Hope for the Girl in the Back Row

If asked to envision my life at thirty-two when I was a teenager, I would have prophesied I’d be married with one or two children in my arms, rocking them to sleep in a house we owned in the suburbs. I would have sworn I’d never divorce or leave a community where I was established. As adolescents, with our whole lives ahead of us, we dream big and we dream positive. We don’t plan to fail. Or fall. But it happens.

Today I opened my classroom doors to another score of teenagers. I created what I call the Educational Workroom model, where students become employees of a company. Through a variety of orientation procedures including an authentic application and interview process, I’ll uncover similar details as with a student information sheet and ice-breaker activity, but I’m asking my students to focus on the future.

At sixteen, they bounce from class to class absorbing information and sorting through its relevance. It’s my hope that, contextualized in a setting that mimics a 21st Century workplace, these teenagers will begin seeing themselves in their future roles as employees, contributing to the greater good of society.

When reviewing the possible interview questions they will be asked, I found my gaze returning to a girl in the back row of my fourth block class. Her eyes and hair were dark like mine, and as she studied the questions, she bit her lower lip the same why I do when thinking critically. How will she respond when asked about her plans for the future, her career goals, or her strengths and weaknesses? No doubt she was thinking the same as I studied her.

I’ve conducted these orientations with dozens of classes over the years, and it never ceases to amaze me what teenagers are willing to admit. Certainly, I’ll discover a host of summative talents and experiences coupled with mediocre responses that simply evidence a lack of personal reflection. In nearly every class, there is one student who claims to have no strengths and another who claims no weaknesses.

Where would you sit?

My Classroom – Where would you sit?

Were the roles reversed and my students put me on the interview hot seat, my career goals would be the same now as they were fourteen years ago. My strengths and weaknesses the same. But my future plans… well, I never planned to fall or fail. And I wouldn’t want them to either!

But it happens. Last year, one of my students wasn’t accepted to her dream college, and it all but broke her spirit. When we imagine the course of our lives, we plan right past the disappointments, envisioning white picket fences or Wall Street or Hollywood or Navy Seals or even the White House. And yet, every year, I see a vast number of kids who will leave an answer on a test blank. The fear of getting a question wrong forces them to retreat to inaction. The real fear, beyond the current assessment, is of failure.

As we learn by adding candles to our birthday cakes, with age comes experience and perspective. When I make a wish as I blow out my candles now, I wish reasonably. I’m far more reserved when it comes time for New Year’s resolutions, committing to ventures that are feasible.   I’ve experienced enough unforeseeable failure in my life not to wish or resolve it into existence intentionally.

My garden was not planned. Spring came and my magnolias bloomed and shed their blossoms within a couple of weeks. I began planting simply because I’d come to enjoy coming home to bursts of color. I imagined garden beds overflowing with vegetation, and at first, I planted with expectation. As the months progressed and I discovered the challenge of my shaded front yard, I planted with hope instead. I was so disappointed by the failure to thrive of earlier plants that I became conditioned to feel joy when later plants prospered.

I don’t even know the name of the girl in the back row yet, but my mind keeps returning to her. She reminds me of me, the adolescent-size-four-and-the-world-my-oyster version, unacquainted with disappointment or regret. And when she answers her interview questions, I fully expect her to dream big and dream positive. Imagine the shock if she were to stand at the front of the class on interview day and say, “I’m going to get married, but it’s not going to work out. After we divorce, I’m going to move to another state and start over.”

That’s my reality at thirty-two, but I couldn’t have conceived it at sixteen. If she skips an answer on a test, I’ll be pulling her aside after class for a heart-to-heart. Because we don’t plan for failure, but we need to cultivate a mindset of resilience in the next generation. If fear of failure stops her from answering a question on a test, imagine what that fear will do when faced with life-changing events. The consequence now might be a low grade, but in five years, it could be eviction.

What do we do when we don’t get into the school we wanted? When we get laid off from a job? When our spouses cheat? When we’re denied a loan?

How we respond to the fear of failure in our formative years lays the groundwork for our ability to cope when we’re grown. My first heartbreak of significance is when I didn’t get the lead in my school play my senior year of high school. I quit, threw myself into track, was incredibly successful, and landed a lead in another play that healed all wounds caused by the previous.

Looking back, it’s no surprise that I handled the downfall of my marriage the way I did. Faced with failure of epic proportions, I quit Nashville. Now, I’ve thrown myself into teaching. But if how I handled disappointment in my formative years holds any merit, I won’t feel all wounds are healed until I land another husband. Forgive me for the oversimplification of a matter of the heart, but the comparison needed to be carried out.

Not unlike my students and myself at their age, when I began gardening, I dreamed big and I dreamed positive. With experience came perspective, and gradually expectation was replaced by hope. In fact, in the absence of hope, my initial failures might have halted my efforts entirely.

We don’t plan to fail or fall, but it happens. And so I find one of my greatest purposes in the classroom is not to engage grammatical correctness but rather a mindset of resilience that anticipates failure as a potential reality and can therefore hope and cope. If the girl in the back row doesn’t get into the college that she wants, I don’t want it to break her spirit. If her marriage someday ends in divorce, I don’t want her to give up on the dream of having a family of her own.

I have no children of my own. I rent a home in the city. I divorced. I left a community where I was established. I didn’t plan for this existence, but it happened, and were it not for that collection of path changes and failures, I’d never have laid eyes on that girl in the back row. I have hundreds of teenagers in my care. Maybe I dream smaller and more realistically, but I keep dreaming. Hope is failure’s adversary. And it’s a powerful foe.

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