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On Failing

The fall semester ends in about two weeks, and this is the moment when I check and double-check the class lists and scores. Many students survive the winter on C’s and B-minuses while others feast on A’s. And then there are the students who fail. I surprise myself when I hesitate to enter an F on that final grade sheet. I wonder if I’ve made an error. Perhaps they did score more than half credit on the midterm; maybe I misplaced their missing papers. Once I enter the grades, I wait–for their anger and protests, for their explanations, for their apologies. Nothing arrives.

What does it mean to fail?

–A TLC-documentary follows the lives of four super morbidly obese people who struggle with food. They stuff their faces with enough food to feed three or four people. What can they do? Everyone needs food to live, and they can’t stop. They fail.

–For the first time in nearly two years, Britney Spears speaks for herself. Her marriages failed. Her career was a failure.

–According to Guy Garcia, men are on the decline. Now that women have gained nearly equal footing in almost every field, men have become increasingly ineffectual (and may be on the verge of becoming obsolete). They are failing.

I fear failure. When I was in grade school, failing a spelling quiz or a math test meant failing at adulthood. Only “bad” kids did poorly in school, and I believed they would grow up to become “bad” adults–the kind of people whose cars smelled of stale cigarette smoke. Failing meant choosing a premature and terrible ending.

But then there is the possibility of renewal. If a pop star can re-emerge, fully formed, from a tabloid frenzy, then a handful of students who fumbled their composition class can recover their GPAs. According to Garcia, men have to fail completely in order to secure their place in a new world. Failure is a gateway, a new beginning.

While some of my students were failing to come to class or proofread their work, I failed to write 50,000 words in the month of November. My pencil scratching stopped around 5000 words. The story and the language ran out, and I felt the way I did the first and only time I failed a Spanish quiz. Here was my ending… until I realized that maybe I’ve written a beginning.

(Better luck next year…)