A Subtle Failure

The following is my “Senior Memoir,” a short essay I wrote in 2006 for my final college class, reflecting in a general way on my college experience. Some of the writing does make me cringe a bit, but I think it holds up OK. It is reproduced here for historical purposes in its original form. Below that you’ll find my modern-day analysis of the essay, including an explanation of how I screwed it up and paid the price for my insolence.

The Right Way to Read a Textbook

I’ve never read a college textbook. Not all the way through, anyway. I’m about to graduate; I figure it’s time to come clean. In eight semesters of college, I’ve probably completed about one semester’s worth of required reading. Luckily, I’m a genius or something, because I pretty much faked my way through and still came away with a 3.7 GPA.

It’s not that I’m lazy, or that I wasn’t interested in the material. I mean, that’s part of the reason, sure, but mainly I just don’t like being told what to do. So, it was my own little way of sticking it to The Man. Plus, I’m just lazy.


After high school, I passed on UCLA, UCSD and USC, instead applying to Fresno Pacific at the last minute. I got in, received some pretty good scholarships, and decided I was confused. I dropped out before classes began, and spent my first semester after high school working and trying to figure myself out. The truth is, I was really depressed — something I’d dealt with since junior high. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my mom, her sense of worth entirely interlaced with her children’s accomplishments, was devastated that I wasn’t going to college. “Taking time off” was a foreign concept to her, and she was sure I’d never go if I didn’t go right then.

I attended Fresno City College the following semester.


The closest I’ve ever come to reading all of the assigned reading for a class was that first semester at Fresno City. The class, Critical Reading & Writing, was taught in a way that gripped me. I loved that once-a-week Saturday morning class. That should tell you how good it was.

Instead of the usual polarizing issues (e.g., death penalty, abortion, political issues) discussed in most critical thinking classes — often by a clearly biased instructor — Mr. Hyde had us apply logic to ridiculous things, like UFOs and psychic phenomena: things that most people would agree, at least in most cases, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. By finding the logical fallacies and inconsistencies in these subjects, we gained insight (whether or not we knew it) in how to evaluate more grounded, everyday subjects. All without the inevitable hostility raised by hot-button issues.

The textbooks were well-written and full of anecdotes and illustrations (the written kind, not pictures). They were books I would have read anyway. Plus, they were pretty short. I still didn’t read all of them, but I did read most . . . well, some of them.

After my car got stolen the second time, I dropped out of school for another semester (my mom was pleased). Ostensibly, this was because it would be hard to get to school, but really I just felt burnt out. I wanted to sleep. I was depressed. So I decided to come to Fresno Pacific. Again.

It was really a matter of convenience. I didn’t need a minimum number of units, and I could transfer in the middle of the year (for what would be the fourth semester since high school).

As a transfer student and a commuter, I felt like an outsider. Being depressed and naturally withdrawn, I didn’t make friends. Only once I started working in the campus bookstore a year later did I begin to open up and become a little more comfortable with some of my student-coworkers. As I’m about to graduate, I can say I have a number of acquaintances at FPU, and people who I can have a conversation with. But I still wouldn’t say that I really have any “friends” from college.

If I had it to do over again, I hope I would do things a little differently. Maybe branch out more. I don’t know.

Why’s everyone so down on regret? It’s like the ultimate sin in our culture. “No regrets!” they shout from the rooftops. That’s what I imagine to be the mantra in Hell. “No regrets, no regrets,” trying to convince themselves. It’s true you can’t change the past, and you shouldn’t dwell on it. But considering what you would have done, if you had another chance — It seems to me that’s the only way to improve your future. Although, it also makes your present kind of crappy. So, who knows?


I like to read. I read a lot as a kid, then stopped for a while, but the summer after high school I really got into it again. I was reading a lot of theology and philosophy. I read mostly nonfiction, but tried to include some fiction, too. I’d walk into Starbucks with a stack of 10 books, a dictionary, and a notebook, and sit there for hours, reading. It was an escape. It was a time when I could do what I wanted to do. No one was imposing these books on me; I chose them. I wanted to read them.

Rarely — probably two or three times over the past five years — have I stopped reading a (non-textbook) book without finishing it. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll still power through, just because I figure, Hey, I’ve come this far. Why not go all the way? It has to be pretty horrible to for me to stop in the middle. There’s something very satisfying about closing a book without putting a bookmark in it: it’s finished. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s freedom.


I was excited when I signed up for my Philosophy of Language class. I was really interested in that stuff. I was happy to see that one of the required texts was Pinker’s The Language Instinct. This book had been on my “To Read” list for a while. I was going through sort of a science phase.

When the time came around when we were supposed to read The Language Instinct, I enthusiastically began reading something else, something non-assigned. Then, before classes, I’d thumb through the pages I was supposed to have read — maybe I had read a whole chapter here or there, but usually not — and I was good to go.

The Language Instinct, very lightly worn, currently sits on my shelf, waiting to be read at a later point of my choosing.


It’s ironic. I always buy all the textbooks for a class at the beginning of the semester. I just don’t read them. It’s the opposite of these kids that go to bizarre lengths to read the texts without buying them (or at least without paying full price): sharing with friends, checking them out from the library, ordering them online from China.

I really do have good intentions. At the beginning of each semester, I think, This is the semester that I will read the texts. And sometimes I do pretty well for a week or two. But then I miss a reading, and I fall behind, and I don’t have time to read what I skipped and the current assignment, so I think, What’s the point in reading at all? And I end up just skimming them, and it all turns out OK. For the most part.

That’s what happened with The Language Instinct. I wanted to read it, but, for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to keep up with the reading schedule, and I really didn’t want to read the book in pieces, out of order, so I just didn’t read it. I wanted to do it right, or not at all.


I want to do everything The Right Way, or I don’t bother doing it. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that my concept of The Right Way is unrealistic and unattainable perfection. It’s this way in all areas of my life: I want to start exercising every day, but if I miss a day, I’ve failed. I want to write a little every day; I miss a day and, you guessed it, I’m a loser. So I just stop. I’m a failure, so why even try to start anything?

The only thing that got me through school in spite of my fear of less-than-perfection was my greater fear of the judgment of others (plus, my super-human intelligence). So I got through, doing the minimum amount necessary to get A’s. That way, if I fell short, I could say, “Well, I wasn’t really trying my hardest.”

After graduation, the direction provided by school will be gone. I’ll actually have to take initiative in finding a job, building a life. I’ll have to try. I’m scared that I won’t be able to.


This essay was one part of my final project. The other part was an oral presentation, which I delivered haphazardly and humorously to cover up my anxiety at public speaking and stuttering. When my graded essay was returned to me, my professor had written on it something like “This was well written, but your presentation made it seem like you were not taking the assignment seriously. It sounds like the only person you cheated by not reading the texts was yourself.” This comment, accompanied by a grade lower than I was used to (a C, I think), immediately told me that I’d failed in my objective in writing the essay.1

I’d wanted to open the essay in an unexpected way, by boasting about never reading textbooks. This was a risk from the start, I knew, because I’d heard many of the professors at my small college complain about students not doing the required reading for classes. But that “shock value” was kind of the point. My intention was to follow up the seeming boastfulness with a slow realization that it wasn’t something I was proud of, but rather something I was ashamed of. I wanted this deeper realization to unfold slowly and be contrasted with sections of lightheartedness.

In effect, the fact that “the only person I cheated by not reading the texts was myself” was the whole point I was trying to make. My non-reading of textbooks was a metaphor for my own self-defeating thoughts and actions.

I ended the essay with a statement that’s pretty sad (all the more so because it was true):

After graduation, the direction provided by school will be gone. I’ll actually have to take initiative in finding a job, building a life. I’ll have to try. I’m scared that I won’t be able to.

I’m not saying here that I’m afraid I won’t be successful (although that’s certainly a concern); I’m saying I’m afraid I don’t even have what it takes to try to be successful — that my own failings and mental roadblocks will prevent me from even making an attempt at happiness. It’s one thing to try and fail. It’s another to fail at trying.

The admission of this fear — this hopelessness — was very personal, and I probably overcorrected for my despondency with too much glib talk about my “super-human intelligence” and “sticking it to The Man.” Ironically, my failure to communicate my point in the essay was a confirmation of the fears I was talking about. Maybe there really was no point in trying.

Postscript: Now, seven years later, I’m a self-employed copywriter who has made my living — or at least my surviving — doing something I enjoy for the past five years. I wouldn’t claim to be successful. Not by my own standards, anyway. Every day I struggle with uncertainty and doubt about whether or not I’m “doing it right,” whatever it is. I worry that I’m getting by as a fluke, that I’m not providing real value to my clients and eventually they’ll figure that out and work will dry up. If I ran into my 23-year-old self today, I couldn’t honestly tell him that everything was going to work out fine. But I could at least offer him this small comfort: I’m still trying.

  1. I could understand the suspicion that my presentation was halfhearted, but I resented the fact that it had any bearing on the essay, which I felt should stand on it’s own. Plus, the low grade brought my grade in the class down to a B-, which brought my whole GPA down to a 3.69, which robbed me of a cum laude designation. I’m still bitter about it. []