Monday, March 24, 2014

Failure is Your Friend (Yes, Really)

Did a lovely school visit last week at Moody Middle School in Moody TX. (A writer friend pointed out that this is the perfect name for a middle school! Because 7th and 8th graders… yeah… they can be kinda moody, you know?)

But we had a great time, at least as far as I could tell, and the librarian and teachers had asked me to speak about both revision and the idea of never giving up. And as I was creating my powerpoint-- interspersed with images of Lyla the bassett/boxer, who never fails to elicit a laugh or two-- I add this slide:
Because I really, really believe it's a message they needed to hear. And then I added this, because it's the follow up:
Because it's the other thing I think we all need to keep reminding ourselves.

I have not taught full time in over 2 years, but I still remember the day my principal told us that 50 was the lowest grade we could give a student. Period. Because, the logic went, if we gave the student at least a 50, then mathematically, he/she would still have a chance to pass. And the school had basically preset the grading program to make this happen for us. Meaning if a student earned only a 40, it would automatically be figured in at grading time as a 50.

Well, that year I had a student who had refused to work. And just before Thanksgiving, he stopped coming to school at all. By mid January, he'd never returned, but he hadn't dropped out, either. So the school had to issue him a report card. He was going to receive a 50. He had done 1 assignment during the course of a semester. It made no sense to me. Still doesn't. Not as a general, required rule. Are there extenuating circumstances sometimes? Yes.

Here's what I believe: Failure is okay. I used to be afraid of it. But the truth is, if I never fail at things, then what that means is that I am not stretching myself. I am not testing my limits. I have no idea what huge things I can achieve. It is good for me to be afraid sometimes when I'm trying something new. To wonder if I'm up to the challenge. When I stop getting those butterflies in the belly, I'm not trying hard enough. I'm just phoning it in.

I have failed a lot as a teacher and a writer. I'm not happy to admit this, but it's true. Bethany Hegedus is doing a great and related series about rejection over at the Writing Barn blog. Here's what I wrote having my option book rejected a couple years ago:

I have presented lessons that didn't sufficiently teach the topic. I have had manuscripts rejected multiple times. I have turned in revisions and been asked to revise again. And again. That last part isn't necessarily failure, but it still means that I need to dig deeper to get it right. I have pitched ideas--and myself-- for conferences that weren't accepted. I have reached out to stores who did not choose to host me. I have written two full manuscripts that will most likely remain in a file on my laptop. I stubbornly worked at education for many long years even though the creative life kept calling me. Some days I feel like I will never catch up with the herd.

And that's just some of the professional stuff. My personal failures could be an entire year long series of posts. :) Including those ballet lessons that just didn't stick.

Well, so be it.
From each of those failures has come a success. Really. Sometimes it was a long time getting here. But it happened. Some days it's harder to see that than others. Some years, it seems patently false. But it's true. All my successes are owed to the times I didn't quite make it.

Except for ballet.

A true story: I decided to try it again when I was at Northwestern. A pass/fail PE credit that I didn't even need at all, but figured hey, what the heck. Except it was winter quarter. It snowed foot after foot that winter. The gym was almost a mile walk from where I lived. I still sucked at ballet. So I stopped going.  My OFFICIAL transcript includes my ballet grade. Yeah. You know what it was.

Anyone else have a failure story that pushed you toward eventual success?


Hannah J said...

*round of applause*

Well, considering I had an English talk today that counts towards my final GCSE grade, I certainly hope this dies _not_ turn into a failure story. But if it does, at least I have this lovely motivational gem to keep me going.

And one day, when I am a big scary editor, I will take those two unloved manuscipts and we will turn them into publishing gold :)

Anonymous said...

As a teacher and writer, I could not agree more. I am retweeting this, printing it, and sharing it with my colleagues. Kudos!

Barbara Younger said...

Such an encouraging post and I love the quotes by Twain and Jordan.