The Power of Failure
This episode starts on a low note. The grades are posted from the students’ first test – and almost everyone’s failed.
A moment later, Ellie says, “People said I was stupid… I started believing it. I started becoming it.”
In Episode One, almost every kid in the school said they didn’t study or that they didn’t care – in effect striving for failure… to be the person that they think everyone thinks they are.
They were reaffirming themselves as stereotypical dropouts. Ironic as Soledad O’Brien, their teacher this week, immediately digs into the question of, what do people assume about you when they look at you? And then she asks, “who are you really?” – and the answers are diametrically different from the previous ones.
The question becomes more about “If you propagate the stereotype that you put out there – despite claiming to be someone else – at what point do you start believing in the stereotypical version of yourself as opposed to your ‘real’ self?” When I talked with Soledad later, she had some thoughts on it:
In college I was fired from two jobs in one week. The first was a valet parking job – which I was told not to come back after I managed to total three cars in one night. An almost impossible feat, yet somehow I accomplished it. The second was a waitressing job, which I was let go from after I accidentally dropped a tray of full (thankfully, plastic) water glasses on a screaming two-year-old.
It might not sound like much – but at the time, it was everything. I was deeply in debt and scrambling for every dollar I could find to help pay my school bills. To make matters worse – no one was hiring. At the time I still remember the crippling fear: I am going to have to drop out if I can’t pay my bills… I will have to move back to Ohio and work at White Castle for the rest of my life… I am a loser… I am a failure. Sporadically, throughout my life I’ve faced these failure demons again and again. I’m not proud to admit it, but if I’m not good at something, my initial tendency is to walk away. To not ever have to deal with the stank of failure.
But always, in my darkest hours, I had something these kids did not – I had people who grabbed me and told me to keep it moving. That I was great, talented and going to be a huge success (I’m still waiting. Heh). Or about all the famous people who had been fired from GREAT jobs… who had failed over and over again… before finally hitting it big. People like J. K. Rowling, who was broke, on welfare and couldn’t get “Harry Potter” published for the life of her. Until she did. Or Walt Disney, who went bankrupt several times before starting Disney. Or Colonel Harland Sanders, who was at the age of 65, retired and broke… but went on to found Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or Thomas Edison, whose teachers told him he was “too stupid to learn,” or Winston Churchill, who failed the sixth grade and was defeated in every public office role he ran for. The list goes on ad nauseam. For your own inspiration, check out this list of “losers.”
The “lesson” this week wasn’t really about journalism – it was about getting back up after you’ve been knocked down. About failing and learning from your failures. But, most importantly, about perception – or, rather, your perception of yourself. You are going to fail sometimes, even if you gave it your best shot. And it’s going to sting. But we have to be brave enough to succeed. Even if that means you fail sometimes. Like Soledad said:
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Paula Froelich (@PFRO) – journalist, novelist, NATJA award-winning travel writer, queen of random, fun facts, and social anthropologist.