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I sit in the dimmed auditorium of my high school, peering up at the students on the stage with a boulder in my stomach. Clutching the three pages of my poem in my sweaty palms, I tell myself that I can do this. I have read this poem before, probably several hundred times. I have even read it out loud to other people. There is nothing to be afraid of, I think to myself, there is no way I can fail.
Failure is something that is hardly unfamiliar to me. Throughout my life, I have failed at many things. I never became a pop star, as my eight-year-old self had hoped; I did not even end up singing in the school chorus. I was never good at soccer or softball, or any sport involving hand-eye coordination for that matter (which is why, to this day, I am solely a runner). I have, time and again, listened to my friends brag about their extensive understanding of chemical bonds while I look down at my textbook in frustration. As your average seventeen year old high school student, failure has become a constant in my life, and something I have learned to accept. It’s similar to getting your books knocked out of your hands. You bend down to pick them up, stand and adjust your hold, only to drop them once again just a few steps ahead. But this time, in this auditorium, I was convinced I would emerge triumphant, books in hand.
When my sophomore English teacher asked me to read at my high school’s first annual poetry slam, I had agreed, a bit incredulous. I was proud of my poem, of course, but I had not imagined that it would ever see an audience larger than my English class. Written on a whim for an assignment I now could not remember, my “Woes of a Wise Fool” was satirical and exaggerated. For three pages, I fretted over grades, homework – and failure. It was whiny, it was annoying, and I wasn’t sure that it would captivate an audience over the age of seventeen. Nevertheless, my teacher insisted it be read, and so I reluctantly agreed.
Now, as my name is called with the next group of students, I rise and inhale deeply. My stomach is an ocean and the dinner I ate an hour ago a fleet of boats, tossing and turning in the turbulent waves. They beat against my stomach walls stronger and faster until I am there standing in front of the microphone. Suddenly an intense calm washes over me. The waves subside, and I launch into my poem.
The first two pages go well, my poem is a break from the otherwise serious content of the evening, and as I read, I can hear the audience responding positively, laughing and gasping in all the right places. As I turn to the last page, however, I come to a screeching halt. These are not the final lines of my poem that I see on the page, but the middle of another student’s poem. Somehow, my teacher had not handed me my complete poem. I look at the audience, expectantly awaiting my next words. But there is nothing I can say except, “This is not my poem.”
The next few minutes rush by me in a nauseating blur: as I am ushered offstage, my teacher flits over to me, apologizing incessantly and hopping about like a chickadee; a new copy of my poem is thrust into my hands. The paper burns the tips of my fingers vengefully, daring me to climb back on stage. At that very moment, I cannot imagine standing in front of the audience once again. Something I had thought to be so foolproof has still managed to find a way to fall down around me.
The pages continue to simmer in my hands, and my name is called from the podium. My heart races as I glance down at the final page of my poem, which is now familiar to me:
“Out on the open road there are no tests,
Except for maybe whether to turn
Right or left?
And whether I choose right or left,
There’s really no way I can fail
Because either path will lead
To a whole new adventure.”
Without looking back, I ascend the stairs to the stage, pages firmly in hand.