When was the last time you failed?

The instructor asked the incoming high schoolers this question during our morning gathering at College Track, a non-profit organization that guides high school students and their families toward graduating college. I sat in the classroom to participate in the discussion and asked myself this question, “When was the last time I failed?”

I was stuck.

Yes, I made some mistakes last year on staff at USF. I fell short of what it means to be a friend or roommate on multiple occasions. But did I fail? I probably wouldn’t use stronger words like that. Before I start going down the road of my successes (or what seems like a lack of failure), I considered a different path. Perhaps my lack of failure isn’t about my successfulness, but the absence of risk-taking.

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I was scared to be around them. These 14 year olds intimidated me. I remember assisting one of the first seminars and feeling like I had no authority in the classroom. Though I was nearly 10 years older, I had to fake confidence to hide my insecurity. They experienced life so different than me. Majority of the freshmen class at College Track saw violence, human trafficking, and the effects of poverty in their everyday lives. I feared not being able to connect. I feared making an ignorant comment or question. I feared hurting them.

In other words, I had a fear for failure (no wonder I had avoided it so well). I did not want to be another teacher who failed them, when so many other people and systems have failed these students already. Whether the failure came from absent parents, a faulty education system, or biased laws–failure was something I could not bare to add to their burden.

During the first week at College Track one of the students came back after class and made sure she had her homework correct. It was a simple gesture I appreciated (my fake confidence seemed to be working for students to want to finish their homework). Throughout the summer she took initiative to learn, and to go above and beyond what was expected of her.

I learned later that this particular student’s brother was a victim of gun violence, that she also requested financial assistance during the summer for her lunches. Her simple gestures throughout the summer, common signs of what a teacher would call a “good student,”became something more than an example of good work ethic. She became an example of resiliency.

These students had something to teach me about failure. The term that the BayUP team and College Track used repeatedly throughout the summer was:

Resilience: the ability to recover and and overcome in the midst of adversity and failure.

As I got to know individual students such as the one in the story, each was a living testimony of this resilience. They were people who have recovered and pressed on toward opportunities like college. They ran against statistics which say they are unlikely to succeed. Although failure tastes familiar in their environment, they practiced resiliency that came out in simple ways in their personal poems, their curiosity to learn, or in their improvements on math problems.

In reflection of this summer at College Track, I am learning not to fear failure through this idea of resiliency that these students have modeled for me so well. They welcomed my inevitable failure, and taught me about resilience not only by example, but because of their hospitality. Though I may not look like them, they offered trust, vulnerability, and openness to let me into their lives. Though I may never understand the places where these students come from, it is because of their mercy that allows me to be in their classrooms. How they have welcomed me this summer is stronger than any way that I could have fail them. What resilient and merciful people I was around!

Ultimately, these students invited me into vulnerability that comes with resilience, to risk sitting in my potential to fail as a posture to serve.

-Slee