Growing up, I was a cautious child. I never entered a new situation easily, and when I did, I preferred to be an observer rather than an actor. The comfortable confines of what was known was where I wanted to stay. You see, I liked to succeed. And success, of course, meant doing it perfectly.
There came a point in my life when I realized that my caution was limiting my experience, and so I began to “dare” myself. I dared myself to try out for a play. I dared myself to sing a solo. I dared myself to go to Spain and live with family for a year. Every one of these “dares” made me almost physically ill. I would enter these situations with knee-knocking, heart pounding, nauseating fear, but by and large, I was “successful” at them. I became a much more courageous person, but my definition of success had not changed.
After graduating from college, I presented myself with my ultimate dare. I joined the Peace Corps. Typical of an early twenties young adult, I had that feeling of invincibility and security in the thought that I had all the answers. I had visions of “saving the world”, bringing my great wisdom to the poor souls of Africa. I would be some poor village’s shining light. I was the walking embodiment of first world Caucasian conceit. Disembarking from the airplane, I often joke, we were required to hand over our passports and our rose-colored glasses. Reality, as it turns out, was a far harsher teacher than I had envisioned.
The village I lived in didn’t want my presence, I was just a reminder of all of the other “know it all” white people who claimed to know better. My students didn’t want my knowledge, they were just fine without me, thank you very much. What I did provide was a target—for generations of fear and anger of what white colonization had done to their people and their culture. Was it fair? No, of course not. But how fairly did we treat the minorities in our own country? Suddenly, my image of the world, from the point of view of a comfortable middle class upbringing, where all was fair if you just worked hard enough, evaporated. Or should I say, shattered?
I crawled into a dark hole and dragged myself out every morning to my students’ classroom and stumbled and fumbled my way through lesson after lesson, while students whispered and laughed and slept. God, I wanted to go home. This wasn’t “The toughest job I’d ever love.” This was a nightmare—my worst. You see, I took a chance, and I failed.
Somewhere about half way through my tour of 2 years, I called my brother. I cried. I told him I hated it. I told him I wanted to come home.
“Well, why don’t you?” he asked. I was speechless. What did he mean, why don’t I?” Where was the pep talk? Where was the “You can do it, Jeanne!” Where was the “every thing will be all right”?
“I can’t,” I whispered, “Everyone will say I couldn’t make it. Everyone will think I’m a failure.”
“Jeanne,” he said, “Every one thinks of doing some thing like your doing now. We see those commercials too, and think ‘Wow, wouldn’t that be cool,’ but we didn’t climb on an airplane and travel thousands of miles away from home to accept a teaching position. What do you mean, you’ll be a failure? Don’t you realize the second you stepped off that plane in Africa, you were already a success? You were courageous enough to go there. None of us were. None of us even filled out an application.”
At that precise moment my whole definition of success and failure changed. Success no longer means “doing it right” or “being perfect”. Success means holding your breath and trying something new. Success means change. Success means learning the hard lessons. Failure is not taking that risk. Making mistakes is no longer a huge fear in my life. Life goes on. My only fear now is that I’ll get to the end of my life, and regret that I failed to try.
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