Monday, March 23, 2015

Teaching Kids to Fail: Another Weird One I'm Kind of For (30 Jan. 2014)

            Okay, I don't think we should teach kids to fail in the sense of encouraging them to fail but in the sense of helping kids learn how to deal with failure. And it's not like parents and teachers, coaches and other adults have to work out failure exercises: when appropriate, just step back and let the kids fail, or succeed, on their own and if they fail, as they say, "be there for them."
            (Usage note: To "be there for someone" means being there, available, not getting hyperactively pro-active on their asses and pushing upon them your aid and comfort.)
            There's a personal story here, as there is with a lot of writing, and this one I'll share. It's a fairly long story, and I'll be meandering to my point, but that's pretty typical of my writing, and I promise I'll get to failure and maybe say a couple other things of note along the way.
            Anyway, senior year in high school, my friend Dan and I found ourselves helping put together the annual new member initiation ceremony for our school's chapter of The National Honor Society (NHS). This was a long time ago, and if I ever knew how Dan and I got roped into the job, I've long since forgotten; but it was nothing onerous, and he and I were up on stage during a tech rehearsal, each holding a copy of the pamphlet from the National office on what was to be done, and our advisor standing around bothering no one as the school orchestra played their one required piece of music, a "March of the Priests" number, I think the one in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida.
            Into this silent, on-stage tableau trundled Mrs. Wilkinson, the Senior Class Advisor and a teacher of long tenure at the school: in Dan's words recently — picture Chris Christie in drag. Mrs. Wilkinson was heading toward the National Honor Society advisor, a new teacher at the school, which is why she had an assignment advising the local NHS chapter, which pretty much did nothing except induct new members and give smart students something nice for our "permanent records."
            Why, Mrs. Wilkinson demanded, was the orchestra playing what I'll call "March of the Priests" and not "Pomp and Circumstances"? She was not talking to me. She was … not tossing the question but pretty much hurling it like a Roman javelin at the NHS advisor, the new teacher.
            I took the question as an actual question and stepped between Mrs. Wilkinson and our advisor, script in hand, and said, "It's 'March of the Priests' because that's what the National initiation calls for, not 'Pomp and Circumstances.'"
            After forty years in the Ed Biz and other bureaucracies and general contexts of human interaction, I can look back and say confidently that what was going on had little to do with music — part of the reason I don't care much if I err in getting the music titles wrong — and much to do with status and a dominance hierarchy. Between two women, such acts are sometimes analyzed as "Queen-Bee Syndrome," but the more exact analogy (with maybe some homology thrown in) is with a large wolf pack. Mrs. Wilkinson certainly saw herself as an analog to the alpha-bitch, and I will use "alpha-bitch" as a term from animal behavior; women readers who have had experiences similar to that of the young teacher may apply "bitch" here with more loaded meanings.
            Anyway, I wasn't being gallant, just naïve, but found myself between Mrs. Wilkinson in medium-high dudgeon and her initial target — with me as a replacement target of opportunity for my effrontery in asserting "it's in the script" as a warrant more powerful than the preferences and will of Mrs. Wilkinson.
            And Dan came to my defense at least as far as looking at his copy and saying something like, "Uh, yeah; it's in the script."
            We were both in trouble.
            This turned out to be a good thing in the long run since my parents didn't have enough experience in such matters to help me out, so I asked Dan's mother, who was highly knowledgeable about psychology. (We had a functioning neighborhood, and Dan and I were raised by it.) Eventually, Dan's mom gave me the crucial bit of information for dealing with such situations: "You have to remember that Mrs. Wilkinson is a very stupid woman," and she gave us the good advice of taking great care in dealing with stupid people in power, however ambiguous it was what power — beyond locker assignments — the Senior Class Advisor had over anybody or anything.
            For sure, Mrs. Wilkinson had enough power to call Dan and me into her office. The new teacher wasn't summoned, and I suspect Mrs. Wilkinson forgot about her while she had Dan and me to properly subordinate.
            I got to her office early, and while we waited for Dan, Mrs. Wilkinson tried to put me at ease by telling me a mildly anti-Semitic joke. She then lit into me with "Why don't you ever take part in school activities?!" I did not point out that National Honor Society was arguably a school activity, and if I hadn't participated in it, I wouldn't be there in her office. What I did point out was that I was fairly active in Key Club but acknowledged that she was correct that I put most of my efforts into groups outside the school.
            "I can never be elected principal," I said.
            Not that I wanted to be principal or the head of any organization, but "I want my views taken seriously; I want clout" — this was Chicago, after all — "and I can't have influence or any authority as a school pupil." So I participated in a year club and a high school fraternity and was an officer in the charity group the fraternity was a part of.
            Warming to my point, if that's the phrase — and getting to my point here — I asked rhetorically about the importance of the tune to which NHS initiates marched down the aisles to get their certificates. Indeed, "Would people be starving in the streets if we messed up the whole assembly?" And then I stated my other reason for not putting my major extracurricular efforts into school-sponsored activities: "You won't let us fail, not if you can help it. So we really can't succeed." Also — I'm not sure how much of this argument I made to Mrs. Wilkinson — also, one needs to learn how to fail, as I well knew since the charity organization in which I did have influence and authority had recently had a pretty big failure and that particular buck, or small steaming bucket of shit, had stopped with me.
            And then Dan arrived, and we performed the required obeisance to Mrs. W. and her authority, and that was the end of the episode.
            Some fifty-three years later, I'll stick with what I believed at seventeen or eighteen. If you really can't fail, you really can't succeed either. If kids don't get experience handling failure, they've missed an important part of an education. This does not mean leaving it up to your two-year-old whether or not to play in traffic. It does mean that somewhere along the line in high school, kids should be encouraged to assume authority and take responsibility; and, if people won't be starving in the streets or some other horrible result would ensue — allowed the freedom to fail.

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