Friday, October 11, 2013

The Positive Power of Failure

Something wonderful happened to my daughter, Lizzie, her 8th grade year when she return to her Arlington, Virginia high school after spending months living and attending school in Russia: she failed algebra and band. Until then, she had not only always been an A+ student but also, with a fall birthday, she had started kindergarten as one of the youngest children in the class and then proceeded to skip second grade and then seventh grade. Promoted to the eighth grade at the age of 11, she was placed in the high school, college-prep classes for high achievers: algebra, freshman English, French, earth science, and music (band). While Lizzie could keep up with her other subjects during her time in Russia, learning to play the flute was not a possibility. Russian schools are either regular schools, i.e. a little bit of everything, or specialized schools (spetsshkoly). Music schools, math schools, foreign-language schools, and sports schools are among the choices. Lizzie attended a foreign language school. Her knowledge of humanities and science did not suffer at this school; it blossomed. Music and math, however, were another story. The math "deficit" was actually a surprise. At the time, Soviet students were significantly outperforming American stduents in math, according to United Nations' statistics. And therein lay the problem. Lizzie also could outperform her peers in her American algebra class because they have not yet been taught the mechanics for performing algebraic operations whereas Lizzie and her Soviet peers had been practicing solving equations all year. Actually, the Soviet children had arrived already knowing how to do basic equations, so over there Lizzie had had to play catch-up, which she did rapidly, thanks to the encouragement of the math teacher, who never withheld approbation for even the slightest improvement and on the first day that Lizzie walked to the board and successfully explained the solution of a problem rewarded her with a warm molodets (an untranslatable positive label for a person who has done something remarkable; in English, "Way to go!" might come close). In her American classroom, however, Lizzie's peers had not begun the mechanics of algebra; they had been concentrating on theory and concepts.

So, when Lizzie, returning home for the last six weeks of the school year, tried to learn a year’s worth of of algebraic concepts, the formidable task overwhelmed her. A series of Fs was all she could pull on weekly tests until the last two weeks of class when the teacher, who happened to be the junior high school principal, introduced calculations. Whiz! Lizzie’s scores soared to A+. “I don’t get it,” the principal confided to me. “She does not know the principles of calculation, yet she never gets any wrong!” Yes, that would be true. Practice makes perfect, and she had had much practice in calculation.

Of course, Lizzie had to attend summer school to make up her never-acquired conceptual algebra skills. It was a fast-track class – 5 mornings a week for 6 weeks. At the end of the course, her summer school grade replaced the F on her report card. She had learned her algebra lessons well enough to earn an A. More important was the other lesson she learned: Don’t fear failure; it can be the first step toward success.

That lesson was reinforced as she took steps 2, 3, 4 and more. In the fall, as an entering freshman, she took the geometry course. Another A. By senior year, she was out of math classes and was allowed to take a calculus course at the local community college; another A. And, of all things, one day she ran into the junior high school principal there. He had retired and was now teaching at the community college. He was considerably surprised when he learned what Lizzie was doing in the corridor of the college.

Band class had been an equally miserable failure for Lizzie. She returned, still trying to figure out how to get actual tones, rather than whispy puffs of air, from the flute, to find her band class playing ensemble music. There was no summer school course for band, and the F would remain on her report card. The question was about her freshman year. The junior high band teacher emphatically stated that there was no hope for Lizzie to be part of the high school band; it was too late. Band instruction began in earlier years, and 8th grade was the last chance to get initial instruction.

Yet, Lizzie really wanted to learn to play the flute and was willing to practice, and I don’t believe in a no-hope scenario. So, we advertised for a tutor, and the most marvelous person appeared on our doorstep: a flautist from the US Marine Corps band who was stationed in Washington, DC. He came two evenings a week, and our house was filled with beautiful flute solos. Surprisingly soon, Lizzie was playing awkwardly along with him, then better and better. When the school year began, Lizzie talked to the high school band director and asked if he would let her audition. He agreed, she did, and she was in!

Over the next four years, she played ensemble and solos with the marching band, the school orchestra, and the drama club’s pit orchestra. Her junior year, she won third place in a national flute competition. The following year, the marching band was one of several nationwide selected to play in the inauguration of President Bush (the father). She did not play the flute there, though. She played the saxophone. At the end of her junior year, two senior-year saxophone players graduated, and there were no incoming saxophone players to take their place. So, she and a friend volunteered to teach themselves to play the saxophone over the summer, and they did. When Lizzie graduated from high school, she received that year’s Most Valuable Player for the band.

The sax and flute now lie forgotten in a closet somewhere in Lizzie’s apartment as she busies herself with the daily work of a college professor of cognitive neuroscience. However, Lizzie has never forgotten failure’s lesson in hope, risk-taking, and perseverance that dynamited her past what she might otherwise have settled for.

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