This I Believe
I believe in failure.
I know failure well. I saw mine far too often through my father’s judging glare and heard it in his punishing tones. I recognized it when the 6th grade teachers at my new school figured out I could not read, and then each year through 8th grade as I was pulled out of core subject classes for reading instruction. I tasted it in 9th grade when I failed every class but PE and could not play basketball for the school. I felt it every year in my coaches’ and teammates’ responses when I inevitably did not complete a track season.
However, failure became an epiphany for me when, on the night of my high school graduation, I learned that I had lost the Social Studies department scholarship – a symbolic recognition for having been an eager student for two years – because of a shameful prank I pulled at the end of the year that earned me a two-week suspension. And I discovered a future self through it when my English 101W instructor at university (a course signifying my probationary status) talked to me about the first essay I had ever written – yes, ever written – that had no paragraph breaks or virtually any sense of order.
I so often lived with failure I almost mistook it for my self. But failure was really my teacher. Though it is not the case with every person, failure forced me to confront consequences. It forced me to look within. It forced me to make choices. Failure took me by the hand and taught me responsibility, pointed the way to excellence and success.
Learning from failure, for me, was a slow and painful process. For instance, countless times in my life, as early as 8th grade, I paid small and large prices for my reckless use of alcohol. There were critical interventions by others and personal revelations. But I continued to drink irresponsibly in spite of them. In the pattern of failure concerning alcohol, the clearest dawn of recognition emerged within weeks after 10:00 a.m. on Monday 5 January 1987. I was a second year teacher, teaching all 9th grade English classes. The Friday before Christmas vacation a 9th grader at my school, not one of my students, had gone with friends that morning to his home across the street from the school and sat around drinking – something I often did myself as a teenager. Around the time school was being let out the boy decided to take his mother’s car for a joy ride to show off for his friends. Shortly after leaving his house they were in an accident that ended his life. The Monday we returned to school I asked my students to write a journal: If you could make a resolution to change your life, what would it be? We all wrote, and then we talked. The conversation in every class came around to the classmate who had died while driving intoxicated. In my 3rd period class, Becky Karsok raised her hand, “Mr. Michell, do you ever drink and drive?” I paused, but as is my way, I responded honestly, “Yes.” We talked about this and I made a resolution with the class that I would not get behind the wheel of a car if I had more than two beers. Two Mondays later, when my students asked me, I had to admit failure.
It would take me another five years and three months, as well as the prices paid, before I divorced myself from alcohol, for my own good and everyone else’s. This has been my greatest success to date.
Failure led me to become a teacher and earn three degrees. Failure has allowed me to help students confront and grapple with their own failures. Failure, from the minor to the significant, continue to guide my next steps almost daily. I currently teach at a private secondary school in Istanbul, Turkey. My students are among the best and brightest this country has – they will be this country’s future. Few know failure – have too rarely seen it in themselves, tasted or felt it. So often they have been sheltered from it that they resist seeing it as essential to the learning process. They find it inconceivable that failure could possess a beautiful and transformative power.
When my students ask, “Is this true, what you say about your life and failure?”
“Yes,” I tell them.
They stare, dismayed and say, “This I cannot believe. How can it be true?”
And I respond, “Believe. Failure can teach.”
It can. It should. And, if one accepts failure as a door to potential growth, it does.
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