“Look, I learned to fry an egg.”
It was track out and Emma Grace decided she didn’t want to do a camp– she just needed a week at home instead of being at school. I agreed but let her know that since I had to work, she would have to entertain herself most of the week. Day two into the week, I walked in the door after work and there she was, waiting with a towel over her arm (like a waiter) and a triumphant smile on her face:
“You’ve been working so hard today; I made you breakfast and lunch. And look, I learned to fry an egg.”
There it was– breakfast (fried egg, sautéed spinach, toast) and lunch (homemade mac and cheese, salad with apples and vinaigrette, cheese and crackers) and her ipad with videos on “how to fry an egg.”
She was quite successful, and even without my assistance.
“Get back on that wall missy…”
My hands were sweaty, my heart pounding. I don’t like heights. I am afraid of heights. And my daughter is a competitive rock climber. So… I’m learning to climb. Emma Grace (my daughter) is a wonderfully supportive coach but she won’t let me get away with anything. When I first started climbing, she knew that it was my fear holding me back. I’d get a hold or two up the wall and then jump off (too afraid to continue higher and too afraid to fall). One day, this lead to what has become an infamous quote in our family:
“Get back on that wall missy…”
I did. And she continued to coach me—right hand on this move, left hand there, shift the feet, match on that hold. I still fell on that climb—heart beating wildly in fear—without making it to the top.
I was not successful, even with her assistance.
Fall 2015: First day of classes*
On a basic level, teaching is about fostering success. And the first day… well, without the heaviness of midterms or late night readings or make up work or exceptions to policies or grade discussions, the first day stands—for me—as this wonderfully hopeful moment in time. That is why I love the first day. There’s no room for disappointment amidst the bright-eyed, ready for anything aura that dispenses itself through many campuses and classrooms. No one has failed yet. Success is possible.
I bet if I walked through campus this week and asked students what a successful semester would mean, many would answer: “getting good grades.” In fact, I bet if I walked through campus today and asked the same question of teachers, many of them would say something about getting students to learn [fill in the blank—history, psychology, communication]. These are all measures of success, of course.
But I wonder to what extent we are missing an opportunity if we singularly focus on these measures of success. I wonder to what extent these measures pit success against failure in an unproductive competitive ring that can leave only one standing. I wonder if our scripts about what school “should be and do” end up forcing failure into a corner that is relegated to “bad” students. And I wonder to what extent my assistance, in the classroom, is actually directly correlated to students’ success. They might succeed without me. Or fail with me.
These ponderings lead to several seemingly simple—but not easy—questions:
What counts as success?
What counts as failure?
What is our role, as teachers, in the ongoing ebb and flow that is success and failure?
“If I were going to Nationals, we’d be getting on that plane to Atlanta…” she said, pointing towards the gate where the Atlanta plane was boarding.
“True,” I said, “but look– this is the plane we are getting on. New York, here we come!
Emma Grace did not qualify for nationals in sport climbing. It was a tough day. She is as good as those who did qualify. She just wasn’t as good as those who did qualify on that particular day. It stung. Once she knew she had not qualified, she could have easily left the gym. But she stayed to help with the team points, and she stayed to receive her competitor ribbon because she knew it was the right thing to do. She even encouraged another competitor in her category be a good sport when that person said (about walking up to get a competitor ribbon): “no way, I’m too embarrassed to just get a competitor ribbon.” She kept her game face on and her smile big, even though her heart was in pieces.
Fast forward—New York City:
4 Broadway shows, Macy’s shopping spree, pedicures, climbing gyms, FAO Schwarz, and Central Park outdoor climbing. We weren’t going to have time to be disappointed. So I thought.
“I didn’t make nationals, I failed.” Emma Grace said, looking at Instagram posts from people at Nationals as we wandered through Manhattan.
“No you didn’t. You…” I started to respond, ready to try to convince her that she hadn’t failed.
“Mom, yes I did. It doesn’t matter what you say. I failed.”
My brain was racing: What do I say to make things better? How can I help her feel like she is not a failure? My scrambling was interrupted by her voice, once more:
“But…” she continued, “I succeeded at failure.”
Pause. Then a smile. And then, we both laughed.
“Yes, you succeeded at failure. Without a doubt.”
“Let’s play the humming game,” she continued, starting to hum “This is My Fight Song.” And we turned the corner and walked into the mesmerizing lights of Times Square.
“Name that tune, mom.”
It is not about rewriting the script so that every failure is a success. I can do that… but doing so, at times, does not honor the learning space that exists. But, as important: it is not about allowing the failure script to dominate. I can do that too… but doing so, at times, does not honor the learning space that could be. And even more important: it is not about, necessarily, adhering to the scripts that define success and failure and in doing so privileging some experiences and excluding others.
What is it about then?
Just this weekend my daughter came to see my new office (I started a new position July 1st and changed offices). When I asked her to write me an inspirational quote on my white board, she wrote: “Never say the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.”
It is about possibility.
It is about creating a space where we can all fall off the wall and fry an egg; where fear and courage and failure and triumph are dear friends, all at the table, waiting to teach. How’s that for a challenge?
Right around the corner, the lights of your Times Square await.
Name that tune. Or rather: name your tune.
*This post is late (not on the first day of classes for NCSU when I usually post) because I took the extra step this year of asking my daughter for permission to share her story prior to posting the blog (those of you who have read my blog know I often re-tell stories about her; she has been and continues to be one of my most profound teachers). She responded to my request with hesitancy … she didn’t want the world to know about (more than they already did) something she considered a failure. From my perspective, she shone brighter during her failure than many who had succeeded. From her perspective, she failed and nothing will change that. I say tomato. She says tomato. And that’s ok. I honor where she is (and in fact an entirely new group of questions emerges for me about who has the right to name success and failure… for another blog). After I talked further with her about the big picture message I was trying to share, said “ok, whatever, fine”(which is a resounding yes from a 12-year old, I’m learning) and hence I bring you a belated first day of school blog.