Cannonball D

woman writing - photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

I remember the exact moment the cannonball struck. I was sitting in a large lecture hall filled with aerospace and mechanical engineering students, taking my final exam for the Dynamics course. It was May of my sophomore year in college. Though many initial factors prompted me to take on engineering in the first place, my pride and my unhealthy attachment to finishing what I started kept me in it for two years. The Dynamics course was the first time I really couldn’t do the work, however. In the previous course, Statics, every equation we had to solve equaled zero. My math-oriented brain understood that. In Dynamics, however, suddenly nothing equaled zero, and my brain couldn’t comprehend how to solve problems in motion. My stubborn nature refused to admit that I couldn’t figure it out in the end through sheer will and determination. My stubborn nature, much like St. Ignatius Loyola’s arrogance, needed a cannonball for me to see the light.

After a semester of intense struggle, that cannonball came in the form of a simple white stack of paper in a crowded auditorium. There were just four questions on the exam. But I didn’t know how to do any of them. I remember the panic rising in me as I flipped through the pages and glanced at my classmates. Each of them seemed to be writing furiously while I was struggling to comprehend the words on page one. It felt so unbelievably hot in that room and annoyingly quiet, save the scratching of dozens of pencils. I wanted to rip up the test and run out of there into the cool spring air, but I also didn’t want to fail. It was by far the longest 90 minutes of my life.

In the end, I handed in a paper that had one problem mostly answered and a few lines I hoped made sense on the other three. I felt such shame handing in that paper. I wanted to bury it in the stack—or throw it away all together. I managed to wait until I got out of the hall to run and hide and cry. My friend found me and suggested that maybe I should talk to the professor before the final grades were in. I agreed and walked into my professor’s office the very next day without much of an idea of what I would say. Surprising even myself, I immediately blurted out that I knew I had done horribly on the final exam and that I knew in my gut that I was not cut out for aerospace engineering. In fact, I was pretty sure I was not cut out for engineering, period. It was the first time I had said those words aloud. I promised the professor I would never design a plane or anything that would transport people if he just gave me a passing grade. I promised him, even though I had no concrete plan in place, that I would transfer out of engineering as soon as I could. In the end, probably through the massive amount of curving that always happened on engineering tests, the report card had a big fat D on it—the first and last D I had ever earned.

Looking back, I realized that exam and that D were the things that finally got me to be honest with myself. Though the impact hurt, it allowed for a recovery period I desperately needed. There was still a long road ahead after that leading to where I am today, but it was the first time I was able to admit a few important things that have guided me ever since:

  • No amount of determination and will could push me through something I was not meant to do in the first place.
  • I was no less intelligent and no less worthy because engineering was not my God-given talent.
  • God didn’t spend all this time creating me for me to be miserable.

This was not my last cannonball by any means, but I think it was the most important of my life. It allowed me to make the very difficult decision to switch my major, which gave me the tools I needed to make future, even more important, decisions for myself and later my family as well.

Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash.

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Gretchen Crowder
Gretchen Crowder has served as a campus minister and Ignatian educator for the Jesuit Dallas community for the last 15 years. She is also a freelance writer and speaker and is the host of Loved As You Are: An Ignatian Podcast. She has a B.S. in mathematics and a M.Ed. from the University of Notre Dame as well as an M.T.S. from the University of Dallas. She resides in Dallas, TX, with her husband, three boys, and an ever-growing number of pets.


  1. I totally understand how your D felt to you. As a mother of 3, I had the opportunity to go back to finish my college degree. I was going along making super grades until I hit a math course that I just didn’t get. I sweated all semester keeping my grade up but knowing I probable wouldn’t pass the final. Thank goodness the prof had to curve the grades. Because she did, I could graduate… but still question the need for this class once I found my niche -Catholic wife and Mother… in all my positions in the work force, with the children growing up, I never used that Math course in any practical sense… but it changed my attitude to understand my growing children when they tried very hard and still didn’t get the grade they wanted-it made me understanding and human.

  2. These cannonball experiences teach us much. I had just completed 87 and had all sorts of plans in my head. Then came the series of falls, hospitalization , blisters on the legs and virtually no action, just sitting, falling asleep. I was very disappointed and out of the blue one morning I got up blind! This was the last straw. Desperate I called on the Lord and the Bl.Mother to figure this out for me. Then the grace came to accept that I am aging and things I could do before were difficult now and I needed to call on help. The eye problem cleared as it was an inflammation and that was my Joy to start again at a slower pace with Jesus and Ignatius who after the shot had to lie up quietly reading which was when grace caught him.

  3. Just what I needed today: God wants me to be happy, and to admit my need for Christ.

    What I am doing for Christ may not be what Christ wants me to be doing for Christ.

    Prayer and honest self reflection can help me during my foggy times.

  4. Gretchen, I do totally relate to this story. As a college woman in the 50’s it was awkward to be a math major ahead of all the boys in my classes. Long story short, in my junior year I fell in love with the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, then in love with stories, and finally in love with the Bible and Jesus and the stories of Jesus’ life. Changing from a major where I shined to a literature major where I had to struggle mightily for decent grades—guess it was a cannonball year where I learned humility and dependency and finally the person God had created me to be, wife, mother of four daughters, child of God. Learning to live life as a story not as a formula. When I met Ignatius in the Exercises, I knew I had found an important guide, tailored for me by our Father.

  5. I see your cannonball and have many of my own, but I refuse to accept that the D I gained as a 30 something, uneducated mother of two small children was not something to celebrate!
    Despite academic pronunciations I know I got an ‘ A’ for even daring to dip my toe into beginning to get an education. I do hope other ‘D’ students can also celebrate living with their ‘D’. Sorry you’ve hit a painful area for me today,!

    • Thank you so much for this! It’s actually a reminder that everyone’s cannonballs look so different and have so many different layers. Despite the challenge of that D, I was proud of myself for showing up and putting forth a lot of effort to earn it. It was probably the hardest I ever worked for a grade. I do think that is something to celebrate! Congratulations for dipping your toe in and congratulations on a hard earned grade!


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