By Caroline Binley, online editor-in-chief
The exchange in video
My lesson in pasta, failure and astrophysics
Italians aren’t the only spaghetti chefs in the universe.
Black holes, too, know how to cook.
One has gravity so strong, and changing in strength so quickly, that it stretches any object that comes too close into a long, thin shape, not unlike a noodle, before ripping it in half. This process is known scientifically as spaghettification, and it’s part of my ex-worst nightmare.
If I close my eyes and think about failure, my brain conjures up an image of any mistake’s obvious consequence: a black hole, swirling its way closer to me, ready to spaghettify. It’s true that no black hole is near enough to Earth to do me such harm, but fear not. K-12, I took it upon myself to spaghettify my self-esteem at even the thought of an awkward conversation or a bad test score.
My self-imposed definition of failure excluded only total perfection, and it took me a trip around the world to learn how to cope with it.
I was one of 16 seniors to travel to Verona, Italy, over spring break for Prospect’s annual exchange with Liceo Copernico. I was prepared to learn new vocab or finally remember the difference between passato prossimo and imperfetto, but language was the least of the trip’s lessons. It was, to an extent I had never experienced before, an exercise in failing with grace.
I didn’t even make it to Italy before practice started; on the flight from O’Hare to Munich, I threw up five times. After I survived the flight to Verona, it was time to meet my Italian family.
Post-“ciao” and -“how was the flight?” (I told them it was great), our first topic of conversation was their cat. I asked how their meatball was, mistaking their cat’s name Pantera for Polpetta and accidentally insulting the vegetarian dinner they had cooked me.
I then wished my Italian mom “buon Pasquale” instead of “buona Pasqua.” It was the Italian, Easter-themed equivalent of saying “marry Chris” instead of “merry Christmas.”
For the next eight days, I continued my winning streak: my math skills momentarily lapsed, and I accused a street vendor of trying to overcharge me when he in fact had given me a discount; after a moment too long of living off solid carbs, I broke down crying because of how much I missed tofu; and one night at dinner with my Italian family, I got so confused during a conversation about American politics that I asked what a “Trumpa” was. (Hint: first name Donaldo.)
After each instance, my inner spaghettifier lost a little steam. I could have been a jet-lagged, blubbering mess too afraid to leave my room, but instead I climbed castles, binged on tigelle and listened to a senile grandmother sing about the moon.
Oh, and I got rejected from UC Berkeley. The best public university in the country, the perfect distance from the perfect city, San Francisco, and my grandma’s alma mater, Cal had been my dream since freshman year, but I didn’t even make the wait list. It was a defeat that meant more than a momentary lapse in language skills; to the wrong frame of mind, it proved my entire high school experience a failure, a struggle that didn’t earn me the only future I wanted in return.
But my rejection letter appeared during the trip’s eleventh hour, and by that point I’d learned better. Real failure isn’t making a mistake; it’s the inability to laugh that mistake off. At least when it comes to B’s, typos and college decisions, it’s humility that lines the horizon, not black holes.
After I read Berkeley’s consolation letter — which read more like a delicate offer of non-admission than an actual notice of rejection — this new perspective didn’t save me from tears, but it did let me mourn the death of my dream without turning to spaghetti.
It took me 4,500 miles of aerial transit and eight days of submersion in a foreign language to even half-master the ever-intertwined arts of failure and optimism. Those are undoubtedly odd circumstances, but maybe odd circumstances are the best ones.
Apply for an exchange, get a weird job or learn a skill you don’t think you need. Failure, astrophysics and pasta probably aren’t the lessons you need to learn, but they’re not the only ones out there. More importantly, Prospect isn’t the only classroom, so don’t let it be the only place you learn. Leave your comfort zone behind, whether by four miles or 4,000; that’s when life teaches you what you need to know instead of stopping at what you want to.