I’ve heard it said that, even more than their lessons, educators teach who they are as people. Students learn about their teachers’ passions, annoyances, available buttons to push, and amount of care they hold for their pupils—perhaps even more than they learn about their coursework. As a teacher, I have seen this happen. As a former student, I’ve learned that the most important person a student can learn about is oneself.
Of course, I recognize that academic lessons in school are necessary. I still remember the pride I felt on the day I mastered spelling that word: necessary. I feel a sense of pride each time I spell it correctly, with only one “c” but a double “s.” There are also personal lessons to be learned that have a huge impact on a child’s future. Failure is a frustrating but useful tool to guide a student’s holistic education.
Growing up, the walls of my classrooms and libraries were covered in motivational posters about how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, or how Thomas Edison failed “x” number of times before he successfully lit a lightbulb. The details of those stories may be more myth than truth, but the lesson was clear: “Don’t let failure hold you back. Don’t give up. Keep trying.”
Failures are not fun, but they can be valid and helpful experiences in shaping who a person becomes. Looking back, certain childhood failures might not seem as monumental as they did at the time. However, I certainly learned more from a few notable negative experiences than I did from any lecture. Memorable failures from my school days taught me how to trust my young self and motivated me to grow into the person I hoped to become.
During my adolescence, I experienced one such memorable “failure.” It involved a good friend. Those were the days of embroidery thread friendship bracelets and halves of heart necklaces, so she was my best friend. In typical teen fashion, we started to drift apart as she became closer to a different friend who would replace me as “best.” I remember feeling confused and a little desperate, willing to do whatever it took to win back my friend. Changing my hairstyle or going to parties didn’t help. Laughing at dirty jokes or trying to like sports didn’t help. Not even pretending I knew the band Nine Inch Nails helped. Honestly, I was probably pretty unconvincing on that one.
This all seems ridiculous now, but the fact that I couldn’t hold onto a best friend made me feel like a gigantic failure. I stupidly loved decades-old music and had hair that was impossible to de-frizz. I couldn’t succeed at being a girl or a teen—least of all a friend that people wanted to be with. Most of us remember sad and lonely times like that from school. It felt like I was forever doomed to be friendless and worthless.
One day the alliances of friendship suddenly shifted again. Thankfully, this opened my eyes to the fact that my friendship problem did not rest with who I was as a person. I realized how incredibly unhappy I had been pretending to be someone I wasn’t. It didn’t work anyway, so what was the point? In time, my world expanded, and I learned that there are many opportunities to make friends. First and foremost, I needed to be comfortable and happy with who I was. It was okay to trust myself to be me. I might not always be happy. I might sometimes be lonely. But I had the freedom and peace of knowing that a fake identity is not satisfying.
Sometime later, I had a much better friend. She was unendingly fun and truly kind. We made mountains of memories that I treasure (although they would be pure nonsense to anyone else). With her I could definitely be my odd-music-loving, frizzy, dorky self. But there was a moment in this friendship that taught me that “being yourself” shouldn’t come without warning.
We were both smart, but very silly. She was better at math than I was, but she was a horrible speller. I knew that she was sensitive about her spelling. It had come up in discussion many times. I still cringe a little when I remember the day our group was talking and teasing each other and people started making fun of my friend for a basic word that she had misspelled. “You can’t spell worth crap,” a friend said. To which I immediately chimed in, “She can’t even SPELL crap.” Beat.
It wasn’t a big deal in the world of insults. I only saw surprise and a tiny bit of hurt on her face for a second before she started laughing with everyone else. It was funny, but that had never before been the tone of our friendship. We didn’t talk to each other that way. We told each other that we were beautiful and wonderful.
She might not even remember that moment, but I will never forget it. It was when I realized that I wasn’t always “nice.” I must have been delusional, but I truly didn’t know until that conversation that I could be purposefully unkind to a friend. “Nice, kind, and sweet” was who I was. People had always described me this way. No one had ever said that I would be willing to betray my friend (even in a small way) for a joke. The point really wasn’t that I made fun of her spelling. The point was that, in my heart, I knew that I had made this silly joke on purpose for attention to get a laugh. I knew that it would be at the expense of her feelings. I had failed my friend.
Failure is okay. It helps us grow. Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison’s experiences attest to this. Teachers believe this. When pressed, even most students will admit that it’s true. Frizzy-haired, smart-mouthed girls everywhere should take heart. Failure, though painful at the time, is often beneficial in the long run. I am thankful that I know how to be me. My mouth has gotten me into less trouble than it could have because of the lesson in kindness that I learned. Where would be if we lived our lives free of failure? Perhaps without any great success. Learning from failures helps us to grow in honesty as well as compassion. Those are two of the greatest successes that I can imagine.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!