Failure Is An Option

My sixth-grade class is an eclectic group of spunky personalities still in that tenuous gap between wanting to cling to childhood in all its forms -- Dora the Explorer lunch boxes, sneakers with light-up soles, sticker collections from spelling tests -- and wanting to be seen as mature teenagers (if there is such a creature).

Because they are occasionally awkward and shy when presenting to peers, we do a transitional activity called Book Commercials.

The premise is simple: Stand at your seat, share your book, title and genre, then summarize the story in a way that appeals to your classmates to get them interested in your book.

I first model my own book commercial, adding bits of drama (it is middle school, after all) and humor to loosen them up for their own talks. By the time my three minutes are done, they're actively engaged, some scribbling my book title on their “to be read" notebook chart and smiling over one of my silly antics.

Not Holly. At the mention of book commercials, her slender body stiffens, her breathing becomes shallow. Instead of laughing when I compare seventh-graders to ogres, she hardly cracks a smile.

The students nearest my stool begin to take their turns, and as the commercials continue person by person, nearing Holly. Her sparkling brown eyes darken with trepidation.

By the time it's her turn to share, her usual sharp mind and wise insight is trumped by a mental and verbal paralysis that allows her to utter only a few basic sentences about a book she shared passionately with me two days earlier.

Despite gentle, probing questions, her brilliance remains hidden in the shell of an otherwise lively and intellectual child. Rather than heighten her trauma, I thank her and proceed to the next student.

With a small class, we finish with time to spare. I make my way to Holly’s seat.

“You seemed a little nervous, Holly. Everything OK?”

She nods but her mouth doesn’t move.

“You're such a good reader and your book was so interesting; your classmates would have loved if you'd have told them more,” I prompt. “Is there something I can do to help make you less shy next time?”

Those dark eyes snap to my face. “I'm not shy, Mrs. Morrow.” Her fingers worry what remains of a chewed-up number two pencil conspicuously missing an eraser. “I'm scared of failing. I don't want to mess up and have people laugh at me. I want to be perfect.”

The bell rings, releasing her from further confession and leaving me with the lingering conundrum of failure: an experience that is neither wanted nor sought out, yet necessary for informing our lives and how we live them.

I respect her fear, since lack of momentum caused by paralysis of perfection has been a recurring theme in my own life, but I ponder the differences in our generational and educational upbringings that shape our desires to seek success.

Our worlds contrast. Her generation's youth soccer games are played without scores so there are no “losers” or hurt feelings. Our generation’s weekly neighborhood kickball games granted winners bragging rights for a week, enticing the losers to practice harder and become tougher for the rematch.

Her generation's obsession with video games, texting and web surfing as forms of “social” interaction is noticeably more solitary than my generation's spending most days surrounded by people, navigating how to get along with those we didn't like, discovering how to get out of trouble (of our own making) and finding our strengths through trial and -- often -- repeated error.

Her generation’s bland nature of school rewards, where one student receiving an award obliges a teacher to give an entire class equal rewards or face calls from parents demanding to know why their child was left out, pales to my own experience when a failing grade on a math test kept me one-tenth of a point from National Honor Society induction.

Though my life experiences vary greatly from those of my students, we share one common truth: The lives we lead are built on failure, not success.

Success is the simple part of the equation. But success cannot be experienced without the impetus of failure.

A taste of failure informs our need for success, makes us curious about the “what ifs” in life.

When we allow the fear of failure to reign, we reduce ourselves to the lowest possible form of our true selves and rob the world of our bright, shimmering authentic nature. Baptism by fire is far more exciting than baptism by immersion.

Of course, as a teacher, my job is to give students the steps they need to get where they want to be. Next week, we'll journal about the idea of failure and discuss ways it can make us better.

Before Holly presents, I'll suggest she pre-write her book commercial to lessen her worry, to bring her one step closer to bringing the creative student outside and sending the failure-fearing student inside.

I’m hoping that one step toward success will take her one step further from the fear of failure and bring out her beauty -- and I hope she sees it that way, too.

Beth Morrow is a freelance author, educator and member of the Central Ohio Diabetes Association’s Youth Committee and Camp Leadership teams. She has served for 18 years as Senior Week program director for Camp Hamwi, a residential, age-based, week-long residential camp for diabetic youth. Reach her via e-mail at: