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When my grandfather was twelve he worked alongside his family gathering prunes under the baking Northern California sun. A boss told him to take a truck into town and bring back supplies. My grandfather obeyed. It was not out of the ordinary for him to do this. He lived in the country and had learned to drive young. On his way to the city he noticed a police officer trail behind him. My grandfather was pulled over. The officer started to interrogate him.
In the midst of the questioning the police officer got an emergency call. The man told my grandfather to stay put. He would come back to him after taking care of the emergency. As soon as the officer was out of sight my grandfather drove as fast as possible back to the farm. He knew he couldn’t risk dealing with the officer.
My grandfather couldn’t afford to fail.
Fast forward 50 years. I am sitting in the principal’s office of my high school. I had just messed up in a bad way, like a really bad way. This was basically a zero tolerance offense. Luckily, the principal talked to my parents and let me off with a suspension and a string of Saturday school appointments. The private school I was at decided I was worth another shot.
I was allowed to fail. I didn’t realize it at the time.
Heck, I didn’t realize it until recently. I am the product of quite a bit of privilege. My father is Latino. My mother is white. I am light-skinned. I was able to “hide” my identity growing up. There were advantages to being white. That much I knew.
I yearned to fit in with my white classmates. It was so cool to be Italian I thought. To have nice cars. To live in a huge home. To take foreign vacations. I didn’t want to be Mexican. I couldn’t face the ridicule and hatred leveled against “the Mexicans”. I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t have an accent. I didn’t know Spanish. I cringed every time my dad spoke Spanish with his friends. I begged him not to listen to “Mexican” music in the car. In fact, as a middle schooler I actively resisted Spanish class. My parents could not believe it when I brought home an “F” in Spanish on a progress report.
It hurts me to think about all that I lost because I wanted to be white. Chances I missed connecting with my family. Chances I missed to learn Spanish better. Chances I missed to not feel so lost and broken as a teenager. I was torn away from my family’s culture. At the same time it allowed me to fail and fail and fail and fail. I was always given a second chance. Even if it was my tenth. Many years ago my grandfather didn’t have that privilege.
I wrote once about how we need to allow failure in the classroom. I still believe this to be true. Kids need to feel that they can mess up. Kids need to feel like they can take chances. Kids need to be able to express their creativity. At the same time I think the statement is absolutely naive. Some kids already get many chances to fail. I did. Getting chance after chance is a major aspect of white privilege.
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Not everyone “gets” to fail. If you are a student of color you have to be perfect. Think about the standardized test that plays an over-sized role in determining an accelerated or remedial course. You better not fail. Think about the rates of suspension and expulsion. You better not fail. Think about use of force incidents on campuses. You better not fail. Think about using a word the teacher doesn’t know. You better not fail. Think about hiding the fact your parents are undocumented. You better not fail.
Yes, an individual teacher can and should allow failure throughout their lessons, projects, units, and “discipline” systems. We must also recognize that students of color function within a larger system that gives them absolutely no chance to fail.
There is a popular narrative that urges educators to worry about sheltered students. The ones who have always triumphed. What will happen to them when they face adversity? Will they be great entrepreneurs if they are always asking what to do? They are too scared of failure to succeed. I have said that myself. The truth is most of those students will be just fine. The cards are stacked in their favor.
But what if we flipped the script? Attempted to look at things from another viewpoint. Who is really scared to fail? It’s not the student who might get their first B. It’s the student who knows that one misstep might cost them everything. It’s the student who knows that upsetting the teacher might jeopardize the small chance they have.
All people do not get to fail equally. Being allowed to fail is a privilege.
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