The ‘F’ Word

As soon as the end-of-day bell sounds out and the flock of young ones in front of me tuck in their chairs, bundle up their books and materials in their arms, and shimmy on out the door towards freedom, a menacing grey monster in my head emerges and threatens to swamp me. It’s familiar, this voice. It’s got a voice like Jeremy Irons playing Scar, Simba’s malicious uncle in The Lion King, and it starts to run a tape reel of Today’s Best Hits.

It reminds me that that a student was crying in class today, and another three still come to class without paper to write on and pens to write with. That I’m still chasing up work that’s a term overdue. That Little Johnny only wrote one sentence in a double period during English.

I remember that a kid adamantly stated that they hated my subject at point-blank range, and how another student jumped out the window because it was “closer than the door”.

I forgot to bring my whiteboard markers to class again, and I actually forgot to eat lunch. I forgot to turn off the lights in the Science lab, and I wrote the wrong date on 20 pieces of marked work because I still think it’s May.

“Run away, and never return…”

Jeremy Irons’ gravelly voice runs through the tunnel in my ear.

I feel like failure personified.

It’s gut-wrenching, this feeling of inadequacy and inferiority. It is a hard pill to swallow, the fact that good intentions, sincerity and selflessness, do not always equate to success. There are days where I walk from school to home, lie on the rug in our living room, and stare at the ceiling for a solid hour or so and simply let the tears run down my face.

It’s not pretty.

I’ll munch through packets of honey soy chips and light a dozen candles, drink lots of chamomile tea and vent to my (poor) housemates, desperately trying to find a panacea for my temporary misery.

But, you know what? I get up the next day. I put on my silly socks, brave the cold Wimmera weather, and smile.

Because, despite what happened yesterday, I still want to be here.

Mary Pickford’s sage words poignantly express that “this thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down”. The pure effort of going back into the ring day in, day out, and relentlessly trying to be better, is at times – enough. Learning to embrace failure, understanding that opportunity lies in every defeat, letting go of pride and trying, trying, trying again, is a daily lesson that teaching teaches me.

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Often, I witness students’ own fear of failure prevent them from trying in the classroom. It’s called ‘atychiphobia’, for all you jargon enthusiasts out there – the fear of not being good enough. Whether it is the fear of losing out, of disappointment, of being vulnerable and exposed only to face rejection or defeat, students will sit strapped to their chairs as if an invisible rope were tying down their arms.

Often, students keep their mouths shut and evade eye contact. Some avoid committing to personal opinions, sharing their guesses, taking risks. Some students second guess themselves, asking “Is this right?”, “What do I do next?”, assuming “This is probably wrong”. Many lack the ability to trust themselves and their own judgement.

On tests and examinations, it makes my heart sink when I see a blank response. If students see themselves as ineligible to access ‘success’ as deemed by schooling standards (which is often stereotypically grades, numbers and getting the answer ‘right’), they can shut off completely. However, it’s like Einstein’s adage: “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing that it is stupid”.

True failure is not a poor mark or grade, but denying one’s self of the chance of success by not even trying.

My sincere hope for my students is that they can learn to welcome mistakes and develop the kind of resilience that allows them to bounce back from adversity, courageously striding towards the future they envision for themselves (even if they look silly along the way). They need to know that failure is not the antonym of success, but part and parcel of its definition.

Like I said earlier, this is a lesson that I have to learn daily.

Failures are only ever a failure of the moment; it is an event, rather than a reflection of self-worth. It is an inevitable part of this remarkable job, and I choose to grow from it than be hampered by the fear of it.

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