“Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.” — James A. Baldwin
I’m a first-generation college graduate.
It’s not something that holds great significance for me or something that I think much about. There was never any question that my siblings and I would graduate from college because there’s very little that means more to my parents than education.
I come from a family of talented, funny, sedentary, creative, food-loving, grumpy people. We disagree often and share little in terms of emotion, but we’ve always taken care of each other and been there for each other in the most critical times. We are devoted to each other, and nothing will ever be more important or hold more significance.
I don’t take that for granted, even in times when I’ve doubted the return on my educational investment. And although formal education has left much to be desired, I continue to believe and hope that education is the only direct route to satisfaction, greater health and justice.
At times I have felt trapped by my social location and this frustration has caused me to overcompensate, over-communicate and over-analyze. For a long time the only thing I took solace in was the fact that others considered me smart. Without malice or self-deprecation I can say that I never really considered myself very pretty or very talented or very interesting, but smart? I could be that. I met my best friend in the public library. I convinced my parents to purchase a set of Encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman (yes, those were real in the 80s).
And because of my social location, any academic success was ever sweeter, ever more significant. Until my devastating failure from law school, I had never truly realized that my sense of worth, value, utility and confidence were predicated on the belief that I was smart. And because black people weren’t supposed to be that, I was important and potentially useful.
I graduated among the top 2% from a high school class of almost 800. I graduated from a private university that has ranked 20th in the nation. I earned my teaching certification at Northwestern. I was accepted into multiple law schools and was offered small (but offered, damnit!) merit scholarships.
And in the summer of 2009, I was academically dismissed.
The requirement was a 2.0. I studied day and night—excluded friends, stunted relationships. I attended extra tutoring sessions, cried, woke up earlier, stayed up later, prayed. With a 1.9 after finals, I was kindly but officially asked not to return.
It was the most expensive shame I’ve ever felt—the most significant and the most lasting. It took my confidence and my sense of worth, and for a long time (arguably still), I stopped aspiring.
When I was a praying woman I believed that God led me to law school and then led me to my failure from it. I believed that there were lessons I needed to understand: financial lessons, character lessons, lessons in discipline and trust. Lessons in humility.
Looking back, I know that I was never a very sympathetic character. For better or for worse, failing out of law school was the best thing that has ever happened to me. And if I could do it all over again–
I’d become a DJ.
I’ve never blamed racism or sexism for my failure from law school. I know that a part of me will always wonder if I had been stronger– more mentally tough– could I have been successful. I take comfort in the knowledge that I’ve done some really important things since that expensive, embarrassing shame.
I fell in love.
I joined a gym.
I joined a church.
I bought a NutriBullet.
I traveled overseas.
I sang Karaoke.
I became a pretty good aunt. Twice!
I completed two half-marathons (and only blacked-out once!).
I used my NutriBullet.
I left the gym.
I left The Church.
I enjoyed and successfully completed a Master’s program.
I stopped eating refined sugar… today.
I’ve finally (maybe?) been released from an affliction and soon, very soon, hope to be divested of a crutch. And thankfully, I’ve come back to myself— complete with the understanding that there is more to life than being really, really ridiculously good-looking. I’ve matured ever so slightly to accept and to create and then to re-create my own definition of success—one not marred by family, social or internal pressures and expectations.
I am enough.
All I wish is that ten years ago, I had truly believed that.
What is your most expensive shame? From what affliction have you been delivered?