Education Opinion

Deeper Learning From Failure

By Contributing Blogger — July 06, 2015 4 min read
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This post is by Marlina Brown, a 2014 Graduate of Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

As a person who has failed a lot throughout her academic career, I cherish all of my victories. Sometimes, those wins came few and far between. Staying positive while I am in those valleys is a skill that I’m mastering. Other times in my life success came in rapid fire: I conquered junior year.

I never thought that I could be a leader at my high school. That role was for the star athletes, for the kids who were able to maintain 4.2 GPAs. But I left eleventh grade as someone the staff could rely on and my peers could lean on.

In my eleventh grade AP English class we focused on personal narratives and rhetoric. That year I wrote a personal essay about my struggles with my hair and my identity, titled Hotcomb Heirlooms. I had always struggled with what my blackness meant to me. Mixed messages came from my family. They wanted me to be proud of my heritage and yet they wanted to bend and twist me to fit into Western standards of white beauty.

After cutting away my damaged relaxed ends, transforming my look into one with short natural hair, the disapproval from all of my family members baffled me. It made no sense to me. I didn’t realize I was having this conversation about identity and blackness with myself until I sat down to write it. When my essay was published in my school’s literary magazine I didn’t realize that it was a conversation all black girls were having with themselves too. Teachers, peers, and even sixth grade girls would approach me and the hallway and say: “me too.” They wanted to love their blackness; we weren’t alone. I sparked conversations about self-love and identity. My school proved that I could lean on them too.

That year was filled with academic success, too. I have struggled with math my entire life. I still do. At the end of every semester I tottered on the edge of failing, attending summer school or staying back. Junior year I walked in with my chin up and determined. I wouldn’t fail. Working closely with my Algebra 2 teacher, I got my first ever “A” in math. Junior year I made better friends. I joined clubs for the first time. There I found a love for theatre and a love for my school with all it had to offer me. I appreciated that I attended a school that focused on more than test scores: it focused on our whole selves; it focused on Deeper Learning.

My path to success had not been easy. I had left my public school--Springfield Renaissance School--in the eighth grade. My mother was convinced that I couldn’t keep up with the rigor of the Expeditionary Learning program, and I believed her. After only a few months in the new school I knew I couldn’t stay. I made a plea to my former principal: I needed to return to Renaissance. They let me return. Going back into EL, I still couldn’t keep up, but by eleventh grade it all paid off. Junior year I learned about grit and what it takes to be successful. That summer I was resolute: I would apply early decision to Smith College.

Here is where my Hollywood story fell apart. Senior year was one long, spiraling nosedive. It seemed impossible for me to find level ground and get my footing. Sitting in my new math class I regressed back to eighth grade me: incapable and furious. I was angry that I was in the same place as before, staring at a test and having nowhere to begin. In December I got my rejection from Smith, the first of nine. Each little white envelope of rejection dug me deeper into depression. All of my grades, not only math, fell apart. I wanted to drop out; there was no way I would make it to any school in the fall. It was all just luck during junior year; I felt like such a disappointment. Suddenly it was no longer about finding footing. The entire experience felt like drowning.

By the spring I found schools that were willing to take me as I was. Now it was a matter of graduating. The impending terror of leaving the school that I attended for almost seven years was crippling. In an essay asked of all graduating seniors at Renaissance, I tried to tackle these fears in my Senior Talk. I was able to define these building doubts as being, “too big for my skin.” My anxieties were so great they felt that they could not fit into my body. I was filled to the seams and ready to burst.

But I survived. I was rejected from every single school I dreamed of attending, but I walked across that graduation stage on time. I failed Algebra 1 my first semester of college, but I found a school that wanted me and I got an “A” in every single class my second semester in my first year of college. To me, these are all tiny victories, but they add up into something important. The point of school is not just to learn academic content: it is to help us overcome failure to become the kind of person we hope to be.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.