When Failure is Everywhere
By Luke Reynolds
For the past twenty years, I have tried to start each of my classes—whether middle school, high school, or college—with the notion that making mistakes is okay. Failure is essential for our growth. We aren’t perfect, and shouldn’t strive to be.
But this year, the message has taken an unexpected turn. Now, instead of dealing with the personal failures my 12-year old students or 21-year old students face, the stakes are higher and the perspective foggier. Instead of worrying about a low grade, a broken friendship, or being cut from a sports team, students struggle now with more existential questions: Will I see my friends again? Will I see someone smile at me on the sidewalk again? Will I ever feel hopeful again?
The change in struggle and in fear is palpable, as families and students all try to make sense of what it means to learn in a time of high uncertainty and deep fear. And a central question has emerged among students: When failure is everywhere, where do we turn?
Dealing with a pandemic without clear leadership and direction, while also finally reckoning with deep and embedded systemic racism, has caused the wounds in our schools, our towns and cities, and our country to surface in plain view. What sometimes could be passed off as a “great” or even “exceptional” country can no longer be claimed as true. In its place has risen a more somber acknowledgement that there is failure on many levels in our country, and these failures reach every kid who is struggling to figure out how to be themselves.
So, what to do?
The simplest—and hardest—answer is to be honest. To be powerfully, articulately, and completely honest. Teachers and parents alike sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if we pretend the wounds and the failures are not present, then somehow our kids will grow up thinking they are, indeed, not present. But the truth is that kids notice everything form a bad mood in a teacher or parent, to an errant nose hair. I have certainly had my fair share of young students tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I had some fairly substantially protruding nose hairs!
And what they need now, more desperately than ever, is for adults to be honest about the failures of our country. We need to be honest about the struggles we face, the history that precipitated them, and only then can we move forward to address how we grow and heal.
Stifling truth and emotion is akin to seeing mold on a wall and then pretending that if we move a bookshelf in front of it, or drape a curtain a certain way, the problem is gone. Instead, mold seeps deep. It grows. It spreads. It eventually takes over and destroys a structure if we don’t see it, clean it, and stop it.
Our kids and our students, deep down, don’t truly crave perfection or an airtight sense that everything is okay. They already sense and feel that it is not. What they crave is the acknowledgement that we see it and feel it, too, but that we are ready to talk them through it, and to do our own small part to help hope and justice grow.
In Even More Fantastic Failures, my aim is to stress to middle grade readers that struggle and failure are a fact of life—that even the most inspiring and jaw-droopingly talented and hardworking people in science, sports, arts, politics, entertainment, and literature have failed and struggled just like we have. The difference our current reckoning makes is that now, these kinds of failures reach beyond a personal level and into a structural one. By providing our children and students with ways to address both the personal reality of struggle and failure, as well as the systemic reality of these facts, we prepare them to know that while everything might not be okay right now, we can work to make it so. While everything does, indeed, feel scary and hard and confusing, it will not remain that way. Why we may see failure and struggle everywhere we look right now, we can model the courage to face those realities honestly and openly, without pretending or hiding. By doing so, we begin to teach our kids and our students that this is the definition of thriving: now perfection, but honesty; not the lack of challenge, but the presence of hope within it.
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