Monday, January 4, 2016

The Importance of Failure

My greatest concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure. 
- Abraham Lincoln

Story time, pull up to your computer screens or phones and grab a cup of tea. For this story we need to go all the way back to the fall of 1992. When the only cell phone I'd seen, up to that point, was in a bag and you plugged it in. (My students would shudder in horror at that very statement.) I was young, stubborn, and attending my first semester at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. I hated it. For a variety of reasons spanning from homesickness to knowing I was in the wrong place, I wanted to transfer by October of that fall. I braced myself, told my parents, and they promptly said no. 

You'd think that might deter me, but you'd be wrong. Knowing I'd have to figure this out on my own, and knowing I was absolutely not finishing out the year there, I went to work. These were the days before easy access to a computer as well, so I called the local university near my hometown - five hours away. I couldn't transfer in until I was a junior, I knew that, but I asked to set up a meeting with an admissions advisor. I called across that same town to the local community college and set up a meeting an hour after the other one with admissions there. Then I sold plasma for two weeks, purchased a round trip ticket on a Greyhound bus, and went home for the weekend. I stayed with friends, met with the two different schools in admissions, figured out the plan for the next three and 1/2 years, hopped back on the Greyhound to Lexington and called my parents again. The transfer would be happening whether they supported me or not. 

To say they were a bit ticked off at their stubborn and resourceful daughter would be an understatement. Years later looking back I know the truth, they only had themselves to blame. Growing up they were twin pillars in my life, real life examples of work ethic. Through them, I knew that when faced with failure, you didn't give up. I knew that playing the woe is me card would be frowned upon. I also knew that I had gotten myself into this situation and I was responsible for figuring a way out, so I did. In 1992, I was a bit resentful that they refused to bail me out. In 2016 I am in awe of 18 year old me and beyond grateful for everything my parents taught me - spoken or unspoken.

Today I read this article someone shared on Facebook. (HERE) It immediately reminded me of my freshman year journey. At the time, I could have looked at my inability to stick it out at UK a failure, but I didn't. I looked at it as a bump in the road. However I had faced failures so many times over the years, I knew how to navigate these tricky waters. I'm not sure all of the kids I teach today would be the same. 

In fact, it is because of my students that I parent the way I do. I'm not winning any award for the best parent, let's be honest. There are days I think I've got it figured out and days I know all too well that I am soooooooo far behind. What I do know is that I allow them to fail - probably more often than they'd like. I've never helped with homework or even talked about it much at home. If they ask, I'll give suggestions. If it something requiring parental assistance, I will do the minimum. I've never packed their backpacks, brought forgotten lunches or instruments to school. Nope. A friend asked me about that once and then said I had simply gotten lucky - I had organized kids. It's true, I do have one son that is relatively organized, but I also have another that's an organizational disaster. However, both have had several forgotten lunches during Kindergarten and first, homework left at home after that, and then they began to remember. Both forgot a band instrument at least once. Small failures, but life moved forward. 

We've had bigger ones too. Some I've spoken about, some I haven't. One most recent one was when one of my boys didn't make the basketball team, his favorite sport. We let him be sad for about an hour - which did break my heart a bit - and then asked him to figure out a plan. Did he still want to try again? Did he want to play somewhere else this year? He figured out what he wanted to do and we helped him move forward. We've talked about it, shared when we failed as kids, what we did about it. As I type this post, I'm listening to him dribble in the basement, not because I required it, but because he wants to.

Failure is a pretty big deal, and we are all going to face it. No one will escape life unscathed. But I think we are doing our children - both our own and our students - a disservice if we teach them that failure is bad. It isn't. It's how we learn, grow, and move forward. Now, almost twenty-four years later, I can see how much I gained from that failure at the college level. I got to see what I was made of, what type of determination I had. I also learned that without a shadow of a doubt that I had inherited my dad's (and both of my grandmothers') stubbornness. I wouldn't trade that experience for anything in the world.