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Roger Barbee: Failing can be a good experience


By Roger Barbee

This past weekend Mary Ann and I were in my hometown to visit my elderly mother, and I was to give a short speech for my high school wrestling coach who, unknown to him, was receiving North Carolina's highest civilian award: The Order of the Long-Leaf Pine.

Well over 200 people showed to honor Coach Bob Mauldin for his years of community service, teaching and coaching in the public schools, being active in his church, serving as a principal and as a wrestling official. In prior years, Coach Mauldin had been honored as principal of the year in Kannapolis, North Carolina, inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, and now this, the highest award North Carolina could bestow on a civilian. After the speeches lauding him and the presentation of the award, Coach Mauldin spoke. He shared a great deal with us, thanking us all, but one story he told I had not known -- he failed the seventh grade and had to repeat it. Coach Mauldin had flunked.

David Halberstram, in his classic study of the Vietnam War, "The Best and the Brightest," writes a great deal concerning the "boy wonders" who were an influential part of the Kennedy cabinet. The young men that President John F. Kennedy brought to Washington had impeccable academic credentials, training and academic backgrounds. They were, as the title suggests, the best and the brightest. Halberstram writes honestly of them and their obvious talents, but he concludes that their collective lack of real life experience, especially in the political area, was one reason for our involvement in Vietnam and its deep cost to our nation. Recounting the origins of that costly war, Halberstram observes that what these well-meaning "boy wonders" lacked was "true wisdom ... the product of hard-won, often bitter experience."

One of the requirements for Coach Mauldin's seventh grade English class with Mrs. Howard was an oral book report. Up to his seventh-grade year, Coach Mauldin had received a pin for perfect attendance each year, but in the seventh grade, in order to "dodge" giving that oral book report, Coach Mauldin missed some days. As he explained it to his gathered admirers, he was too shy to get up in front of the class and talk. He dodged the dates until he finally ran out of days, so he failed English, thus the seventh grade. One more school year with Mrs. Howard.

Now, I understand that not everything concerning public education in "the good ol' days" was good or even policy that we should be following. For instance, in the time that Coach Mauldin failed Mrs. Howard's class, a student could be paddled -- that, in my mind, is a policy that needed to be gotten rid of. However, there is a dimension of a student failing a grade that is worthy of consideration.

It seems to this writer that in some degree we have gone too far the other way in many facets of modern day life and how we educate our children. For instance, in Shenandoah County, the lowest numerical grade a student can receive in the first marking period of a new semester is a 60, no matter how little work was done or how poorly the work was done. This policy was instituted so that a student will not be discouraged and quit working over the course of a semester and eventually pass the course. That is a noble thought, but I question its value.

It seems to me that we have given our children the idea that life is like a railroad track. We lead them to believe that they can get on the track of life and pick a destination. The trip will be without obstacles such as steep hills, sharp turns, and the crossing of any troubled waters will be made easier and safer by a sturdy bridge. Instead of letting our children make their way, often by trial and error, we have leveled the trip and removed all obstacles. In our desire for their succeeding, we have done too much for them. We have removed failure from their lives.

I can imagine the difficulties a teacher would encounter today if he or she wanted to hold a student back. If the issue were an oral book report as in Coach Mauldin's case, the teacher may be asked to alter the requirement in some way to make it more conducive to the student's learning style. Perhaps an administrator would point out that the student needed to pass because of class size, or that in failing the grade his or her self esteem would be damaged.

A child knows whether she or he has made an honest effort to do required work. Any child knows when she or he has not met a reasonable expectation. When we allow less than the best from each child in our schools, we cheat that child and our society. Failure can be a great teacher.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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