When I was about 11-years-old, my family and I took a big trip around the world.
We traveled to Australia, Singapore, London, Pakistan, New York, Chicago, Washington, and more. It was a grand trip, paid for by my parents’ redundancy package (some countries call this a severance package).
Whilst I had a lot of fun seeing different countries and going to Disney Land, my priorities as a nerdy, study-loving 11-year-old were different.
I was missing school.
Much to my dismay, by the time we returned home, my mid-year exams were just around the corner. I was upset, anxious, and the trip that should have been a dream come true seemed more like a nightmare.
As a top three student who took pride in achievement, I studied hard, keeping myself awake most nights, cramming through the syllabus. My weakest subject at the time was mathematics. I needed more practice, more time, and was racing against the clock in an effort to be confidently prepared. This was when I had my first cup of coffee and felt its magical powers to keep me alert throughout the night.
When exam day came around, my mind felt blank. I had tears in my eyes as I stared at my mathematics paper. I would have usually finished my exam well before the finishing bell rang, but this time, I held on till the very last minute. I recall looking at my teacher apologetically. I had let her down.
I achieved a 48 out of 100 on that paper. Failed by two marks. I had never failed a subject before.
My parents tried to console me, “It’s okay, you can do better next time,” “Everyone fails sometimes,” “You can practice more for the final exam,” and “Would you rather have missed the trip to get better marks?”
Nothing that anyone said made me feel better. I cried for days.
Some students and teachers managed to make me feel worse. “What happened?” “You used to be a top three student,” “We expected you to at least pass.”
Adding salt to the wound, school policy placed me in a “remedial class” for mathematics. A class for students who have failed the subject. I sat amongst peers who I normally tutored and was being mentored by students who were once my healthy competition for the top spot. We used to study together, discuss projects, and help each other with our homework. But not anymore.
As Michael Scott from The Office would say, “Oh how the turn tables!”
For the first time, I realized that my abilities were only recognized by the results that I achieved. My track record of top three was ruined and I was only as good as my last achievement.
My friendships changed.
I had my first experience of bullying when my usual group of friends decided they didn’t want to have lunch with me. When I walked over to the group as I usually would, there was nowhere for me to sit. When I asked to make room, they said there were no more spaces (but there could have been if they had shifted a bit).
The students in the remedial class had groupings from previous classes and were genuinely experiencing learning difficulties, unlike me, who had failed for the first time by just two marks because of time away from school. I would often pretend that I didn’t know an answer, just so I could fit in.
My parents and teachers told me that the other kids were just jealous because I had traveled the world. But deep inside, I felt like I didn’t even belong anymore.
Whilst I felt left out in my own class, there were plenty of other students in the school who were alone like me. You could see them walking around by themselves, reading a book, or drawing in the sand in the playground. I started sitting closer to them in an effort to fit in somewhere. I wanted so badly to belong.
Even though it wasn’t the same, my new friends didn’t see me as competitive or weak. I was just another student. We shared stories about our families, travels, hobbies, and discussed our studies. We were of different age groups and in different classes, but I felt like we were equals.
At home, I had new stories to tell about school. My mum was so happy to see that I was happier now. Being in the remedial class didn’t matter as much anymore because my new friends never made me feel bad about it.
It is funny that one single incident—failing a mathematics exam as an 11-year-old—set the course of my life.
It was never about mathematics or getting the best grades. It was about the people who will accept me as I am and not whether I win or lose.
I can still see that 11-year-old girl who takes disappointment in stride, and when needed, goes out of her way to find her tribe. I put my faith in myself, not in other people, because the only things in life I can control are my actions and thoughts.
My big lesson from this experience is that your tribe can change with time and experience. When someone leaves your life, let them go; there is always someone new on their way, and they’re looking for someone like you.