I set my elbows on the desk and leaned forward, resting my chin in the crook formed between my thumb and forefinger. My hands form a little steeple, the way they did back in Sunday School, but all the people are outside the church this time.
I stare at the doorway in front of me, hoping that the answers will materialize behind my eyes the way they used to. But it’s not going to happen. This is the skill that always made me a fast test-taker: I know when I know it, and I know when I don’t.
And this morning, the only things I see are red and green swirls on the whiteboard, blurred by the tears of the night before. There’s nothing there.
I pointedly avoid looking at my professor. Because she knows I don’t know it, and because I’m about to turn in a nearly blank final exam. And I’m so humiliated by that fact that I just keep staring at the white-washed bricks.
I’m grateful that the only clock in the room is hung on the wall behind me.
The second semester of my freshman year, I surprised myself and took Honors General Chemistry. We had a test every few weeks, and over the course of the semester I developed a system: around 6 pm the night before a test, I printed off the study guide, pulled out my book, and began studying. Then I kept studying until I absolutely could not stay awake any longer – usually 3 am.
Around midnight, I would pause to grab a sugar free Rockstar from the fridge – the stale soda taste now permanently infused with freshman dorm hallways and redox reactions.
Then, in the morning, I reviewed whatever I hadn’t covered the night before on my walk to the science building. It was a terrible strategy and I don’t recommend it to anyone, but I loved it.
That was pretty much par for the course in my life.
I spent every lunch hour of my senior year in high school finishing 4th period biology homework. The night before the SAT’s, I opened the prep book my mom had purchased the previous year and flipped through it for the first time.
I finished and submitted my college application essays at 1:30 am – thirty minutes before they were due, same with my Teach for America essays.
I wrote a 15 page research paper between the hours of 4:30 and 8:00 am, after going to the midnight premiere of the first Twilight movie. Because I’d put it off this long, what would another four hours matter? (It was a truly terrible paper, in case you were wondering.)
I memorized theatre monologues during physics, and I went through vocabulary flashcards while sitting at my desk just before the quiz. In truth, I put forth very little effort.
I always joked that I would stop procrastinating when it stopped working. But I lied. It stopped working, and I just kept going. Which is how I found myself failing a biochem final in the middle of my senior year. My brain was being short circuited by raw emotions and anxiety, and I just pulled myself along in a well-worn trench of habit and self-reliance.
I kept studying for tests the night before. But when you find yourself sitting in the bible building at midnight with an army of dry erase markers, blinking back tears for the four hundred and fifty-seventh time that night, committing complex biochemical pathways to memory is surprisingly difficult. Even so, I never tried to memorize it a piece at a time, over weeks. I just stared down at the blank white page of my final exam in disbelief. Then I turned it in, mostly empty.
However gifted I may be at memorization, I am a slow learner.
And I want to go back to that December, to try again, to push myself harder. But sometimes life happens, and the story isn’t inspiring. Sometimes you don’t rise to the occasion. But then life just carries on anyway, beautifully. And you can’t go back and fix it, but maybe you can redeem it.
I used to put things off because I could, because the words and the answers always came if I just sat down and focused for a few hours. I took a strange pride in the fact that I could get it done eventually, and that whatever I did would be good enough.
And then I procrastinated because that’s what I had always done, and because I didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that I was struggling academically. I pushed tasks away, waiting until the last possible minute because so much of my identity was wrapped up in my own intellectual acumen and the praise of authority figures. I didn’t want to face the prospect of failure.
And now I find myself a year later, taking a moment to breathe, to look ahead, to wonder at what that semester means now. Now that I am no longer in school. Now that I am married. Now that the firmly plotted points of my life have ended with a charge to go live, and serve, and die.
Because I’m not in school anymore. There are no deadlines and no due dates. There is no one here to tell me that I must finish this project by November, no one to ensure that I have met the necessary criteria by May 12th.
But there is still so much that I want to do.
We spend so much of our life waiting – because the years left feel definite, feel infinite. Or because so much of our effort falls short. If you we try, if we give everything we have, and it comes to nothing, then what?
But I don’t want to waste away the hours of my life on Netflix. I don’t want to be left scrambling at 4am, holding off sleep, wishing for more time. I have been blessedly humbled with the realization that the least of my effort is inadequate to meet the demands of my life.
I have been asked to do more. I have been asked to be fully present, to offer up the whole of my being now, to risk myself on work that matters.
For 2013, this gold medalist in procrastination has chosen to begin.
For the years are not so long. And you only get one shot.