Failing Gloriously

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wood-floored hall of library (specifically Poets House in NYC)
If I had known anything about teaching interviews, I would have bowed out. Or at least that's what the talking head version of me, filled with hindsight, says from on high. I had aced the first interview, I thought. They were enamored with my writing and the previous teaching jobs on my resume. But this is a story of the second interview.

My second interview was in a windowless gym separated by rolling dividers for the three grade levels. I walked to the back where there was a table set up with a few older-looking folks who were the teachers, two folks who were kind but didn't pay me much attention. The 'classroom' itself was a bunch of circular tables where a few teenagers were stationed, the majority black and Latino.

I was meant to facilitate the warmup activity. There was a game we'd played in a summer program I facilitated where kids are divided into three groups, line up, and they get to write one word of a sentence on a big piece of paper on the wall. The game is timed, and you have to pass the marker to the next person - you can play it where the firs team who finishes 'wins' or the team with the best/funniest sentence 'wins'. I should have known when the paper kept falling down from the dividers that this wasn't going to go well.

Trying to get them into a line was the first thing that failed. And then there was the passing of the marker; most folks were more focused on their phones and I am a terrible disciplinarian. 'Clap once if you can hear me!' and 'Would you put that phone away?' don't really work when you're nervous. I must have looked panic-stricken when I turned to one of the other facilitators; to their credit, they tried to bail me out.

I realize now that there was no reason for them to trust me. I didn’t look like them and I didn’t come from their neighborhoods. And since I was a newbie, they could do whatever they wanted without much consequences. Picture the most sitcom-like experience you could have as a teacher – a substitute teacher at that.

I burst out onto the darkened street afterward, my toes curling in my shoes from embarrassment. It was the first time I felt like I had gone out of my body to watch myself tank so badly. But something about it was also hysterical to me. When I got on the train, I couldn’t help but smile. It went so badly it was funny. There was no way in hell that I was going to get the position. And yet the world hadn’t tumbled into a fiery abyss behind me. I had only metaphorically died of embarrassment.

I’ve felt like I spent a whole year and a half unlearning the idea of perfectionism. During college, it was a prized skill no matter what group I was in – even amongst artists and activists, achievement was highly correlated to your value. And before that it was a survival tactic: if I did a lot of stuff, it meant I didn’t have to be at home very often. But after school ended and I couldn’t get a job for five months, I had to find a new strategy.

I’m still not all that great at appreciating my failures but now it’s easier to see them as experiments, moments that I can put in my back pocket for later. When, later that year, I attended my first birth as a doula, I tried to keep this experience in mind – though I may have been embarrassed or unprepared, I did all that I could with what I had. Even if I was failing, I wanted to fail gloriously. And be easier on myself in the process.