I failed, but I am not a failure.
This is the year that I remind myself how beautiful and complex it is to be a Black woman. It’s the year that I am mindful of what my spirit holds on to – where I am mindful of the ways that I toxically equate my worth with my academic ability. It’s the year that I do away with self-hate, which is ultimately rooted in white supremacy and that has no space here. It’s the year that I deal with the anxiety that comes with being identified as gifted and talented as a kindergarten student and acknowledge how being tracked in my public-school education both saved me and hurt me. It’s the year that I unpack my lifelong identity as a smart black girl and start embracing the magic that being a Black girl is all on its own. It’s the year that I relearn how to fail and not assume the identity of a failure, because that for sure is one thing I am not.
I do want to talk about a time that I failed, though. For my doctoral program, after all coursework is complete, you sit for the written comprehensive exam. Once the written comprehensive exam is complete, you sit for the oral comprehensive exam. Once both are complete, you are given permission to move forward with your dissertation research. I took the written comprehensive exam in October of 2018. I felt unprepared but refused to acknowledge that truth because my life runs on a timeline; I’ve known for a long time that I wanted a PhD and I wanted it by 30. I’ve always worked that way – no matter what it causes me, when I am headed someplace, I know the mile markers I need to see along the way. Although I encourage others to be flexible and gracious with themselves, I struggle to practice that myself. So, on October 26, I received an email that did not begin with the “congratulations” that I expected – instead, it read more like, “The faculty have finished reviewing all written comprehensive exams.” And then I saw the word “unfortunately.” Without finishing the email, I closed the browser, texted my husband something like, “Babe – I failed comps,” excused myself from my classroom full of students and cried in the bathroom. How could I allow myself to fail? For the next week, I struggled to get out of bed, struggled to function. As I sat in this slump, I recognized that I had somehow learned that failure wasn’t an option for me. I had heard so many messages about the intersectionality of being both a woman and Black and felt that there was little room for error, professionally or academically. I unconsciously began to internalize my academic and professional success as what made me valuable, what made me magic. I had invested so heavily in my mind and this failure felt shameful. I wrote a blog entry for #SisterPhD a few months ago about recognizing the warning signs for burn out and as I was writing about the warning signs, I was simultaneously experiencing burn out for myself. I’m human and I am learning to embrace how complex it is for someone like me to exist. I used to write poetry every day as a wellness practice, but since starting my doctoral program, I haven’t written much at all – I sometimes forget how much that process once meant to me. I wrote the poem below while in the slump after failing comps and I want to share it with you all here:
i cannot apologize for needing to give my bones a break
on these here, my bones.
on these here, my bones.
these bones are tired.
I am learning a lot about myself as I balance life as a full-time teacher and diversity practitioner at an independent school where faculty of color representation is low with my life as a doctoral student. Each day, I am relearning to embrace the complexities of being human and experiencing joy, sorrow, successes and failures; sometimes simultaneously.
I retook my written comps in February and passed. I took my oral comprehensive exam a week ago and have been given permission to move on with my dissertation research. I want to believe that I would have been vulnerable enough to write this piece even if I didn’t pass the second time around, which could have resulted in my dismissal from the graduate program. I want to believe that I would have the same grace with myself even if the story ended with failure. I thought that failing my comprehensive exam was the most inexcusable failure that I’ve ever experienced, but now I realize how failing in this moment allowed me to come out on the other side more aware and mindful of how I treat myself in this process. I am not defined by the result of any exam, whether I pass or fail. I’ve worked my ass off to get here. I deserve to be here. And I also deserve the space to not always have it together.
Old Dominion University