Many years ago, I attended a very small high school with an extremely aggressive college prep program. My compatriots and I took all the same courses, read all the same books, had all the same teachers, and spent more than our fair share of time discussing ulcer medication. The group of about 30 of us went all the way through school together, with almost no exposure or cross-mixing with the rest of the school. We were insulated as we clawed our collective way to the top.
Our history/civics instructor, Mr. Barnes, was one of our favorites. It takes a lot to impress kids like we were, but T.O. Barnes managed it. He had been a tank commander in WWII, and his lectures on the strategy and troop movements in that war were nothing short of inspirational. He asked us to read more and do more than any other teacher; he pushed us hard and we adored him for it.
For some reason that we never understood, our hero worship threatened someone in the administration, and they decided that we should have a semester with a different instructor. His name was Ed Cabrera. He mostly taught special ed and problem students, so we all immediately took umbrage at being "stuck" with him. We didn't like him from the start; he was not one of us. Which was odd; he was a recent graduate, young, full of fresh ideas. Maybe that was the problem...
One day, we arrived in class to be met with a pop quiz. Now, we were the sort of students who know precisely how many points we've missed in a class. We were the sorts of students who knew both our weighted and unweighted GPAs (remember the ulcer medications? Ohhhhh yeah). So for us, pop quizzes were a form of aggression on the part of an instructor. And Mr. Cabrera had just declared war. A pop quiz. On material we hadn't covered yet. The following two chapters, in fact.
One of our more outspoken compatriots said, "But you can't test us on material we haven't covered! It isn't fair!"
He asked us to do our best anyway. A few folks actually burst into tears. (The pressure in my classes was always high. We were the kids who didn't take art courses because the grading was subjective, and we couldn't afford the risk of losing points.)
The next day, the quizzes were returned to us. Most of us hadn't done too well. Naturally, it was material we hadn't covered yet. A few of us had gone home and read those two chapters in order to figure out the answers, but most of us were so freaked out by missing points on the pop quiz that the material was irrelevant. The parents of two or three of the top achievers amongst us went to the Principal to complain, and the following Monday we were back with T.O. Barnes, to everyone's collective relief. We all went on to be spectacularly overeducated. I have no idea what happened to Mr. Cabrera or Mr. Barnes.
So why the tiptoe through memory lane? I was watching my husband, Jason, and my son, Rowan, working on something here on the boat the other day. It's something Jason has never done before, and he's really nervous about doing it wrong. He's researched. He's talked to other boaters here in the marina. He's talked to the guys at the chandlery. But he's hesitating getting started. Rowan wants to just plunge right in, but Jason is very hesitant.
And so I thought, as I have every time I find myself in the same situation, of Mr. Cabrera.
The human animal learns from failure. We blow it; we learn from that; we move on better and stronger and more confident. But the key there is that the failure must not cripple us physically or emotionally. And that's the problem. Institutionalized schooling has created so much pain, so many strong emotions around failure, that something as fundamentally educational as missing some points on a pop quiz turns into angst that echoes down 20 or more years later.
I remember being that frustrated girl, not having the information. And I also remember reading the chapters when I got home, and having the information surf into my head far more easily because the bits from the quiz stuck in my mind. But so many of us are so afraid of the consequences of failure that we're incapable of beginning or of finishing. We research and then hesitate, handicapped by the fear instituted by years of terror over grades, terror over making the wrong choice. Because we're unwilling to sacrifice points (which in and of themselves have zero value), we avoid art. I'm not sure what we're so afraid of any more, now that the specter of not being accepted to the college of our choice is neither being used daily to beat us with, nor even relevant to our world. But after twelve years of that flavor of abuse, the cringe is automatic.
I am grateful to Mr. Cabrera for his lesson of failure. It can't have been easy to face down hostile students, hostile parents, and a hostile administration to try to pass on what was probably the most life-relevant lesson we learned all year. Too bad we were all so deep in the culture of forced academic success we didn't figure out the value of that until it was too late to say so.
Laureen is a writer, a professional editor, a scuba instructor, a beginning sailor, a traveler, and an obsessive researcher who's chiefly focused on, and delighted with, her husband Jason, her sons Rowan and Kestrel, and her daughter Aurora. She's a lifelong Californian, which lends a very distinctive spin to both her ideas and her politics, and she's discovered, in her peregrinations, that the world is far smaller yet far more fascinating than anyone gives it credit for being. She holds forth her opinions on that in her blog, The ElementalMom.