Vol 12, Issue 4
When you got your mid-semester marks back, they were much lower than you expected. Lower than you would ever have expected of yourself. The people around you did better than you, and you're happy for them, but can't shake the feeling that you're better than this. (You are.) You think about the circumstances surrounding the assignments. Something had been going wrong for a while. A panic attack had hit you, early this semester. It shakes your hands still, now and again, like an old friend whose face looks different from how you remembered. But you tell yourself you can't blame the marks on that alone. You say you could've worked harder, smarter. But you won't tell yourself you should have.
You know when you say 'should have', you mean that there are more valuable outcomes than the one you got. You could've gotten a better mark, probably. Could've felt better about yourself, about the whole damn thing. But the only real thing you get out of doing better, the only really real thing, is not having to deal with the way we treat marks like they're wounds. And is that all that desirable?
In her poem 'climbers', Ellen van Neerven restates the above. She writes: "the hold patterns in the bunya pine...do not fit hands/ or feet anymore/but it is not a wrecked kind of meaning...marks are not wounds." Though the 'marks' Ellen speaks of aren't grades, the truth of her words still apply. You couldn't hold on to as many marks as you would've liked. They didn't fit you this time, for whatever reason - perhaps you were dodging branches at the time. But those marks are not for you to take on, to ingest and allow to become your wounds, to wreck your meanings. But if marks are not wounds, and they don't look like holds... what are they?
You remember going rock climbing in the gym the other day, as a beginner. You remember seeing that as the difficulty of the climbs got harder, the holds barely imprint on the rock. These holds didn't look much like holds at all, but they were called 'holds' for a reason. They held meaning, one that you perhaps didn't have the techniques with which to understand. You didn't know how to scramble up walls; to use your momentum; when to stand instead or crouch, or when to crouch instead of stand. But on one climb you were already halfway up the wall. You weren't about to let yourself down. You knew only how to jump and put one hand in front of the other, so that's what you did. You jumped and grabbed, your hand slipped and you fell, but the harness caught. You swung slowly in mid-air. You felt a little like a fairy in a school play, and realised then that this was all pretend. If you don't grasp these plastic handholds, all it means is you didn't grasp it, and therefore you should try again. There's no use denying that hold had meaning. Trust yourself, and know that you wouldn't have begun to climb the wall, wouldn't have gotten this far up unless it meant something to you to do it. Know that you're not going to get hurt, unless you let yourself. Unless you're negligent, unless you beat yourself up about it, unless you get angry and kick something you shouldn't. You've done all those things. You know not to do them anymore. Let yourself dangle with grace, and remember that you're swinging, not falling. Is that all a law school grade is, a plastic handhold? Is that all this brand of failure represents? I think so. (That's as close as I can get to understanding it today, anyway.)
So don't worry if you're not brilliant in the ways those tests need you to be. Don't worry about the 62%, the 57%, or how others seem to be going better than you. There are so many things you're dodging, some of which you maybe don't realise - though trust me, they are real. But don't forget about the marks altogether. See them for what they are: things to learn from, things that are there to help you be better - things to hold on to.
Marks are not wounds. Marks are not wounds. Marks are not wounds.
Janelle Koh is a second-year JD student
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