Richard Summers could claim scarred black lab tables and an exceedingly bad combover. This was the Summers Experience, and it was not a good one.
It was easy to sit in the back of Summers’ chemistry lab and wonder how many people were going to translate the experience into a life of scientific exploration. It was also easy to sit in the back of Summers’ chemistry lab and wonder whether there was going to be a chance to see anything naked that weekend. Because I was edging up on my late teens, I wondered a lot about both, but more about the latter.
Downstairs and in another wing of the small country high school is where you would’ve found Mary Louise Igert’s classroom. Igert, a larger than life English teacher, had taken an interest in my writing in the months leading up to that day. In doing so, she’d taken an interest in me. A quick chat with Mrs. Igert, and another quick chat with the guidance counselor, and I had a pass in my hand that would free me from the Summers Experience and put me as Igert’s student aide for one hour a day.
I handed the pass to Summers outside his classroom. He was incredulous. And then he was mean.
“If you do this, you won’t amount to anything,” he said. “You will be a failure.”
It was the first time an adult–especially one charged with turning me into an educated youth–had suggested I might fail, that I might not be worth as much as he had thought.
I thanked him and walked off to consider the possibility I would fail…and whether I would see anything naked that weekend.
* * *
I think I’ve spent a grand total of 18 months since that time in which I did not feel, in part, like a failure. I don’t lay the blame on Summers. He was significant in my life only up until the point I told that same story in front of my high school graduating class and their families several months later (another story for another day, but one in which I submitted one graduation speech for approval and then gave another one that involved the Summers Failure story and a quote from Charles Manson). I exorcised Summers that night and, these days, only think about him now and then.
No, the fear of failure is something with which I was born. I have never embraced it per se, but I accepted it a long time ago and have been working on dealing with it since. Still, over that many years, it wasn’t hard to find people who were happy to use the word “failure” or something close to it when talking about me. Two more stand out in my mind–one, a graduate student writing instructor named Andrew, and the other a guy about whom I still can’t write. Those people, though, were just the most overt and ridiculous. The others were a series of people who, for one reason or another, made me question my worth.
There was a point in my life in which I honestly thought I was part of a subset of true life failures, a subset that actually recognized how badly I was failing and flailing. It was only with a little more age and gray hair that I started to find more people–exceptionally talented and smart people–who struggled with some of the same problems. Many of these people are now very close friends. It’s only been in talking to them about their issues over the years that I’ve come to recognize where we find our biggest trouble.
I spent about 30 minutes trying to write the next two paragraphs before finally giving up for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they revealed too much about my life and my friends’ lives. The long and the short of it is: If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both. It took me a long time to grasp that.
I haven’t been back to Willard High School in a very long time. I don’t know if Richard Summers is still there or dead and gone. And as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Igert. I don’t have anything to say to Summers, but if I got the chance to see Mrs. Igert again, I’d tell her that I still take inspiration from her today. She was one of the first people outside of my family to encourage me to write. She was one of the first people to make me believe I wasn’t destined for failure. And when good friends turn to me apropos of nothing and tell me, “You’re a better writer than you think you are,” it makes me remember why it was so easy to walk out on Mr. Summers and sit down with Mrs. Igert.