Navigating the Language of Failure

Parked car, door ajar, I stood nearby. The quiet patter of Ryan, Brooks, and Luke walking up the sidewalk to the country club rang in my head. The chilling evening December air pierced my fingers as I tried to find the Mail application on my phone. Wind carried snow through the air, creating a whining whir, whipping at my face, numbing my nose.

Luke shouted to me with genuine interest, his usual goofy yet sentimental tone pre-eminent in his voice, “Did you get it?”

“Not yet,” I called back, managing to eke out a few words in the frozen air with chapped lips and a numb face. It was December 12th, the date of one of many performances I had scheduled with a school choir group at a local country club singing Christmas songs to the elite of the local suburbs. But it was also the day Northwestern University sent out its decisions to applicants who met the Early Decision deadline. I was one of those students.

I constantly refreshed my email as snowflakes fell on my fingers and the screen, instantaneously melting into tiny droplets of water. I felt a vibration and heard a quiet ping. The email appeared in my inbox. My stomach lurched, as if someone had reached inside and twisted it into a contorted shape. I began to sweat, if that was even possible in the freezing air.

“I got it!” I shouted, with a tinge of confidence. “Your Northwestern University admission decision,” it read. I examined it with excitement, dread, and anxiety for a brief second before opening the email, opening the attachment and beginning to read.

* * *

The process had begun only five months earlier. I had just finished my junior year of high school and was beginning to formulate my list of schools to which I would apply in the coming months. The physical list, written on a slip of paper from a returned assignment that year, sat on my desk and showed an array of scratches, circles, schools in all-caps and in different color ink. It was like a deranged lunatic’s murder list, and as most high school seniors realize, there isn’t much difference between the two.

My mother was uneasy about losing another son to distance, as my older brother, Joel, opted for the California sunshine and chose a school in Los Angeles. She had already made me tour the University of Wisconsin, a mere two hours away from our home in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and she was beginning to focus her efforts on Northwestern University, twenty minutes away. My mother, who grew up in New Jersey and still maintained hints of a New York accent, held southern schools like Vanderbilt and Emory in contempt. Though she would never say so, schools south of the Mason-Dixon Line were out of the question. Her passive-aggressiveness really shone regarding the south.

“Why can’t I apply to North Carolina? Or Vanderbilt? Or Emory?” I would prod with longing of warm weather and limitless barbeque.

“I’m not saying you can’t apply to those schools, but don’t you know Dad’s family was threatened with lynching in Atlanta?” she would remind me, ignoring the fact that my father lived in Atlanta in the ‘60s. Not wanting to cause a fuss, I restricted the schools I considered to the Northeast, Midwest, and West coast.

Despite being raised only twenty minutes away, I was never a Northwestern fan the way some of my classmates were. I suppose the combination of having no ties to the school, no appreciation for sports, and the lack of a well-defined legacy of athletic success at Northwestern, all left our family to be generally ignorant of the school in Evanston. This is what surprised me when my mother scheduled a tour for Northwestern with me, as she had done with Joel four years before.

The tour proved to be quite a victory for my mother. A perfect storm of fantastic tour guides, a good route, beautiful weather, and picking up some good local eats before and after combined to convince me Northwestern was the school. I distinctly remember seeing the photograph used by the Admissions Department in real life: I stood to the side of Norris University Center, looking across the Lakefill at the fountain of water in the middle of the lake, water shooting upright like a ballerina assuming a pose, outstretched vertically, at the climax of the song. Beyond the fountain I saw the striking modern buildings and the ornate Gothic churches, accompanying each other under a sweeping sky of dark blue and clouds that hung low over the horizon, as if they were resting on the spires of the cool, old buildings beneath. Hands in pockets, the wind blowing my hair, a smile began to form on my face. And perhaps for the first time, the standard Admissions Department trifecta of presentation, booklets, and tour worked. “This is the place,” I whispered aloud to myself. “I’m going to be a student here in a year.”

The view of the lakefill during my tour of Northwestern’s campus

When the application process began, I was nervous at first. I was certain I would be rejected; I had a low GPA, wasn’t a minority, and didn’t write a particularly strong essay. Yet, I would still seek out people to talk to about college, asking them where they were applying just so they would ask me in return, to which I would reply, “Early Decision to Northwestern!” with a slight smirk and nod of my head. Most would reply with confidence, though likely feigned, that I would be accepted and I would return the compliment, all the while laughing to myself because I had won the war of aspirations: Northwestern was considered to be a better school than Illinois or Wisconsin or George Washington or NYU so, in my own twisted logic, I was better than them because I had higher ambitions.

This confidence that was evident in my peers’ language pervaded mine as well over the next couple of months. I emailed the debate coaches at Northwestern and phrased my emails almost as if I was already attending. I constantly found myself tripping on words: “When I’m at Nort…I mean if I go to Northwest…I mean if I get in and decide to go to Northwestern…” Confidence seeped into the way I talked, to myself in thought, to counselors and teachers, peers, everyone.

And through this confidence, language showed its true power; the months passed by and as December 12th inched closer and closer, I spoke with more and more confidence. I began to think more confidently and actually believe that I was going to be a student at Northwestern, despite meeting few of their admission requirements. I found myself at Northwestern, in the Deering Meadow, at University Hall, walking through the Gate on Sheridan, more times in three months than I had ever been throughout my entire life; I was familiarizing myself with the campus for when I would be accepted. I had Northwestern mania.

* * *

The evening of December 12th wasn’t fruitful. As I began to read my admissions decision in the parking lot outside Sunset Ridge Country Club, I felt the shame of failure. Pain moved from my stomach to my throat, as I felt as if a weight had been put on my esophagus, dragging my neck into the abyssal hole my Northwestern-sized expectations had created. I looked up and saw Luke with his open mouth, excited eyes, and hands open awaiting an answer. I glanced down and continued reading, this time only skimming, “An unusually high amount of applicants…all were extremely qualified…could not offer you a spot in the class…best of luck on your future endeavors…” The streaks of regal purple on the side of the email seemed to be mocking me, showing me what I could not have.

I looked up again, this time with tears in my eyes, unable to see in front of me. My eyes burned from the salt and the frigid air as I shook my head to my friends in defeat. Luke and Brooks walked into the building, each offering an apology. Ryan stayed back to talk to me.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his hand on my shoulder.

“Yeah,” I said weakly, a blatant lie. I wanted to scream, to tell the world that I was upset, but I remained reserved to shut out the judgment that came with such a display.

The remainder of the night was equally painful. Checking Facebook in between performances, I saw a stream of some of my closest friends posting some variation of “NORTHWESTERN CLASS OF 2018! SO PROUD TO BE A WILDCAT!” Everything I saw reminded me of the school that had betrayed my trust: the hallways of the Country Club were gothic architecturally, like the buildings on campus; our choir teacher went to Northwestern and lived in Evanston; a choir member’s brother was a student there. My despair proved quite resilient through the night, even as I was surrounded by the joyous talking and laughing of the other twenty-four students in the group, each of whom knew my fate but didn’t find it important or particularly sad. The only solace I found that evening was that a friend of mine, also in the choir group, had just been rejected by Northwestern too. But, for some reason unbeknown to me, she was able to easily rebound and I was not.

At home, my emotions did not fare well. I flung off my tuxedo, not even bothering to hang it up for the next day’s performance. It remained strewn on the floor as my mailings and booklets from Northwestern remained strewn on my desk. I dove into my bed, grabbed a pillow and stuffed my face in it. Tears stream from my face as I felt it turn red in embarrassment, the outpouring of all my pent-up stress, anxiety, fear, and anger from the past year. I didn’t leave my bed for the rest of night and when the morning came it took a great deal of effort to find a reason to get up to go to back to school and face the crowd of my peers, all of whom knew I was not going to be a Wildcat the next fall.

I struggled because I was fortunate enough to have never truly experienced failure before. I was incredibly fortunate to not have to worry about trying out for a sports team and I always found success in auditioning for choir groups. I had never been rejected from anything I auditioned for and I never learned how to fail. So naturally, the first major rejection in my life was hard to deal with. I experienced shame that I for a while felt was insurmountable. I turned to language to help me.

The Gate, three weeks before I was rejected

That language I once used, that definite, concrete objectivity that I will be a student proved detrimental. The soothing reasoning in the rejection letter was meant to soften the fall of rejection but it only proved to calm my ego, to help me find an excuse to tell my friends when they asked about Northwestern. I had dug myself into a hole with my linguistic confidence. Instead of telling the truth, that I was simply under-qualified, I needed to use language to invent an excuse for why I was still looking at schools, to climb out of the hole. “There was a record number of applicants this year,” I would say. “It was damn near impossible to get in.” The goal was to use euphemistic and deceptive language to make my peers think that I was Northwestern material, but I had just had a bit of bad luck.

Eventually, I also began to convince myself that Northwestern wasn’t the right school for me, that it was a good thing I was rejected. This was a much better idea to convince myself. I began to abandon both my remorse and reverence surrounding Northwestern. This persuasion came through talking to other people as well. I would say, “Yes I was rejected, I don’t know why, but I’m glad I’m not going. I hate the campus and, truth be told, it is way too close to home. Northwestern’s terrible at sports anyway, and it’s too homogeneous, there are too many kids like me, from the North Shore.” These were all criticisms of Northwestern I had kept in mind during the application process, but I thought of them as much less important and so I didn’t let them influence my decision. But once faced with rejection, the very same attributes I once tried to keep my distance from were now my arsenal of rationalization.

As I matured over the months, I dropped from my explanation the part that explained why I was rejected. Every time I mentioned Northwestern, I added clearly that I was not qualified in the first place. “There was no way I was going to get in,” I found myself saying. “Frankly, I’m not even sure why I spent the money to apply in the first place; my GPA was definitely not high enough.” By this time, I had an explanation that was somewhat self-deprecating, appreciative of the realities of the cruel admissions process, and more cognizant of the place from which I had been rejected.

And after I had used this thought-out explanation a few times, I began to convince myself that it was partially true. It wasn’t that I was or wasn’t good enough for Northwestern. It was that I was different than Northwestern. I just wouldn’t fit. And each time I have been to the campus in Evanston since December 12th, I have felt neither contempt nor appreciation. I have felt nothing but indifference. “I was never tied to Northwestern, nor will I ever be, nor do I have to be. It’s there, I’m here, and that’s that,” I say to myself.

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