In the fall of 1982, Katy Bohnert ’86, a first-year student from Houston, enrolled in theoretical mathematician Serge Lang’s multivariable calculus course at Yale. As the valedictorian of her high school and an A student, Bohnert felt confident that she could breeze through the course and fulfill her pre-med math requirement. How hard could the course truly be?
However, after a few lectures, Bohnert recognized the folly in her reasoning. Her knowledge of high school calculus could not help her understand the Jacobian Matrix, Fourier series and triple integrals — all sections from Lang’s “Calculus of Several Variables,” the textbook for the class.
Lang didn’t provide much support to his struggling pupil. It was a running joke among his students that he disdained all simple-minded people who failed to grasp the importance of studying theoretical math and instead chose to pursue the humble trades of medicine, engineering or economics.
With a failing — or if not failing, close to failing — grade in the course, Bohnert sought tutoring from a math major in her class, but even his guidance could not improve her dismal test scores.
For weeks, Bohnert called home in tears, lamenting her future medical school prospects and chastising herself for enrolling in the course. A sense of embarrassment and helplessness washed over her. While every fiber of her type-A nature recoiled at the thought, Bohnert turned to her last option: she dropped the course.
The following semester, she enrolled in the same math course. Except, this time, it was taught by a far friendlier engineer. That summer, she made up the credits she had lost at the University of Houston. Bohnert, now Orsak, eventually earned her M.D. from the Baylor College of Medicine and has worked as a psychiatrist for the last 25 years.
Orsak, my mother, has the life she’d always dreamed of, even though Lang nearly failed her. When her daughter packed her bags for Yale 30 years later, she had one piece of advice: fail, and fail often.
At first, I balked at the suggestion. Like many of my peers in the Class of 2022, I have not experienced much failure up until this point. Of course, I had the occasional bad quiz and had been uninvited to my high school’s homecoming dance not once, but twice, but I have never encountered the same adversity my mom did during her first semester of college.
A month ago, I would have given anything to avoid it.
But now that I have spent a month on campus, I can honestly say something that few have ever uttered in the halls of Yale: I want to fail.
I want to sit dumbfounded as I struggle through every word of Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.” I want a professor to challenge every point I articulate in an essay. I want to get rejected from internships and dance groups, the latter of which won’t be a problem.
Every member of the Class of 2022 has come to Yale because we recognize that we do not know everything. As such, the discomfort of not knowing compels us to grow into the students we all hope to become. Every missed question on a problem set and every seemingly impossible exam provides us with a roadmap for future success.
My mother credits Lang’s course with teaching her the most important lesson she learned at Yale: you have to let yourself off the hook every once in awhile. You will live even if you almost fail a class your first semester. And by accepting failure as an inevitable part of college, you will challenge yourself to take bigger risks, never anxiously imagining — or fearing — failure as you join a new club or apply for a new opportunity.
At the end of the day,I find great comfort in knowing that if I ever want to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming vice president, I can follow in the footsteps of former Yale student Dick Cheney and drop out.
Don’t worry, Mom. I am kidding — I think.
Mary Orsak is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .