Trust, Risk, and the Gift of Failure

By Jessica Restaino

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What has it meant—what might it mean—to look at, to honor, to be still with, to see plainly our—and our students’—limits? And, perhaps most importantly, what might it look and feel like to do this together, alongside our students, with both confidence and compassion? What are the risks and what are the potential gains?

I was eight when I wrote in my journal that I was afraid of the new family moving in next door because they were from India. They’d speak differently, I reasoned, maybe not even know English at all, maybe they’d dress differently. Maybe they’d be hateful, mean. I did not write any of this, rooted as it all was in a deeply Italian American childhood, to be read by anyone. My words were confessional and, a few pages later, evolved first into an anxiety about whether the new kids next door would even want to play with my brother and me, different as we all were from each other, and next into a plan to get their attention. If, I guessed, we rode our bikes past the house a few times, maybe they’d come outside. These were days when mothers shooed kids out into the neighborhood, expecting to see us again only when they yelled from the stoop. As kids, we expected to be neighborhood companions, to wander and look for something to do.

I am still ashamed of what I wrote, childish though it was, and yet I have saved this journal all these years, shoved in a drawer among my socks.

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And so last week when my daughter, who is nine, showed up beside me with it in her hand—“Is this your journal, Mom? I only read the first page…”—I knew exactly what she had read (and that she had read beyond the first page).

“What I wrote…about the new neighbors moving in…from India…if they read that, it probably would’ve hurt their feelings, huh?”

“Yeah.”

I tried to explain why I wrote what I did, tried to offer some insight into my own limited view at the time and also into my relationship with that journal, which offered a private space where—in writing—I tried to explore what I felt and didn’t always understand. I told her how the story really ended: ultimately we became fast friends and played all day, every day, until my family moved a few towns away.

She disappeared with my journal.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about failure, about the word itself and the ways we might turn it upside down some, start to see it for all its brilliant vulnerability—at least, when we get to see it in full view. It’s not often that we’re so public, so exposed, even though we all fail plenty. Often we tuck away our weaknesses, cover up our ignorances or inabilities, stuff them into the sock drawer and out of sight.

Once alone, I tried to think about what had transpired between Abby and me. She had initially offered me a way out, covering up what we both knew was there by telling me she’d only read the first page of my journal. I had considered taking her up on it, accepting the let’s-not-talk-about-it invitation hanging before me with a quiet nod. But instead I was left to think about what it might mean to have acknowledged some part of me she hadn’t known about, one I knew she was surprised to see.

Now that she had read my childhood scribblings, what did I want for her? Is there anything I hoped she might be able to do? To feel or experience? Could she be worse for having seen me more fully?

At the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa, I listened to a talk by Jackie Rhodes that challenged us to explore the ways in which pedagogy—by its very nature—seeks to discipline its subject, to structure or to master its presentation of content. Rhodes proposed instead a queering of our pedagogy so that we might “destabilize what appears to be inevitable.” The call, ultimately, was that we fail big and publicly, that we resist the tidiness of the classroom success story, the one to which we are all so attuned, the one we know instinctively to listen for and also to tell.   

 I have tried to imagine how that old journal might extend into something to be learned about teaching and in particular about the work of writing instruction. In talking with faculty about this at a recent workshop, we made a list of some of our failures—as teachers and as writers—on the board. We filled plenty of space with our failed writing projects, our classroom missteps.

Could our students benefit if they laid eyes on such a list, the ilk—rejected manuscripts, a never-ending dissertation, that student we just could never help—of which few writing teachers ever expose in the classroom?

I realized that I had taken a risk when I acknowledged a part of me that had been ignorant, limited. A risk only gets its name when we are unsure of the outcome. And so after I leapt I worried that perhaps I had done some damage. But having taken that risk—yes I was afraid of what I perceived to be different, yes this would’ve hurt my new friends—I see now what I want for my daughter. While I do want her to be less ignorant, more informed than I was at the same age, at my core what I want is for her to claim her fear, her ignorance, her uncertainty. I want her to own these things because I see no other way to overcome or grow beyond them. I wish for her a safe space in which to explore so that she might undo or revise or rethink them. Maybe that safe space could be me, or maybe it could be a private journal with a (broken) lock.

This talk of risk led us—in our faculty workshop—to make another list, right next to our line-up of failures, of the kinds of leaps we most want our students to take. If we shared some of our failures, some choice selections from among our insecurities and scars, what might our students stand to gain? In exchange for some risk on our part as teachers, how might we want them to benefit? What kinds of risks do we want our students to take in return?

To not keep every word they write, to be willing to cut

To not ask me what I “want” in this paper

To let go of the grade

And the list went on.

A couple nights after we talked about my journal, I realized I had no idea where the thing had gone. Had Abby returned it to its original hiding place, stuffing it herself back into my sock drawer? I stood outside her bedroom door while she slept inside, staring at the doorknob. Suddenly I knew where my journal was.

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First I pulled a small flashlight out from under her pillow, all while trying not to disturb her sleep. Stretching a bit further, I found it. Tucked under her pillow while she slept, pages scanned with a flashlight in the dark, my journal had become a kind of transgressive treasure.

What could I learn from her clinging to this relic of my past, her keeping close, studying even, a part of me I’d instinctively rather she not see?

When we imagine what it means to fail big, to fail publicly, my guess is that we often think about what it feels like to be the one to fail. We think from our understandably self-centered experience. We remember with dread the feelings of hot skin, of self-consciousness, of what-will-the-others-think self-doubt. But what does it mean to be a witness to another’s failure? Often we look away out of shared embarrassment, a polite recognition of another’s over-exposure.  As if on cue, Abby offered me a white lie about having not read beyond the first page of my childhood journal.

But I wonder: what are the stakes when we offer a failure up for another to witness? When we refuse a gaze cast politely aside and instead boldly, openly, squarely trace the lines of our limitations for another to see? What might we give another—as teachers, as parents, as partners and as friends—in saying, here is where I stopped; here is where I could not do more; this is the boundary beyond which I could not manage to cross?  Here is where I failed.

As teachers and as writers, I would argue we have a gift to give if we can package some of our own failures—choice ones, of course—as offerings of trust, of shared humanity with and for our students. And we might, too, stand to be humbled, honored even, when our students tell us the truth about what they could not do. This is not about the failure to try, often a symptom of a fear of failure itself, but rather the hugely vulnerable leap of effort, the one where we put our best self into the ring and lose. The one where we boldly thought we knew and we were just so wrong. These disclosures, these opportunities to witness, are not only to be cherished as sacred, but they are—I think—the essential pathways to growth. I hope we might take up such challenges in our writing and in how we teach writing, inviting our students to know their teachers as flawed, perhaps even temporarily defeated, so that they might step further.

 

 

Works Cited

Rhodes, J. “Queering Pedagogy, Playing the Fool.” Conference on College Composition

and Communication Conference Presentation. Tampa, FL. 21 March 2015.

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4 thoughts on “Trust, Risk, and the Gift of Failure

  1. Thank you so much for this, Jessica. I genuinely appreciate the question of the risk and gift of failure — particularly of sharing our own failures with our students. I may not frame it in exactly this way in my classroom, but I definitely root some of my pedagogy in this approach. As a small example, I am a poor speller. I always have been. And, talk about risk? What a thing for me – an English professor, a WRITING professor, a writer — to admit here in a blog read by my colleagues. My point though, I spell poorly at times, and white boards and black boards have no spell checker. So, quite some time ago, I turned this into a pedagogical moment. I turn to my students and ask them how to spell what I cannot. I explain that I cannot spell well, that some words, no matter how much I try to hammer them into my head, will not stay put. I do not want to appear infallible (trouble spelling that!) to my students. Writing and learning are about failure, are they not? And not just for the cliched “to learn from our mistakes” reason — but because in one person’s failure, another’s success may live. Writing and learning – and life – are collaborative acts. Invitations to witness and participate in failure and to reframe the experience as ability — ability to say, “I don’t know. Do you?” is just that – an invitation. Again, thank you for this.

    • I’m with Maria on the benefits of the “I don’t know. Do you?” moments. In class, when students are able to give me information that I lack, I’m always genuinely appreciative and make sure to thank them for it. I think such moments also make concrete what I convey verbally from the start of the semester–that the classroom is a collaborative space where we’re all supposed to learn from each other.

      I’ve also shared with students anecdotes similar to Jessica’s example of her journal entry, to convey ideas such as taking ownership of our mistakes and growing from them. For example, when talking about race and the problematic narratives we get about it, I may mention how I grew up in a deeply racist culture in India and was bombarded with all sorts of negative messages about blackness and African-Americans before I’d even come to the USA. And how, though I thought of myself as liberal and progressive, I discovered internalized racist responses in myself when I did arrive here. These have usually led to really great discussions and facilitated more critically aware student engagement with such issues.

  2. Thought of this post/discussion today in my classroom, as we discussed racism, sexism, and all other such “isms.” Our readings for the day covered a range of responses on the topics–one of them was Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she shares a time she stereotyped someone because he was poor before experiencing someone stereotyping her because she was African.

    One student said she liked Adichie’s talk because it was so personal, and I noted that what helped make it personal was her taking some of the blame for how we tend to hear a single story about some “other” group. When asking students to share experiences, I noticed they were all pretty reticent aside from the few who always raise their hands. However, when I broke them up into small groups, they all had stories to share (some involving themselves, some not). As I went around to each group and they shared their stories, I shared mine own as well, which helped push the conversation, while keeping it relaxed. I discussed people in my life who make embarrassing comments and even times in my life when I said ignorant things. I think I felt more comfortable doing sharing my own ignorance because of this workshop we had last semester (and because I reread this blog post to help prepare for class). When discussing where we go from here and what we can do to better educate ourselves or other people, a student mentioned Roxane Gay’s text and her choice of simply not engaging, or rather not going along with someone’s negative opinions just to avoid awkwardness. One white student said she was grateful for that option as she had never thought of it–it’s how she plans on dealing with her boss, someone in a position of authority over her, who often says racist things to her about customers who come in, almost as a way to bond.

    So all in all, good lesson today! Thanks for sharing your diary story, Jess.

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