Keep Trying, Keep Failing

A look back on the failures and what they taught me in freshman year



Coach Banta coaches girl’s track and field after school.

Esther Wang, Staff Writer

I didn’t know what “freshmen” meant until the very end of eighth grade, and I clearly didn’t know what I wanted to do in my “freshmen” year. So, my first year in high school was more like attending a buffet than ordering from a fixed menu. I had a little bit of everything: I tutored math, doubled up on math, carried a heavy camera to my first homecoming, wrote about protests, spent my weekend speaking about the Nigerian presidential election and endured the pain of rushing an essay at 11:50.

One thing I don’t have on my future college resume is sports.

The summer after eighth grade, I went to summer conditioning, and I vividly remember running two laps for a warm-up. I tried to follow everyone and failed miserably. Very soon I realized I couldn’t follow anything, and worse, I didn’t know anyone there.

You see, I didn’t go into great detail describing the conditioning, because it is still very embarrassing remembering the experience. It was hot, and I was trailing everyone, and all the people were in perfect shape except for me. That was a scary period of time, to quote from my diary entry on June 11:

“Depressing news! The cross country training went awful. I totally can’t follow their pace and the girls are so nice but I was too nervous to ‘fit in.’” 

And on June 19…

 “Tomorrow I’m going to cross country training again. I’m pretty scared right now.”

I didn’t end up joining cross country for several reasons, but most importantly, I didn’t have the guts to do it. I deemed myself a coward before high school even started, and on my first day of school, whenever I saw someone from summer conditioning, I felt like I died inside.

But the worst is yet to come. Whenever my teachers ask us to introduce ourselves and state one hobby, people either say playing an instrument or doing a sport. I can do neither. I remembered sitting in my seventh hour when Mr. Rogers asked us to introduce ourselves, for the fourth time today, and I almost burst into tears in my seat.

I never understood the word peer pressure so intensely, and all I could think about for the first two weeks of high school was “sport + instrument.” Yep. That’s an all-honors kid. That’s all my new friends. I felt like I had already failed in my life.

Out of desperation, to have something put on my college resume, I went to the first speech and debate meeting, even though I was interested in neither speech nor debate.

The people in speech and debate, however, are the nicest group of people I’ve seen in high school. After the meeting they would come up to us, the new people, and ask if we have any questions. A few days later, I found myself signing up for one speech event and one debate event, and it will look perfect on my college application if I stick with it for four years.

During the first speech meeting, the speech captain, senior Gaaya Binoj, asked, “Who’s going to the first tournament?”

I’m not going, I thought to myself, there’s no way I’ll take it seriously.

My speech captain didn’t give me up so quickly.

“If I judge for you, will you go?” she asked me, and I replied yes instantly.

The tournament went surprisingly well. Most of the topics in speech and debate are somewhat related to politics, which is something I’ve been following since fifth grade. Even though I did no special preparation before the tournament, I knew enough about current events and government functions to get me through the whole thing.

I somehow got into the final round, and I got very lucky: the topic for my last speech is supposed to be about Taiwan. I’ve been following the politics around that country for a long time. What once bothered me – English isn’t my first language – became an advantage, I read tons of local news sources in Chinese, making me even more educated on the topic.

That night, Oct 15, I wrote in my diary “for the first time, I actually feel like a part of the community with my teammates smiling with their thumbs up and with Gaaya screaming ‘I love you’ and I feel good about it. Thank God.”

Very soon, my freshman year began to form a pattern. I’m either wasting my time or prepping for the next speech tournament. Before I knew it, winter conditioning started.

I had a civil war with myself. Part of me said I should join track and field, and another part of me is done with high school sports.

I ended up going to the track and field informational meeting and going through conditioning for one week, and it was scary. Before the season started, I even drove thirty minutes to get my physical, but then came the news that I was chosen for the last speech tournament of the season.

I dropped everything I was doing and wholeheartedly focused on prepping. I read the morning news briefing, went to check out The Economist weekly issue at the local library, and did a practice round of speech every day.

My diary entry on Feb. 6 reads: “I’m doing extemp [extemporaneous speaking] practice, trying to read international news and stopped running because of snow days. I’m very torn [sic] on whether I’ll do track or not.”

The weekend before the tournament, I went to practice with my speech captain, and I told her about my fatal struggle with to-do-track-or-not-to-do. And she, being the district speaking champion (in her sophomore year!) she is, lectured me with this.

“Here’s the thing: everyone applying to college can play an instrument and do a sport. It became repetitive. If you want to go to a good college, you need an edge. Don’t do it just to do it.”

Afterward, I had a long chat with my mom, and I made the decision to ditch sports the second time.

I didn’t do as well in the tournament, but it taught me a lesson. Don’t do it just to do it. It’s a cheesy phrase, but it’s true. After the peer pressure tide went down, I don’t see a reason why I should pick up an instrument or join a sports team just for college applications. Both are wonderful things, but I don’t think doing it half-heartedly for four years is a good thing. And by the way, there will be people who really excel in these things applying to the same college as you, so you don’t have an absolute advantage over everyone if you do both.

I’m not telling people to stop trying. But sometimes it’s better to have an open mindset and don’t lock yourself in too soon. Sometimes we have this “success model” in our head and try our hardest to fit in, but along the way we find something that actually works. That’s my experience, and I knew for sure I’d keep doing speech and debate for the rest of high school because I love it.

Circling back to the beginning, I was with the cross country captain again. We were in the theater, and we were trying to fit a piece of foil into a gobo holder, and she was talking to me about her freshman year: “I have massive respect for all the people doing speech and debate, but I’m not doing it.”

“I have massive respect for all athletes, but I don’t have the guts to do it.”

“It’s all about the people you meet at first.”