It happened during one of my favorite classes and with one of my favorite professors. Just as I was starting to feel secure with everything I wanted to do with my life, he knocked me down a peg. I know it is his job as a professor to make me think, and I love his classes for that very reason. But that day, instead of making me question what I believe or how I think, he made me question who I am and who I want to become. To a mildly insecure college student, that is the scariest and most difficult question of all.
I rarely speak in class. It usually takes me time to figure out exactly what I want to say, and by the time I do, we are on a new topic. That day, he forced me to give an opinion. He forced me to do the on-the-spot thinking that I find impossible to do successfully in his class. Looking back, it should not have even seemed a difficult question. But in that moment—a moment in which I felt I had to prove something to him, to my peers, and to myself—the question was impossible to answer.
All he asked was, "Who is your ideal statesman?"
My mind went blank. There was no one I could visualize. My first instinct was FDR, but that was too easy. Then I thought Lincoln, but again, I questioned it. Suddenly I could not remember a statesman who had ever existed. It became a trick question in my mind.
Meek and defeated, I answered, "I don’t really have one."
By the time class was over, I had mulled the incident over in my mind a hundred times. I could only come to one conclusion.
I was a failure. As an up-and-coming political scientist, as a student, as a person.
I walked across Claremont and past Andrews. My forehead ached because I had my eyebrows knit so tightly together. My jaw was sore from clenching my teeth. My brain raced with one hundred thoughts. Initially, I hated him for asking the question in the first place and for making me feel like a moron. Then I realized I only had myself to blame, myself to be angry at. Am I any good at what I am majoring in? What if I go through all this and realize that I am not good at it and that these four years have been a waste? What if I end up hating it and I do not have enough time to fix it? What if I not only fail at school, but fail in life?
The dialogue in my mind expanded from that one specific incident to everything I had ever done. Part of me was being rational about the incident, but the other part of me was emotional and angry. My thoughts were cascading into a sea of self-doubt not only about that one question, but about every question.
Rational Me explained, "I am taking on more than any other person in my position would willingly do, and this is honorable."
Irrational Me argued, "You are a doormat who is physically incapable of telling anyone ’No’ about anything. There’s nothing honorable there."
Rational Me justified, "My course load is far more challenging this semester than the previous two combined. I am excelling despite this hardship."
Irrational Me countered, "You call that ’excelling’? Look at what just happened in class. Your best is no longer good enough, and your hard work is neither ’hard’ nor ’work’. You are becoming weak."
Rational Me instructed, "You should be narrow and deep: pick a few things, delve in deeply, and perform well."
Irrational Me demanded, "You should be broad and deep. You should be able to extend yourself into everything and excel."
Rational Me defended, "There is not enough of me to spread around this way! I will end up broad and shallow, and I will never grow strong roots anywhere!"
Irrational Me scoffed, "That’s a cop-out!"
By the time I got back to my dorm room, I could feel how my posture had sunk. I started to feel as though I had not learned anything. I had been in school for over a year, and I could not answer a question that should have been at the forefront of my mind. The debate in my head spiraled down until I could no longer see reality. Somehow, I managed to turn off the debate in my head. I got through the evening by going through the motions, and I tried to keep my mind a complete blank. I tried to let it go, and I pushed the incident to the back of my mind until now.
The truth of the matter is that the debate has not been settled. The questions of whether I am doing the right thing with my life or whether I am a success are still up in the air. Looking back, I know that the professor had not broken me; he had done his job. He made me take a long, hard look at myself. He made me want to improve.
I know that what I am studying is something that I love. It fascinates me. It makes me want to learn, to know, to understand. While I may not have all the answers, and while I may not know exactly what I am thinking at every moment, nothing says that I have to. Father Time is not standing behind me with an hourglass, heaving sighs at my delays and telling me about deadlines. I am taking every moment that I can to improve myself. I am trying to become a better person.
I am a student. I am not perfect. I do not have all the answers. Right now, I think that is all I need to know.
Samantha Vajskop is a sophomore from Brecksville, Ohio, majoring in History and Political Science