely do we share it. I’ve always wondered about those who fail. Why don’t we hear those stories enough? How come we haven’t heard from the people who thought maybe keypunching, rather than typing, was the next big thing? Because quite frankly, I think it’s the failures that tighten our bodies that fill us with fear, only to be built up to cocoon us and transform us into beautiful butterflies we didn’t even know we could be.