A few months ago, my old high school asked me to take part in an online panel discussion. At one point we were each asked to talk about the single most formative part of our education there, and I found myself talking about failure.
As a high school senior, I already knew I wanted to be a writer. I had loved my English classes, written for the school paper, and spent most of my spare time writing short stories. So — innocently, arrogantly — I arranged to do an independent study project: writing a novel. During the first month, I banged out a chapter and handed it in to the two English teachers who were my advisers.
And then I got stuck. At the end of Chapter One, my character’s train had pulled into New York’s Grand Central Station; in Chapter Two, she was going to walk uptown, but I couldn’t get her to move. I believed she would be having interesting thoughts during this walk but I couldn’t figure out what she was thinking, and I didn’t know the city well enough to even begin to visualize what she might be walking past. Week after week I went to meet with my advisers. I had nothing to hand in, and I was mortified. They were unperturbed. I apologized, they shrugged, and we went on to talk about our favorite books. My failure was never mentioned.
Some of the writer friends to whom I’ve told this story have been appalled. You mean these teachers didn’t push you? They didn’t give you deadlines, or alternative writing assignments? They didn’t try to figure out what was bothering you? Nope, nope, and nope. They basically left me alone, and I don’t think it was neglect. I think it was good judgment.
They knew me well enough to know that I was already beating myself up for not being able to write the novel; they chose not to add their voices to that harsh, castigating voice that was already in my head. By not shaming me, they gave me the chance to get over it, to pick myself up and go on. They created a gracious space in which I could fail.
Compared with everything kids have been going through during the coronavirus pandemic, my own experience all those years ago seems tame. I largely brought my failure upon myself, by trying to tackle a project that was far beyond my capabilities at the time. But I was lucky enough to encounter two imaginative and humane teachers who understood how to treat failure not as something catastrophic, but rather as an invaluable part of an education.
In the decades since I was in high school, the pressure to be perfect has become much worse. Many kids have the perpetual sense that they are walking a tightrope, and a fall or even a stumble is impermissible. And now the pandemic has knocked a whole generation of kids off the tightrope. Not only are many of them — 74 percent, according to a recent nationwide survey — suffering from a kind of academic paralysis, they are also suffering from anxiety about being paralyzed. Among Black and Latinx students, the figure is even higher. As a high school teacher quoted in a recent New York Times Magazine story said of his students: “They’re sad. They’re overwhelmed. They’re hurting. They’re not learning. And they’ve almost given up, or they’ve already given up.”
I hope that we can find some way to normalize the painful and unavoidable failures of the past year for a whole generation of kids. And maybe in the process, we can get rid of the damaging cultural myth that the best people never fail, never even flag, never do anything less than the best. There are — and there should be — second chances for everyone. I hope that this hard, lost year will not leave our kids with a lasting sense that all is lost.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.