The Gift of Failure
(At a riverside cabin 11 miles south of Black Mountain, NC – 11 June 2015:)
Today I drove over to Asheville School, where I first arrived fifty-six years ago, almost to the day, and from which I departed several months later, never (I thought) to return. I’m glad I went back today, because it illuminated a turning point in my life that I had never fully understood before.
That summer long ago I had just completed eighth grade at a public Junior High in Winter Park, Florida. My family had a traditional respect for quality education and it was evident that I was ill-prepared for same, so they sent me off to Asheville to be brought up to speed in summer school. I have no knowledge of the considerations that contributed to that choice; I only know that I was a redneck kid with no interest in having my mind expanded. I spent the summer avoiding work, building model airplanes surreptitiously in my dorm room and complaining about the lousy fishing in the lake down the hill. I couldn’t wait to get back to the bass of Florida, and I soon got my wish.
When my uncle came to retrieve me at the end of the term, he was informed that I was not welcome back. In short, I flunked out. This was a little embarrassing, I recall, and even moreso when I reflexively called my uncle “Sir” thanks to a month or two of conditioning.
When I got home to Winter Haven, Florida I was duly enrolled in Denison Junior High, where I spent two weeks discovering the consequences of my impulsive choice. My home room teacher enforced discipline like a prison warden; my classmates were exactly what I had been at the beginning of the summer. It was Kafka’s hell.
I begged my mother to give me a second chance. Miraculously, I got one from Harry D. Hoey, then Headmaster of Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where my mother was working on her Masters degree at the Art Academy. This time I cooperated, and learning took hold.
I graduated from Cranbrook in 1963, from Trinity College (in Hartford, CT) in 1967 and then from the University of California at Berkeley with a Ph.D. in Physics in 1972; thence to an academic career at the University of British Columbia. A lot has happened. I’ve had a great life with many successes and few failures since that critical one at Asheville School. But the long story of my life is not really relevant to the point I’d like to make here:
Turning points don’t come easily, especially to willful adolescents. Sometimes the most generous gift you can give a child is to let them know in no uncertain terms that they have failed – failed to live up to your well-advertised standards, failed to live up to their own potential. “Cultivating self-esteem” has its place, but today it has become an obsession that does harm to those whose self-esteem comes only from others’ praise.
Love is meaningless if it has to be deserved; respect is meaningless if it doesn’t.