I was complaining recently to my best friend from 7th grade who now (40 years later) lives across the continent. I said I failed to get the job I wanted and felt I had earned. She reminded me that failure was nothing new to me, so what was I moaning about? And then I remembered so many failures…and all the wonderful things I learned from them:
Choosing to ride the Tower of Terror at Disney World was definitely a failure that taught me never to ride anything that involves heights taller than myself.
Winning contests at birthday parties in elementary school taught me that succeeding in accomplishments might mean failing socially. Which did I really want?
Drawing and creative writing failures taught me that I am not as artistically creative as either of my sisters but that is okay after all.
Failure taught me that I don’t think very well on my feet so if something important is coming up, I’d better prepare.
When some fellow mischievous scouts and I failed to properly secure tents at Girl Scout camp, our punishment was having to dig trenches around the tents of younger campers during a terrible storm. Despite the rain and discomfort of it all, we learned that service learning had internal rewards.
In 7th grade I refused to let the Assistant Principal search my pocketbook for a hall pass. I got suspended and learned that standing up for one’s rights meant a personal sacrifice.
I got a few F’s in school. In 7th grade, I just took a black pen and turned any F’s to B’s. Eventually I was discovered, and I learned the truth will come out sooner or later, that I would get a bad grade (and be grounded) if I didn’t do the work, and that teachers cared about me enough to help me learn this by failing me.
In college I got another F and it taught me a lot about what the teacher expected—albeit in retrospect. I didn’t make a second one in her class.
Failure taught me that some people will try to make me fail because they are afraid of my success. I learned that failure is not always my failure.
Failure taught me and continues to teach me humility—one of the hardest and most important lessons.
I even once took a class in creative writing—knowing I would fail– so I could sympathize with students who felt they couldn’t write in my classes. I learned what it felt like all right. I found myself in a small room with 10 people who had fountain pens and leather bound journals. For our introductions we had to go around the room and create an interesting story on the spot about the person sitting next to us. Instead of saying, “What do you mean?! I am here exactly because I having the faintest idea of how to go about doing that—you tell me!” I actually tried to do it and practically started trembling, stuttered, made no sense and told a really stupid story—so bad that the person next to me said, sympathetically, “It’s really hard to go first.”
I fail every day at trying to write about what is true in a way that someone will care. But it is helping me become a better writer. If I didn’t feel free to fail in every first draft, I wouldn’t attempt writing at all.
I have been made to feel that I fail as a teacher when I fail students who fail to do their work.
One of the greatest characteristics of our country with all its freedoms has been the right to fail, and I would hate for that to change. Public school teachers are encouraged to do all sorts of things today to make sure students don’t fail, whether they earned a failing grade or not. If we don’t fail them, aren’t we denying them the right to pursue a better education? If they don’t fail, they don’t have the right to make up what they failed to learn.
Are we not using a double standard that expects less of these students? Aren’t we then depriving students of the growth that leads to legitimate success?
My failures have shaped me more as a person than my successes, and I feel fortunate that I was allowed to have them. I thank my friend for helping me remember them.
Although I don’t know the lesson yet, this more recent failure of mine will turn out to be a good learning experience, I am sure. Sometimes you don’t appreciate the lesson right away. You just have to have faith and press on, and later you will see what a great opportunity it was to fail.