By Jessica Restaino
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.
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?”
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.
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.
Rhodes, J. “Queering Pedagogy, Playing the Fool.” Conference on College Composition
and Communication Conference Presentation. Tampa, FL. 21 March 2015.