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Panther Paths: Flirting With Failure, and Other Meanderings

Twelve years ago, the foundation of my very being seemed to teeter on the edge of perdition. Amid my scholastic undertakings, shameless persistence had emerged as my greatest ally; indeed, wherever comprehension faltered, enlisting the teacher’s help in banging my head against the wall had remedied the problem. Yet at this most critical juncture, the college application process looming ever larger, I found myself confronted with a cruel reality: Even persistence has its limits. A history of academic excellence stood at its terminus, tarnished at the hands of AP Calculus BC—an unflinchingly sinister taskmaster.

When previous experiences had affirmed my expectations, why only now did my methods fall short? What did I lack, and how had these crippling deficiencies concealed themselves until this crucial moment? The answers to such questions eluded me; and much to my dismay, time would not stand still to entertain my ruminations. After a protracted struggle, I would admit defeat with as much a semblance of grace as I could muster. In the end, despite my misgivings, AP Calculus AB proved a more agreeable adversary, and the remainder of the school year ensued without incident.

Some months later, upon sharing the results of my calculus placement test, an assistant dean at Northwestern University would laud me as a “math genius.” High praise, no doubt, though the words evoked a sort of bittersweet irony. A genius, I imagined, would not retreat when faced with an insurmountable wall. Nevertheless, ever undeterred by our ceaseless trepidation, the march of time would continue ever onward. A year after the fact, the greatest crisis of my youth scarcely crossed my mind. Twelve years hence, its legacy endures as merely a blip on life’s proverbial radar.

For better or worse, failure represents an immutable aspect of the human experience. In retrospect, my abrupt introduction to the concept served only as a prelude for setbacks to come, trials and tribulations yet beyond my reckoning. From the infernal shackles of student debt to the existential nightmare of the job search—a process whose intricacies baffle me to this day—opportunities abound for the wayward mind to speculate. At idle times, albeit mostly in jest, my thoughts occasionally turned toward the fanciful: “Is this some sort of cosmic conspiracy? Has the universe itself conspired against me?”

In recent years, with age and experience, learning to harness my errant imagination has become much less an exercise in futility; and thankfully so, because thoughts of impending doom lose their novelty after a while. Through triumph, tragedy, and every circumstance in between, our conscious thoughts remain an unassailable domain, one solitary bastion of control amid the uncontrollable. Whatever situation may arise, I can only endeavor to direct my thoughts in pursuit of a worthwhile purpose—cosmic conspiracies notwithstanding. Grasping that sooner could have spared me some grief, but lessons forged in adversity have their merits.

Nowadays I tend to see some overarching rhyme or reason in the twists and turns of life (or try to, at any rate). I have yet to decipher where returning to St. Anselm’s fits within this narrative, incidentally, but I trust that time will reveal its significance.

Twelve years ago, I never pictured myself teaching AP Calculus AB, the class I once maligned as a symbol of my own inadequacy. Much the same, envisioning my life twelve years from now would entail the blindest conjecture. I refrain under threat of the universe’s sense of humor.

Whatever setbacks await, whatever failures appear insurmountable, we can only aim to continue onward, gathering what lessons we can from the circumstances; or, to quote a familiar saying: Rursus inciepmus nunc et semper (“Always we begin again”).