Becky Hartung

AUTHOR. WRITER. HUMOR RESEARCHER.

Oh Captain, My Captain

It is important to note the time in college when I was required to take 12 units of foreign language. I was unjustifiably at my worst and most anxious during the three-week summer course. I love the idea of learning a language, but I am terrible at the execution of learning a language. My teacher, probably the worst teacher of my academic career thus far, failed me. I had never called a teacher dumb until I met my Spanish 201 teacher. I emailed her just about every morning with arguably some of the least sensitive and unfiltered opinions I’ve ever written to another adult. It wasn’t my finest moments of maturity, but I wanted to graduate. That teacher cost me another semester of college.

In the fall of 2014, I returned for another semester of Spanish. My restless mind was carrying twenty-four units, a mother diagnosed with cancer, and the apprehension of speaking Spanish in front of other humans was crippling. On each syllabus passed out at the beginning of every semester, there is a bold printed note neatly tucked under a student services headline. It holds the e-mail and phone number to the school’s Learning Center for students suffering from any physical or psychological learning disabilities. It is a note often brushed over by professors and usually brushed over by me until this particular semester. I contacted the Learning Center to see what help they offered in the classroom for students with mental disorders, but before they could speak with me, they had to have a note from a doctor. They recommended our school’s counseling center or the health center for a note.

Imagine getting shot in the head three times, [somehow] walking into your campus health center to ask for assistance,  and then getting put on a waiting list for three weeks. This was the frustration I found when I attempted to receive help for my disorder. There was only one psychiatrist working on campus, so students had to make appointments in advance. I was directed to a woman in Student Care who scheduled a meeting with me the following week. After our hour-long conversation, she told me that her hands were tied in the messy system of power, and there wasn’t much she could do. She did, however, offer me this piece of encouragement, “I care more about your health than your Spanish grade.”

The following day I dropped my Spanish class – and the ability to graduate at the end of the semester. It was both freeing and sad, but I would rather keep an ounce of sanity than graduate from college. I continued to contact the Learning Center to see how they might help me finish my other classes, but was met with very little response. I met Karen from the Learning Center that semester, and there is a great chance that she would kick me in the shin if we were to ever meet in person. After endless e-mails with Karen that were leading nowhere, I called the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health and reported my learning disability. They promptly made me an appointment that afternoon at a clinic in Cerritos. Karen finally had her precious doctor’s note and sent me my options.

 

“You can get a tutor!” the e-mail explained.

 

Those unhelpful words will haunt me on my tombstone one day. I wrote Karen a few more distasteful e-mails and attached a few links on mental health disorders. I was so worn out by the time the middle of the semester approached that I threw in the towel and was ready to surrender the fight.

You know the part of the story when you can’t imagine anything possibly getting worse? This is that part of the story – and trust me, it gets worse. I received an e-mail with news that I had failed my writing competency exam. For those who don’t know what a writing competency is or why is important, allow me to explain. It is a department wide quota that requires students to submit academic papers for review to ensure that they can write at a college-educated level. I failed, not just once, but twice.

I was thoroughly convinced I would not graduate from this college. I called every staff member, e-mailed department heads, and once again found myself leaving my corner and heading back to the fight for my education. I was overwhelmed, hysterical, and very, very tired.

The battle against failure is one of the most dangerous wars to enter into alone. We feel we are not good enough and suffer in the misery of a self-conflict that turns our minds into our biggest enemy. This battle does not require solitude, but allies who are a part of the bigger story of redemption. I realize we can never defeat failure, but we can allow failure to defeat us. We have been given the authority over failure, and we have the power to choose how it will affect us. This could start sounding like liberated optimism, but I promise this could be much more accessible if we only allowed freedom in failure. We leave the past, and the people who failed us, and walk into a place of newness. Choosing new is the greatest gift we can do for ourselves and, more importantly, for the sake of others. We must choose to not live in failure alone. My ally wore a navy, fitted pantsuit and high heels to class every morning. Oh, and she had her Ph.D. before she was 35.

I met Dr. Arianna Molloy in the spring during my junior year. She had her doctorate in career and calling and was passionate about seeing students fall in love with their work. She was one of the first educators that pushed my friends and me in our Communication Studies degrees. In fact, it wasn’t until our junior year during her Organizational Communication class that we learned our major was Communication, not Communications with an “s.” She treated us like colleagues rather than squirrels at a playground that you could throw sticks at for fun. It was no wonder that her classes had long waitlists each semester.

            Molloy had long brown hair that framed her thin face. Her eyes were filled with determination and she had a confident power walk that would intimidate the entire defensive line of the Seattle Seahawks. Her weekends were packed with long hikes, kayaking, and running half marathons. She is the kind of woman that looked singleness in the eye and said, “You look fun.”

She was a total babe.

It is rare to meet a woman who is driven by education, her career, and her deeply rooted passions. Girls were itching for a cup of coffee after class, and guys wanted to graduate so they could marry her already. I’m not sure if I know of one person that didn’t have an academic crush on Molloy. Her well-deserved celebrity status on the small campus kept her schedule very busy, and she was hard to catch except for a glance in-between classes or a few minutes during a lecture break.

Tommy and I had our first class with Molloy our junior year. One of our first assignments was to identify a quote or motto that we chose to live by in the world of academia. I, like a pretentious fool who loved Robin Williams too much, scribbled down the infamous quote spoken by the legendary professor John Keating of Dead Poets Society.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion…that you are here – that life exists, and identity; and that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Bringing a Dead Poets Society quote to an Organizational Communication class taught me a lesson much greater than a few of the sessions on quantitative data. It became a running motto for my college experience that year. It is okay that parts of our verses are coated in failure. We contributed. Perhaps failure is the key to contributing greater parts to the story.

I was lucky enough to call Molloy a friend by the time I graduated. Tommy and I conducted research studies with her as our active supervisor. I spent many of those sessions in tears while I recounted my growing sense of failure and my struggle to graduate. As I would sit in her office, drenched in my own tears, she handed me a box of tissues and sat in silence as she listened to my blubbering mess of a life. She told me stories about her own experiences, which echoed most of my undergraduate work. Molloy encouraged me to let each failure make a better opportunity for the next person.

It was cool for a professor to see you. The best professors were the ones who threw the rulebook out the window and wrote their own as they went. I recognized the grace from other professors on campus that listened to the pain of an anxious heart and worked with me so I could complete my courses. The acts of grace and understanding from these professors made the abuse from others seem much easier to carry. I was no longer fighting alone. I believe I was watching the Harry Potter movies for the first time when some discussion came up about evil always being present in the world so that the good would fully be valued. To me, those professors taught me more about life in their grace than they did in their well-organized PowerPoint presentations.

That was Molloy – a caring professor who rocked a mean pantsuit. She was my own personal John Keating whispering the truths that ideas and madness can change the world. I was able to see her after I finished my last college class (spoiler: I graduated) and give her the good, and long awaited news, of finishing my last class. She responded, “When you walk across that stage, I’m taking you out for a drink.” Those, my friends, are the words that every college student hopes to hear from their mentor.