Most of my childhood I avoided academic failure at all costs.
I was an over-achiever and people pleaser. I loved rules, A’s, raising my hand, and approval.
Then, my senior year of high school I took calculus…and everything changed.
I remember the first day of class vividly.
As the teacher began speaking, I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Everyone else nodded along, writing things down and asking appropriate questions.
Was there a summer school class I missed?!?
I was completely lost and felt like the teacher was speaking another language. I think I made it a whole week before heading to the counselor’s office to drop the class. Crisis averted…I thought.
A few days later, I bumped into my calculus teacher in the hallway. She told me she was disappointed I dropped the class. She said I shouldn’t just focus on the grade, but challenge myself.
She knew my fear of getting my first B. I hadn’t told her that fear, but I am sure she had seen it many times before.
I felt guilty after our conversation. Deep down I knew she was right. But I ignored her advice and continued on with my new (easier) math class.
I moved on to college and continued my pursuit of “A’s.” But as I neared graduation, her words resurfaced in my head, “Challenge yourself.”
This time I took the words to heart. While student teaching I studied for the LSAT and decided law school would be my challenge.
I joyfully embarked on this new adventure. But as everyone shared their undergraduate majors the first week, one person was not like the others…me.
Apparently, not many Elementary Education majors go on to law school.
I realized I was in over my head. I felt that feeling from calculus creep in, but this time I ignored it. I embraced the challenge and got a thrill from being the underdog.
On my first winter break, after final exams, I had no idea if I had passed my exams yet. If I had failed, I wouldn’t be returning the next semester.
When grades came out, I was on my honeymoon in Jamaica. I had to pay $6 for internet access to check my grades.
I never thought I would be so excited to get my first D.
That feeling was what my calculus teacher was trying to teach me way back in high school.
That D meant more to me than all the A’s. It was a hard fought D. Hours of reading and writing. Surrounded by smarter people.
I learned how to ask for help, take criticism, and speak up.
When I left law school the next year, it wasn’t because I feared failing.
The challenge of law school revealed a different path that did not include being a lawyer.
For the first time I was changing direction not to avoid failure, but to embrace its lessons.
I understood why my teacher didn’t want me to quit.
I did something hard, I wasn’t the best, and I learned how to handle it.
I felt the pride of doing my best–not just striving for an arbitrary grade.
When you always run from failure, you avoid defeats. But you also miss out on the small victories.
You miss out on being the man in the arena:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt
After my D, I realized I liked being in the arena more than all the A’s.
Don’t run from failure. Sometimes it teaches you the greatest lessons.
Thank you to Mrs. L, the calculus teacher who taught me this.
Peter & Sheryl Morris firstname.lastname@example.org
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