Reflecting on failure ten years after failing a required graduation test

Two nights ago, my eighth grade U.S. history teacher posted a Facebook status update that immediately transported me to Memory Lane: “Constitution Test on Thursday. Could be a bloodbath.”

The post, which received nearly 90 “likes” and more than 30 comments, had a high engagement rate for a reason. A chunk of his Facebook friends are former students and many of them took this post as an opportunity to reflect upon their own experiences with the unforgettable, ever-intimidating Constitution Test, which we were all required to pass with a “C” before graduating from the middle school.

Eighth grade!
Eighth grade graduation!

After checking out some of the other comments, my immediate response was to laugh about the funny aspects of the exam: Our instructor’s decision to play “It’s Not Unusual” before distributing the test, our humorous one-on-one in-class study sessions, and my teacher’s helpful phrase, “When in doubt, 2/3rds!”

Of course, less-than-amusing memories surfaced right after I sent a peppy message of gratitude to my former instructor. Ten years ago, when I took the Constitution Test, I was not in a happy place. My grades were poor, my friends unpredictable and fair-weather, and spirits low. Most everyone I know disliked middle school, but words could never convey the level of hatred I had for that time of my life. Those years were dreadful, not just because of the bullying I endured, but because I truly believed I’d never make anything of myself. That was before I heard the debatable (but in my opinion, accurate) quote, “There is no surer formula for failure in life than success in high school.” (h/t Tumblr, Cindi Leive)

If only this reality had been relayed to me after I failed the Constitution Test the first time around. The school made a huge deal about passing the exam, as it was our only way out of the hellhole that was SVMS (FYI, I adored my teachers, many of which were the best educators out there, just not the school itself). If we didn’t get a “C” or higher on the first try, our parents would be notified over the phone.

And mine were. My father waited until dinnertime to mention that he’d gotten a call from the school that day revealing that I’d earned an “F” on the test. The second he delivered the news, I threw my head into my hands and burst into tears at the table. Though usually quick to defend me, my dad showed no sympathy or slack when I lost composure. He wasn’t angry, he said, but concerned.

“She’s not college material,” he said to my mom, as if I was not in the room. “Laura, you should start taking the bus to Cabrillo Community College because that’s where you’re going to end up going.”

A little tough love was fine, especially from my dad, the good cop in our household. As earlier stated, he was more disturbed than upset, and he feared I suffered from ADD. He set up a meeting with the school guidance counselor, who knew me all too well from my constant stream of reports on mean classmates and assured my dad that I was not a candidate for ADD. I was simply lazy and employed ineffective study habits.

With that, my history instructor agreed to provide me with free tutor sessions three times a week to prepare me to take the exam again. He did the same for several other students who had done miserably on the test. Though I was initially embarrassed about my performance, it was clear from the start that my instructor thought no less of me after I got schooled by the Constitution. He didn’t wag his finger at me for not paying attention in class or studying all the wrong concepts. It was what it was, and I walked away from the second round with a “B+”. It didn’t bear a “98%!” like my best friend Crystal’s exam, which she’d aced the first time around, but was a test worth keeping. My mother still has it filed away in one of my childhood memory boxes.

Ten years later, I’m not ashamed to admit that I tanked a test when the majority of my class was ready for it. At the time, I worried that bombing the exam proved all the hurtful things my schoolmates had ever said about me: That I was destined to be a reject for the rest of my life and never do anything of value. Now that I’m 23 and working in a field that means the world to me, I’m relieved to say that slip-ups of the past did not keep me down or discourage me from taking risks. Though it didn’t seem like it at the time, I know now that one mistake — past or present — does not have to define me.

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