Trying hard as an act of faith

by Eva Dunsky, Writing Fellow ’17

I thought I had expressed myself clearly.  I was proud of the paper and proud of my insights on Borges—as such, I expected a grade commensurate with my efforts and pride. I received a 4/10 scrawled in tiny block print at the bottom of an exam booklet riddled with red ink.  I adjusted my expectations.

I consider myself fluent in Spanish.  So when I signed up for a literature course in Barcelona, I wasn’t too worried.  Though Spanish is obviously not my first language, I didn’t think it would be a problem.  For the first exam, I did all the reading and reviewed briefly the night before—well, actually two nights before, as the night before was Carnaval, a sort of Spanish Mardis-Gras that is best spent drinking Cava on the beach.  I felt that I had done the requisite amount of preparation—the same amount I would have done at Barnard.

I came to the exam with the course texts under my arm.  I took the test, and was happy with my insights.  So when I got it back, I was, to say the least, underwhelmed.  I took it to my advisor who smiled knowingly, winked at me, and asked if I had studied.

“Yes! Of course I studied,” I replied indignantly.  

“Maybe devote some more time to review for the next exam.  Feel free to ask me for help.”

I left with a queasy feeling in my stomach that I was quick to recognize as failure.  I felt ashamed, homesick, and overall in over my head.  Walking through the narrow streets of Barcelona, I thought back to one of the first students I had in the Writing Fellows program—an nonnative english speaker, and a first-year who was extremely reluctant to meet with me.  In fact, getting her to send me her availability was like pulling teeth.  When I did get her to come see me, she was always a bit distant to the point of being rude—when I asked her about her classes (never about her grades), she responded somewhat combatively that her grades were passing and besides, she didn’t even care about her humanities classes.

I remember wondering what her problem was.  Was it something I did? Did she resent having to meet with me? Why did she always tell me that she hadn’t worked hard on the assignment and thus didn’t care about the grade if she knew that would rub me the wrong way?

Two years after fellowing this student, walking through Barcelona and wallowing in my own failure, it hit me: trying is scary.  Especially because trying is not a safeguard against failing.  Staring down the barrel of my next exam, I felt fearful.  What if I try really hard, and still fail? What if it’s not enough? Wouldn’t it be easier to not try, or to claim not to have tried, and then explain away the bad grade through my own lack of effort rather than my lack of ability?

Being a second language student is acutely terrifying.  Jhumpa Lahiri says it best in her book In Other Words—writing in a second language means following the same heavily treaded paths in order to express a thought.  It’s a restriction of freedom.  It’s scary and unpleasant but might lead to personal growth and revelation, as is the moral of this essay.

I walked away from my abroad experience with an immense appreciate for second language students.  I struggled in a one semester class with a professor who was sympathetic to my situation—I couldn’t imagine spending four years at Barnard (a writing intensive school) amongst mostly native speakers.

If you’re a second language student, know that I support you and admire you greatly. Know that you have an ally in the Writing Center.  And if you have a second, drop by for my weekly hour—I’d love to hear what you’re working on.