Fight or flight

Angie Bartelt

I recently had a meeting with my favorite professor to discuss the D+ I got on her midterm. I had already briefly talked to her about it, cried and then scheduled a meeting.

So this morning my heart is racing, and I’m sweaty all over because I really like the professor and respect her so much. She is the first adult in my life to look me in the eye and tell me I should go to law school and honestly the first person ever to tell me I am good enough to get more than my bachelor’s degree. Nonetheless, I panicked walking in to talk to her. 

I spilled my guts to her about my fears and my conclusions as to why I did so poorly on the exam. I am constantly comparing myself to my like-minded peers, and all it has been causing me is insecurity and distress.

I am finally graduating. I know many of my fellow students have either done it already or will be doing it soon, and it’s no big deal because that’s the whole point of being here, to finish. But personally, it’s so much more than that. I was homeless, hungry, massively depressed and completely alone, and after having to take a year off to work full time to pay back my tuition debts, it seemed like the graduation everyone expects to be inevitable just wasn’t in the cards for me – not for lack of trying, but because sometimes you just get dealt a bad hand in life, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Those with opportunity will succeed, and those without will not. I’ve seen it happen to people around me my entire life.

So now that I am doing it – actually becoming the first person in my family on my mother’s side to make it past high school – I am petrified. What if I have now hit my peak and trying to push further education onto my life is a bad idea? What if I am not good enough, and it is only because of my ignorant inability to quit that I’ve even made it this far? I am worried that because of how difficult undergrad was for me I am kidding myself that I could go to law school.

Here’s the thing though: I know there is a logical reason why school has always been harder for me. Children who come out of traumatic circumstances score lower on tests across the board than children who do not. With only 3 percent of foster kids attending college nationwide, not only was I probably never going to get a 4.0, or above average at all, I was pretty much destined to drop out.

I didn’t. I beat the statistics. I am not a product of my circumstance. But my crisis continues. It is almost as though I cannot knowingly cut myself any slack. I do know though that doesn’t mean I have no excuse for struggling inside of the classroom. Every student, every person, will do that from time to time – re-evaluate their worth based on comparison to others. It is unfair, but almost addicting to want to be the best, and yet all confidence is lost when you constantly fall behind again and again. I have been wired for “fight or flight” in every moment of my life out of instinctual survival mode, not “relax, learn, focus, study, do well, come home, you’re not going to die … ” like many of you (okay, maybe not all of those but it really messes with your psyche to be afraid someone is going to murder you all of the time for your entire childhood). I don’t know. 

But what I do know is I’m not stupid, and I’ve made it this far, and frankly, I am tired of beating myself up for not being like people who have parents. I have worked really hard to get to where I am, and I am tired of not giving myself credit and being so hard on myself. I need to take my own advice and get some perspective. Life is full of roller coasters – some big and some small. I have always found the age-old quote, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,” to be frustrating, yet a little true. I’ve learned that the roads are rough but when you get to the end, you’ll have grown whether you wanted to or not. To me, that is worth every moment.

Sitting there realizing all of this in my professor’s office in a sort of trance, I look up. She is giving me the opportunity to retake the midterm. In her words, I know the material, and I had just talked myself out of being right while scribbling my answers, glancing around nervously at my calm and cool classmates. I had allowed my sense of academic inferiority to cloud my brain. Luckily, good professors know this happens. I am glad I went to her and confronted my fears. Once again, she tells me to go to law school.

Angie Bartelt is a senior majoring in political science.