I don’t even know what that word means.
Dictionary.com tells me it means I received less than a passing grade.
I didn’t cry until I let that grade sink in. F. F. F. F. F. Fuckin F! I didn’t even know what that grade means. But it erased, for a moment, all the other things that I accomplished before I opened my grades. My heart sank to my stomach. I put my head in my hands and I cried.
Before I received this failing grade, I kept asking everyone, “What happens when you fail? If you fail?” And the replies? “Oh don’t worry, you won’t fail.” But I did fail. And I still don’t know what that means!
The only thing I know for certain is that I have this big fat fuckin F on my transcript which I know is not representative of my ability to actually understand law or talk about law. I also don’t know if I passed the second chance at doing the re-write. I don’t know what it means if I fail again. I don’t know what it means to write an exam that reads, “You have to pick the most correct answer. There will be two most correct answers. These questions are meant to mark your nuanced judgment.”
Nuanced. In other words, it is a fancy way to describe how an exam question is going to judge your level of ability to distinguish between a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.—as dictionary.com says (but not like I don’t know what “nuance” means).
What does it mean to fail an exam that tries mark your nuanced judgment?! What does it mean to fail an exam in law school?! I am entirely not sure…yet. And still, I am scared when I read or hear the things others are telling me. What does it all mean!
I have other peers who also failed in other courses. We are each other’s support—even if we never talked to each other throughout our term. We eventually reached out to one another.
If I could take a moment to describe law school to non-law school people, it’s like this weird social experiment where they place all the Type As and the perfectionists into the deep end of this gigantic pool. Everyone is learning how to swim for the first time. Some of us learn how to stay afloat right off the bat. Some of us struggle with just barely keeping our heads above the water. But some people realize sooner rather than later that law school can’t be done alone. Your peers become your support in law school. They become your support as soon as you realize that the strangeness of law school cannot be comprehended by non-law school folks and those who see this strangeness too, all come together. We learn that this isn’t about competition or being better than one another. We learn that this is about support and friendships. It is about forming relationships that become your rock during that dark time…like fear of failing an exam or actually failing an exam. And relationships to one another and relationships to other beings are essential to indigenous legal traditions and for some colonial legal traditions, our relations to one another and to other beings take a back seat. In fact, some colonial legal traditions completely negate the importance of these relationships. So, being an indigenous law student can be isolating and alienating because of the negation of the importance of these relationships.
And for me? Law school has been an isolating and alienating experience. But I have learned to deal. These experiences are nothing I haven’t been through before. And I write this post to feel less alone and less alienated. I also write to heal. I write to understand. I write to reflect. I write to feel vulnerable. My vulnerability teaches me. It opens me up to a different understandings of… things, relationships, perspectives, lives, etc.
Nevertheless, I want to have a real conversation about failures, especially failures in law school.
Nobody talks about failing in law school. For someone who likes to plan for things, it was strange for me. I like to plan for things, for even the worse, like failing. I reached out to a professor who never taught me but who has been super supportive in other capacities. I started planning. It was the only thing I could do: plan.
And here is what I learned since receiving my grades: the world doesn’t end when you fail. Life continues. Sometimes wine helps you to understand failing but not entirely and you will still have no idea what “to fail” means. I learned that I suck at multiple choice exams and that some people like to believe that multiple choice exams can gauge your nuanced judgment (note: there is nothing nuanced about a multiple choice exam, as one of my peers put it). I learned (again) that tests are really not my forte. I learned that nobody likes talking about failure in law school. And throughout my year at law school? There really isn’t any kind of mental health support that is easily accessible for students at my school (and this isn’t law school specific)–I had really bad anxiety from being violently harassed by people because of my advocacy work. I seriously thought about suicide because I seriously didn’t want to be around anymore to experience this violent and basically unstoppable harassment.
Still, this lack of mental health support really added to the level of stress and anxiety I experienced. It also contributed to the feelings of alienation and isolation. The fact that I had to contact a counselling friend who lives in a different city and pay for access to mental health services says a lot about the lack of mental health support available at my school. I know I am not the only one in my year at law school that required additional mental health support. The difference with me, however, is that I am new to the Ottawa area and I had to make an appointment with the local clinic, wait to have a family doctor, wait to have a referral (even after experiencing stigma and judgment from this family doctor relating to my mental health when asking for the referral), wait to have an appointment for the referral and then have to cancel the referral because I didn’t have time that day (since the appointment was scheduled three months in advance)–life changes. I couldn’t wait to talk to someone. I had to reach out. But the support available for students on campus shouldn’t be that way.
In the end, I also learned that I am more than all the bullshit I’ve been through within the past year. I am more than a failing grade. I also learned that I am not the only who failed an exam in law school and I want others to know, you are not alone in this wholly isolating experience. If there is one piece of advice I could give to others, I would say: don’t be afraid to reach out to others, including a professor, a peer, or someone you know who is in law school. It’s hard to talk about failing a law school exam because failure in law school is rarely talked about and yes, it can feel like the entire weight of the world is on your shoulders–but you don’t have to carry that all on your own.