February 1, 2020 (Facing the Shame of My Failures)

I opened up my Facebook today and read the sad news in my feed that an assistant dean from the graduate school I attended years ago died at the end of January. Aside from the fact that it was sad that a good man had died….I felt a little twinge of relief.

Now WHY on Earth would I feel relief?

I’ll tell you.

This man knew a secret of mine. One that I keep inside and don’t share.

He knew I was a failure.

That’s right. I failed big time, a spectacularly awful performance.

Here’s what happened.

Back in grad school (20 years or so ago now), I went to work for this assistant dean during the summer. He gave me a task that I should have been able to complete, but I was intimidated by some of the tasks I had to do, and I didn’t really know who to ask or how to ask.

I was afraid to admit that I didn’t know how to do some of the tasks, and didn’t feel comfortable going to anyone else for help.

Which tasks, might you ask? Well, one of those tasks was operating a fax machine. I’d never done it before, and this was well before scanning, PDFs, all of the technology to communicate in business that we use without thinking today, was in common use.

Another one of those tasks was cold-calling offices around the state to confirm some information for a pamphlet.

Usually a person who could talk to any stranger, I found that I was super intimidated by cold-calling these offices, to talk to people who were nothing but nice to me.

I have always been anxious, but usually I function at a very high level, and my anxiety seems to help me succeed. I’m very good at keeping track of things, meeting deadlines, getting places on time, etc, because I am always thinking about the things I need to do now and then also in the future.

Looking back, I think I was suffering from anxiety, exacerbated by the rigors and stresses of a really competitive grad school.

Instead of getting help, or even completing the project, I just didn’t do it.

I didn’t do what he asked.

I didn’t turn in any timesheets for hours either, because that would have been wrong.

I just sort of ghosted.

Because I didn’t know what I was doing and I was too intimidated to ask for help.

Obviously this is all kinds of wrong, and I deserved to be fired.

He didn’t fire me, and he didn’t pay me, and at the end of the summer, he found the work done the year before on a computer in the building, and assumed I had done it.

I was completely ashamed, and didn’t understand why it was that I couldn’t do the work I had been asked to do.

20 years later, I still don’t really understand what my problem was.

But this man, this assistant dean, he knew that I wasn’t a good employee. he knew that I had failed to do the tasks set out for me.

As an A student with a great GPA all the way through to grad school, someone who never failed to achieve a goal that she’d set, with was a spectacular and unusual fail.

Again, looking back, I think I was suffering from some pretty serious stress and anxiety. I remember feeling frozen and sick to my stomach about the project. I remember just wanting to be able to wish it away.

Fast forward 20 years, and to the news of this man’s passing.

I’m not celebrating his death or anything. He was a good person, well-respected and well-liked by all who knew him.

Whenever I ran into him in town after I finished school, he greeted me cheerfully and professionally.

It was as if my work (or lack thereof) in his office had never been a thing.

He’d forgotten the incident, and he’d forgotten that I’d worked in his office, I think. After all, he’d been seeing students in and out of his office for years. We must have run together.

But I hadn’t forgotten.

Not at all.

I carry that shame (a little shame now, not the big shame it used to be) to this day, as a reminder and a lesson. That I’m not good at everything. That I can fail if I don’t try hard. That it is important to remain humble, and to always focus on getting the project done, regardless of how I look while doing it (who cares about looking stupid?)

Seeing his obituary brought it all back to me.

We all make mistakes, right? We all do. Especially when we are young.

(and very dumb)

It makes no sense that I should feel relief that a man who had long forgotten my shame had passed away.

But I did. I felt it.

What does that say about me?

I’m not honestly terribly sure.

I should take his death as a reminder and a sign that time is passing, and that life is passing.

That time spent dwelling on the past (aside from learning from it) is time wasted.

I’m not that person I was 20 years ago. I’m not the person I was one year ago. I’m not even the person I was yesterday.

We all grow and change.

I can let my own bumps and bruises heal.

I can forgive myself for letting someone down 20 years ago.

I can forgive myself for letting someone down one year ago.

We all need to be kinder to ourselves.

And if that man, that wonderful man, actually did remember what a nit-wit I was (which he may have), he went out of his way to treat me well.

Maybe he forgot me….or maybe he forgave me.

Either way, regardless of whether he forgave or forgot, he has moved on.

And now so should I.

Read my digital journal for more about my life, my kids, and personal parenting struggles, located here: https://momadviceline.com/category/personal-parenting-journal-emilys-life/

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