Last week, Mr. Magpie and I were talking to a woman whose daughter was in the midst of receiving college acceptance and rejection letters.
“Life lessons coming in fast and hard,” observed my husband. The mother nodded:
“Exactly. This is the first time in her life she’s been rejected. And I told her, ‘But it’s done, and you’re still standing. It’s over, and you’re still here, and you’re fine.’”
What was your first rejection? What did you learn from it?
College application was also my first rejection. (Or, perhaps, my first major rejection. My first year of high school was ungainly as all get-out, and I felt like a gawky outsider for most of it. I didn’t field any outright rebuffs, but I was nursing wounds of a slighter, and possibly more insidious, silhouette: the ‘why didn’t I get invited?’ and ‘I wish I could be friends with those girls’ type. It’s probably unfair to label those non-interactions as “rejections,” but that’s what they felt like.)
When I histrionically collapsed into tears after a rejection letter from Princeton University, I wasn’t thinking anything remotely like: “this is my first rejection, and I’m still standing, and I’m still here.” I was thinking: “My life is over; my identity as an academic is forfeited; Princeton’s admissions teams has outed me as the intellectual charlatan I am.” I was not one of those four-pronged students, with great grades, a varsity sport, a sterling community service record, and an off-the-wall hobby. I was Jen with a 4.3 GPA and a string of AP 5 scores under her belt. I was valedictorian of my class, and – that was all. Until the letter arrived in the mail, I’d thought, ‘And that’s OK. Academics are my bailiwick.’ So my outright rejection from a school I had publicly stated I wanted to attend dismantled my sense of self. Adding salt to the wound: two of my close friends had gotten into Princeton, and three others were Ivy-bound. I had to white-knuckle my way through celebrating the arrival of their thickly padded acceptance envelopes. I tried, fastidiously, to avoid jealousy and instead riot against the injustice of Princeton admissions, but it was hard. I found myself tiptoeing around an unbecoming calculus: was it because they had family connections? Had at least one or two extracurriculars? Were smarter than I was?
Comparison is the thief of joy. It left me sour when I could have been celebrating my own acceptances (multiple!), and I had the wherewithal to see this, but was not particularly elegant about extricating myself from its brawny grip. Still, my awareness that the paths my friends had started down would not be my own, and that there was nothing I could do about that but go my own way was a precursor to the bigger learning that my first major rejection offered me:
When one door closes, another opens, and it is the one you’re meant to walk through.
UVA was the best possible experience for me at that time. I met and started dating the love of my life. I was in a special scholars program that made me feel recognized for my intellectual abilities. I came into my own socially. I made a ring of best friends who have proved to be “lifers” — we reconvened in Atlanta this past fall, and we all keep in good touch with one another. I worked hard, and I had so much fun. Virginia laminated me, shaped me, enriched me, and I emerged a happier, better-rounded woman. Would these things have happened at Princeton? I have no idea, and we’re entering Schrodinger’s Cat territory by engaging with the question. The point is: I went to UVA and found the experience roundly fulfilling, and I knew with a kind of bone-deep certainty that this was where I was meant to be.
It took a full semester enrolled at UVA for me to begin to see this. Meaning: I was licking my wounds for nearly a year.
One thing I find auspicious about the generation of children we are raising now is that they will be armed with a fuller vocabulary when encountering these routine, coming-of-age emotional maelstroms. I know my family said all the most nurturing and generous things to me when I was flailing against the Princeton letter, but we did not talk about rejection and failure in the abstract. I did not have a grasp on the topography of life lesson-making. I knew only: “I feel really bad, and I don’t know how to get out of this, and life is over.” I’m sure teens today feel those same emotions on a visceral level, but they probably also hear things like: “This is the first of many rejections in your life. And you’re fine, and you’re still standing.” So much of modern parenting seems to be about “giving kids the tools” and “coaching them through emotions” and I am hopeful that my own daughter can encounter her own first major rejection without holding a funeral for a full year.
What are your thoughts, friends? What were the major lessons from your own first rejection?
*Caveat to today’s musing: I recognize my privilege in being able to attend college and have my pick of the options in front of me. I know these conversations are triggering to those who had different experiences and constraints, or for whom college was not an option.
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