Several weeks ago, as I was leaving the Performing Arts Department meeting, I was nearly struck by a flying Coke can with two-inch-wide triangular paper wings and a tail barely an inch high. “It’s for study hall!” shouted an 8th grader as she ran by, closely followed by a friend. “I, umm, I don’t doubt it,” I said. “But what exactly are you doing?” “I’m trying to make an airplane. But it won’t fly.” Her friend, examining the tiny tail scotch-taped loosely to the back of the Coke can, suggested she make it bigger, and they ran off to make the adjustment.
The next morning, she saw me right before homeroom, immediately slumping her shoulders and looking more dejected than I would have ever thought possible for such a generally happy and optimistic person. “Bill,” she said, “My airplane was a total fail.” “Not necessarily. Did you learn anything from it?” I asked her. Momentarily surprised, she told me, “No.” I responded, “Then you’re right. It was a total fail. I’m sorry.” She looked at first shocked, then pensive, and we continued on to our respective homerooms.
As it happened, it was later that morning that Liz Feeley emailed me the speech she had delivered at the Upper School Honor Roll Assembly. Her theme was that she had constantly taken risks but had never ever failed. “Uh-oh,” I thought to myself, thinking of the 8th grader and her airplane. “What have I done?” But a close reading of the speech suggested that Liz was using the word, “fail,” in a very specific way. What she was really talking about was how she reacted to setbacks, how she used them to create new opportunities and as a springboard for growth. For her, to fail seemed to have one primary meaning: to accept a given event as failure. It reminded me of an old saying about Bobby Layne, the great Detroit Lions quarterback from the 1950s, as mentioned in Paper Lion by George Plimpton. Layne, it was said, had never lost a game, really. Time had just run out on him a few times.
Similarly, Robert Pirsig wrote in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that “The TV scientist who mutters sadly, ‘The experiment is a failure; we have failed to achieve what we had hoped for,’ is suffering mainly from a bad script writer. An experiment is never a failure solely because it fails to achieve predicted results. An experiment is a failure only when it also fails adequately to test the hypothesis in question, when the data it produces don’t prove anything one way or another.” When Catherine (Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School teacher) teaches scientific method to her Life and Physical Science classes, she works hard to communicate this basic truth: the goal of an experiment is not necessarily to have your expectations confirmed, but to learn something going forward.
Still, I can’t help but think that the 8th grader whose airplane never did fly had probably learned more than she realized. If nothing else, she had presumably learned that paper wings can support a paper airplane better than a metal Coke can. Perhaps, if we hadn’t both been focused on being on time for homeroom, we would have had time to pursue the conversation further. However, that moment of pensiveness she exhibited gives me hope. Maybe as she continues to grow up and make her way through life, she will take with her the concept that whenever you learn, the experience is not a total failure. Maybe, in short, our conversation itself was not a total fail.
– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean