I went to a "public" high school. It was a tuition-free school, but since property values for homes in the district skyrocketed, the vast majority of my graduating class was upper middle-class, and white or Asian. We had a brand of ambition that overpowered the need to eat properly, develop socially, and sleep. We were smart and talented in the way that school had conditioned us to be—obedient, except for the cheating rings; creative, but only in ways that were socially acceptable; willing to make a difference, but only in ways sanctioned by authority, never to challenge the system. We were confident. We were terrified.
I recently sat down with an old teacher of mine, who talked to me about years of seeing gifted students like myself react horribly to setbacks. We grew up without ever experiencing failure and so we were unprepared to handle it. One senior, she recalled, skipped class for an entire day and cried in her car after receiving her college acceptance letters (more specifically, a lack of Ivy League acceptances).
I can't speak for that student but I can say with confidence that I believed that I had one shot in life. For that chance, everything had to be perfect: every exam point, every recommendation letter, every extracurricular. Otherwise, I'd live the rest of my life at a dead-end job that I hated, or even end up homeless. It was a belief that crept slowly into my life thanks to the mantras of my educators, fellow students, and my parents' friends. Success was part of who I was. Failure wasn't something I could process.
For some, that shock of failure came with college rejections. I want to say that I greeted my acceptance letter from Columbia with joy. It'd be true. But that misses the point: I was relieved. I had succeeded. I was still in the running.
These past two years have been an exercise in breaking down that fictional narrative that I'd been writing for the past 18 years. I've hit roadblocks again and again, and none too gracefully. There's been a lot of crying alone in my room. There's been fair amount of crying in other peoples' rooms. I've visited the 8th floor of Lerner plenty of times, and spent nights staring at the blades of my razor. And as I hinted in my first opinion piece, I'm not yet fit to act in society sans emotional support, but I've finally begun to grow past the narrative I believed three years ago. I can change my mind. I can fail, from time to time. Life is full of chances. It's an easy thing to say, but such an immensely difficult one to truly believe.
I'd like to thank, in particular, to the post-baccalaureate students here at Columbia. Because of the particularly robust general studies program here at Columbia relative to other universities, I've had classes with post-bac students every year of my education here. Some have been my friends, some, my biology tutoring students, others, my opponents in debates over Kant's categorical imperative. But each of them has reminded me, again and again, that I can change my mind, that I can start over, and that there exists more than one shot in life.
So take chances—pick yourself up, even if it's only to fall again.
Kevin Vo is a junior in Columbia College. He was once a junior in high school. Life repeats itself in mysterious ways, doesn't it?