A Passing Failure

This is a story about many things: about anxiety, about mishaps, about academia, about family… It’s a story of success and of friendship, of decisions and of sacrifices and of exhaustion… This is a story about pretending so hard you almost collapse… It’s a long story, and I’m telling it with no frills or embellishments.

The day of my orals exam approached. For the past year, I had been reading books and articles from the three lists I had created. I had revised and re-revised those lists a thousand times. I had met with my committee members to discuss the books and my ideas. I had exchanged email after email about how my ideas were developing. I had taken mountains of notes that I never looked at again.

I was ready. I was ready to take the exam, and ready to put it all behind me.

I told almost no one about my exam date. Unlike many of my colleagues, who scheduled parties to celebrate immediately after their exams, I wanted nothing more than to move on and pretend this never happened. Just get to work on writing the prospectus, forget the months of agony in which I had to force myself to read books I should have been enjoying, books I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t been constantly distracted by ongoing angst with my family.

That summer, just a few months earlier, I had attended two of my brothers’ weddings. I had been overjoyed to join in their happiness, but that didn’t lessen the anxiety and sense of hysterical desperation at having to spend so much time immersed in ultra-religious rituals and pretending I was okay being around the brother who had molested me as a child.

Just earlier this month, I had skipped my youngest brother’s engagement, though I was planning to go to the party the week after my orals exam. I had no plans to join the birthday party for my niece, daughter of my abuser. I had scheduled my exam to be on the Friday of Succos so that I would have the convenient excuse that I wouldn’t be able to get to Brooklyn in time before shabbos started.

Of course, all that careful planning and rationing of my emotional sanity never really helped. It was constantly precarious, because new family events could pop up at any point – and in fact, the week before my exam, one of my brothers’ wives gave birth to a baby boy, and the bris was scheduled for Friday – the morning of my exam.

Could I have gone in the morning and gotten back to midtown in time for my 2pm exam? Sure. I could have. I decided not to, and gave the convenient excuse of my impending exam to stave off pleas from my parents to make the trip and join the family.

So let’s check in: how was I doing the night before my orals exam? Tired, both physically and emotionally. In a bit of a daze. Trying not to think about my family. Thinking about all the advice people gave for the day of one’s exam and laughing internally – but bitterly – at how little any of it applied to me.

Get a good night’s sleep – check, but not because I tried to, mostly because I was so tired and depressed and anxious about non-academic stuff that I slept massive amounts every night.

Don’t keep reading your notes, whatever you know is fine for now – ha, as if I could concentrate enough to actually read my notes.

I set my alarm for 9am, aiming to be at school just an hour ahead of the exam time. In the morning, I woke up and mechanically dressed.

Checked my phone – no messages. Not from my family, not from the friends who did know about my exam date. I headed off to school, in a state of dazed bliss.

It was raining. [Why is it always raining in my stories? But it really was.]

My sweater got soaked. I went to the medieval study where I could be alone and lock the door, took off my sweater and laid it out over the backs of some chairs to dry out.

I shuffled through my notecards one last time, feeling – nothing.

Checked my phone again – still no good-luck wishes from any family or friends. I almost felt lonely and abandoned, but immediately dismissed that – my family, after all, was busy with the bris, and very few other people even knew about my exam date.

Fifteen minutes before my exam was set to start, I put back on my still-wet sweater and headed to the room. None of my committee members were there yet.

I checked my phone again. Nothing. I wondered, vaguely and somewhat detached from any kind of caring, if the reception in the Grad Center was especially bad that day – it’s always spotty, anyway.

The exam started. I presented my opening statement, which I had written in a frenzy only two days earlier, and which took a slightly different direction than I had previously discussed with any of my committee members. They were impressed with where my thoughts had gone, and we began the question-answer part of the exam.

I choked on the very first question.

The questioner prompted me, and I fumbled an answer. But the rest of her 20 minutes went very well. I answered questions, I became passionate about some points and some texts, and I began to both relax and wake up. To relax, after that initial choking – to wake up, from the feeling of complete detachment.

The exam turned into, as some people had said it would, a conversation. The conversation flowed between me and my first questioner, but the other two committee members joined in as well – and there was even a moment when I got to relax and sit back and watch two of them discuss a point without me involved at all!

And then the second questioner started – and I choked even worse. I attempted to form words, and none came out. I took a deep breath and started over, and nonsense non-sentences came out. I put my palms to my forehead and rubbed.

“It’s getting hot in here, isn’t it?” my advisor said. “Why don’t we open the door?” He stood up to open the door, and I sat back, and breathed. I can do this. We discussed this very question a million times as I read. I know the answers.

My second questioner repeated his question and added a few prompting words, reminding me of our conversations and giving me some keywords to latch onto. I answered – unsatisfactorily, I thought.

The rest of the exam passed in an even worse daze than I had been in when we started.

Finally, it was over – two hours had passed. My committee asked me to step out of the room so they could deliberate whether I had passed.

I picked up my papers and my phone and walked outside, feeling the tears ready to spill over at any second.

My colleague and friend stood outside the door with a slice of chocolate cheesecake for me. “Congratulations!” she said, and pulled me into a hug.

I laughed hollowly. “They’re still deliberating! I may not have passed!”

“Oh, come on,” she said. “You passed.”

I wasn’t so sure, but I didn’t insist. It was good she was there, because it meant I couldn’t cry. On the other hand, it was bad she was there, because I couldn’t cry…

There were still no messages or missed calls on my phone. They could have at least told me the baby’s name, even if they didn’t want to acknowledge my exam, I thought, and continued fighting back tears.

The door opened, and my committee beamed at me. “Congratulations! You passed! You were wonderful, it was brilliant…”

I didn’t hear them anymore over the roaring in my ears. I had… passed? Were they just indulging me? Did they not realize how horribly I had done?

But I smiled, and accepted their congratulations, and chatted a bit.

I checked my phone again – I had thought at least Peter [all names changed], one of the few non-medievalist friends who knew about my exam, would have texted me to find out how it went. I texted him: “I’m going up to the English Open House. Probably not gonna stay long, though, after all. Just wanna go home.”

I went up to the English Department’s annual open house for prospective students and scanned the room as everyone listened attentively to the speaker at the front of the room. Peter wasn’t there. Another medievalist friend greeted me and I slid in to stand next to them, at the back of the room.

I didn’t hear anything the speaker was saying, and I was restless. I wanted to go home, but I knew I would just sleep if I did that, and I didn’t want to sleep. Because I knew this sleep would be prefaced by wracking sobs.

I slipped into a small room off the main area of the lounge and sat down at the table, put my head in my hands. Our program’s APO saw me sitting there and asked if I was okay. I looked up and forced a smile.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Just – tired.”

“You just took your orals, didn’t you?”

I nodded. “Yup, I did.”

“Congratulations! Why aren’t you out celebrating?”

“Eh, I’m not much for celebrating…”

“You look pale… Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Maybe. Maybe not…”

“You want something to eat? I have some clementines here.”

Clementines sounded awesome. She brought me one, and left me alone. I peeled it – slowly, the only speed I seemed to be capable of just then. Every movement felt like a major effort. I ate the clementine, and then slowly, methodically, cleared up the peels and put them in the trash.

Then I motioned to my friend that I was leaving, and went to the elevator.

When I got to the lobby, Peter was standing at the side.

“Heeeeeyy!!” he greeted me with arms spread wide.

My face crumpled and I turned away from him as the tears gushed out.

Once I had composed myself a bit, he asked why I hadn’t answered his texts.

“I didn’t get any texts from you! You didn’t answer mine!

And then I discovered that I had had no phone service all day because there had been a problem with my phone payment…

I used Peter’s phone to call my parents’ house phone. My little brother picked up, told me the baby’s name, congratulated me when I told him I had passed my exam. It was a half hour to shabbos, and my mother was in the shower, my father was busy preparing the candles. Did they try to call me earlier? My brother didn’t know.

Peter dragged me out for “at least one drink” to celebrate and I splurged on a cocktail – with my very low tolerance level for alcohol, I was sure to get drunk quickly this way. And I was fine with that. More than fine with that.

But then another friend, Percy, joined us, and we moved to a less expensive bar, and I ordered a beer – and then, out of nowhere, sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.

Peter put his hand over mine and I grabbed it and clutched it and hung onto it as if my life depended on it.

“Why are you crying?” Percy asked. “Didn’t you pass?”

And in a jumble of barely-coherent gasps and sobs and mangled words, I said something about how I should have failed, and it’s all so horrible, and my family doesn’t even care, and everything is terrible, and and and….

Peter and Percy let me cry for a bit, and then I wiped my eyes and sat in silence, sipping my beer and snacking on fries while they talked.

We ended the night at a terrible, terrible comedy routine in a tiny little bar near my apartment, and I walked home in the misty after-rain and went immediately to sleep.

I started writing my prospectus the very next day, on Saturday, as if moving on to the next step could erase the horrible horror that the orals was for me. As if I could recapture the joy it was supposed to have been, if I hadn’t had to deal with all the family angst at the same time.


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