Robert Barsanti gives a rallying call for failure. Why? Victory reinforces; failure teaches.
I teach with a woman who loves her seniors. She praises them, challenges them to be better, and, when acceptances roll in during the middle of spring, she lists their names and the colleges on one of her chalkboards. Each student then circles the lucky college that he has chosen. Applause and cupcakes all around. It is a wonderful process and her students love her for it.
The imp, in the back of my mind, would like to do something altogether different. Instead of a wall of fame, I would like to build a wall of shame. All of the rejection letters that come in should also go on a wall. Postcards, hand-written scrawls, tear-stained pieces of high-quality bond taped and tacked to a wall in the classroom, before God and everyone. The parents would not send me love notes and the students would not bring their friends in to see, but I suspect the younguns would get a lot more out of this, long-term, than the multi-colored hug in the other room.
Victory reinforces; failure teaches. When we win, all of our best traits and best features walk out into the spotlight and take a bow. Harvard accepted you because of your grades and the three shutouts you had in the playoffs last year. Victory doesn’t change anybody. You won, so you must be doing something right. No one is going to study harder, train harder, or work harder because they won. If anything, you let your guard down.
Failure, on the other hand, highlights all the laziness and bad habits that we have let build up into our system. When Harvard sends that crimson-lined postcard, it says that you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t get good enough grades, and there is more work to be done. All of the shortcuts and excuses are laid bare upon the table, naked for all to see.
We all have pride in ourselves. We all have happy little delusions that get us through our day. Perhaps we have a lucky coin or a Rabbit’s foot that somehow has brought us victory when we should have lost in the past. Perhaps, instead of luck, we have a long history of exercise and past victories that we hold out as a totem. With this transcript, we all feel, it should be enough. I have done enough. The beauty of failure is that it knocks the spotlight out of our eyes. When we watch our dreams glide away to someone else and hear, in the words of Dickinson, “The distant strains of triumph break agonized and clear,” we are tossed into the darkness at the foot of the stage. The brave will stand there, look at the celebration, look in the mirror, and go back to work. The foolish will just walk away.
We live in a culture where it has become very easy to walk away from the burning wreck. Failure has become more transitory and ephemeral in the Broadband Universe. Video games have become the lingua franca of my students. They skip school when a new “Call of Duty” comes out. Instead of grammar and history, they sit at home alone on the sofa and play “fat kid sports.” Should their character die, they can reset the game and start up again within seconds. Should they become frustrated, they can find a YouTube video to guide them through the tricky parts and find the “hidden” treasures. Should even this become too challenging, they can use a cheat and make their character invincible, invulnerable, and infinitely supplied. You lose only if you want to lose. It’s no wonder that the number of kids playing football has plummeted. When you lose to Martha’s Vineyard on the gridiron, you can’t reset the game.
Moreover, Facebook salves the sting of failure. On it you only record your victories; your defeats remain unwritten. When you get dumped by your boyfriend, you change your status, remove the tags from his pictures, and “unfriend” him. No one puts their rejection notices up. When you find a new man, all of your friends will happily “like” him on your wall. Facebook gives you a cheering section and a Mom to praise and prop you through the smallest trials of your life.
And it also presents a jury. The Mean Girls have a new tool to humiliate and crush those that step out of line. When the errors and the snares catch any of us, Facebook is there to catch, judge, and mock in front of everyone you know. The wrong friend, the wrong clothes, even the wrong words get electrically scourged. Enough kids learn the lesson early. Step out of line, take a risk, and fail? You will feel the lash forever. So they never step out away from the herd.
When kids reach the end of high school and begin looking at careers and colleges, they flinch from failure. My students won’t apply to schools that they might not get into. They won’t move away and look for jobs or careers in a new place. At each step, they need a cheat code and the herd. Without those, they are lost. And many of my students are lost at graduation.
Schools leave no child behind. If they have stayed in school as long as Senior year, we will do whatever we need to in order to get them over the finish line and keep our “metrics” clean. Graduation projects have stopped being challenges put to the young man or woman moving out into society and have become celebrations of their spirit. We clean them up, give them good posture and hope for the best. Graduation rehearsal lasts for months.
But then what? Five of my students have made their own minds up and aren’t going. They are as intent on staying in high school as the school is on getting them out the door. They skip all of their classes and hang out in the gym locker room or at the tennis courts. The girls of the group look to take a biological cheat; if they get pregnant, they can live with Mom and Dad for another ten years. They won’t drop out but they won’t walk out either. Instead, they stand in the fading twilight of adolescence, hitting the reset button over and over.
Failure comes to all of us. For the best of us, it slaps our face every day, over and over. In the end, after the hard, red-cheeked wisdom, we turn to the inevitable victory. Our own inevitable stubbornness leads us, unwilling, to the laurels. But without that stubbornness, we remain safe and ignorant in the stands, applauding meekly the acts that we wish we had the courage and the strength to do ourselves.
Only when failure loses its sting does victory became sweet. And maybe a wall of shame would be a good start.
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