On failure

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. If only more teachers were like her these days, then children would feel much more confident writing. I’ve heard that some children don’t even write their own essays and assignments anymore, apparently, some of them use cheetahpapers.com/research-paper/write/ to write their work for them. If only more teachers could make students feel as proud of their writing as Mrs. Igert made me feel, then they’d be motivated to do the work themselves. I remember when she would 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. Teachers just don’t seem to be like that anymore.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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25 Responses

  1. Su says:

    “If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both.”

    Thanks for the above sentence. Words to remember…..

  2. glyphic says:

    I imagine the fear of failure is something that gnaws at many high school science teachers and graduate student writing instructors.

  3. otis says:

    Su–Was hoping that line wourld ring with somebody.

    Glyphic–Well put.

  4. Ruth says:

    Just so you know, Mrs. Igert still talks about you. After a thirty+ career teaching ready-to-bloom seniors, she still talks about YOU. I can’t even remember the names of one year of students let alone thirty or more. And whenever Igert and I cross paths, her question for me (because she knows we converse) is always the same: “Is he writing?” When my answer in the past was no, her firm comeback was always, “He should be writing.” And, as those who have experienced the might of Igert’s opinions know – she is never wrong. I blame the magic snowflake.

  5. Poker Shrink says:

    The only true standard to measure oneself is the singular one we set for ourself. The trick in life is setting the bar just high enough so we clear it some of the time and not so high that it is proverbially out of reach.

  6. Drizztdj says:

    “If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both.”

    It took me a head injury and a wheelchair ride across Las Vegas Blvd. to realize this. Thus, why I’m happy now. Acceptance with a smile without giving up while shooting for more isn’t for everyone.

  7. MARY STACK says:


  8. Astin says:

    I suppose the response of “as opposed to being a high school chemistry teacher?” wouldn’t have gone over well. Because as well all know, everyone wants to be a chemist (he says, having numerous chemist friends who have the knowledge and access to kill him in very painful ways).

    Sadly, we still live in a world where the questions “what do you do?” or “what are you?” is answered with a job description. Until we realize that 1/2 of our conscious day spent with non-work (or at least should be), we will continue to measure success by our jobs and net worth.

  9. pdxrogue says:

    “If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both.” I spent 30 years of my life in a profession where success was elusive, at best. Now, 2 years into “retirement”, with “the future wide open” (thank you Tom Petty), your words sting somewhat. The sting comes from their cleansing power.

    I wish your words would have grabbed me by the throat 30 years ago, shaken me senseless, and embedded themselves into my soul as a sapiential experience I would never forget.

    Now I carry them forward into an uncertain future and they have become a “boon” to me.

    Thanks — and don’t you dare ever stop writing!!

  10. KenP says:

    I hope Ruth passes this one along to Mrs. I. I’d even suggest taking it down to a Kinko’s to have them put it on velum.

    Today was a day to excise a demon or two. You massacred the beast. The pen came out mightier than the chainsaw.

  11. BadBlood says:

    There is failing and there is failing to try. The former depends mainly on other people and their opinions. The latter depends on the individual.

  12. Lee Jones says:

    [Ruth wrote]
    > Just so you know, Mrs. Igert still talks about you.

    Wheee! That sentence right there made my day.

    Regards, Lee

  13. Lee Jones says:

    P.S. You see anything naked that summer?

  14. otis says:

    Thanks, all (especially Ruth, who made my day, as well).

    And Lee, I can’t begin to answer that question in less than 12,000 words.

  15. Amy says:

    Now, this brought up a few memories! Including the one where Richard Summers told me that I’d never have the career I wanted at the tender age of 14. What a charming man. Like you, I think I’ve had both Summer’s pessimism and Igert’s optimism in my head ever since. Thanks for the reminder about which one I need to be listening to these days.

  16. CJ says:

    I know it doesn’t mean a whole lot, but I don’t think I’ve seen you fail at anything except fantasy football.

    I thought you were a great reporter… one of the best with which I’ve ever worked.

    I know you’ve succeeded as a husband… that was clear in the three years I spent sharing a little space in the newsroom with your wife.

    I know you’ve succeeded as a father… your two boys are a pretty clear indication of that.

    And I know you’ve succeeded in a medium that we didn’t even imagine would exist 10 years ago.

    That’s a hell of a lot of success for someone concerned about his failings! May we all fail as much! 🙂

  17. Bam-Bam says:

    Measurement itself is a rather fickle beast. The aim and the desire are so very important in the judgement of “success.” (pls. refer to appropriate Drizz comments!)

    That is of course, unless you’re capable of stepping back and looking at the total package. A point which I believe is made abundantly clear by not only this post, but by the comments made along the way.

    From the glass is half full department, Mr. Summers may have been the Anti-Christ for all we know. Thankfully however Mrs. Igert helped to to stear you into our lives, by some small miracle.

    Oh and honestly Otis, if you only ever learn one simple thing from my relatively uh…… hmmmmmmmm….. ‘un-conventional’ ways, learn that any measurement itself is not the end-all to be all. There’s a little something-something to be said, for the enjoyment of those roads along the way to them.

    Class……….. dismissed.

  18. Tammie says:

    Brad, you and your friends are so insightful. One can read your story then the comments and come away feeling so much more successful than they thought they were. Mr. Summers needs to read your story and learn that the mind of a teenager is so vulnerable and lives can be changed by the smallest bit of discouraging words. Then Mrs. Igert can take that discouragement and turn it into hope for the future. There certainly needs to be more Mrs. I’s in the world. You must be so proud to know that she still talks about you to her students today and has a genuine concern for your life as a writer, which by the way is definitely what you should be doing with your life.

  19. Aaron says:

    Mr. Summers had it right if you ask me. Why anyone would choose writing over science is beyond me. 🙂 I like the saying, “You should not confuse your career with your life.”

  20. Da Goddess says:

    “If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both.” AWESOME!

  21. AmyC says:

    BadBlood nailed it. Let me go down in flames. Let me fail miserably — in a big, hairy, public way. Let them say, “Wow. I can’t believe she went for it. What a delusional nut job.” But don’t let me not try.

    After giving up my safe IBM job to dabble in writing, I realized that I had to learn to embrace failure and rejection. In the long run, they’re not bad company.

  22. MGM says:

    Mrs. Igert was always full of such encouragement, wasn’t she? She would collect my stuff and then submit it places without telling me about it until it placed or earned recognition, and then she’d be sooooo excited to tell me all about it. She loved my stuff. She WANTED to read my stuff. She believed in me. And she admonished me that if I didn’t “DO” something with my writing, she would haunt me. I’ve “done” something with my writing here and there over the years, but now it’s mostly stuff I write for the psychology field. Honestly, she DOES haunt me to write more creatively. It will be the career I pursue when I retire from the others one day, I think. I’m guilty of having too many loves.

    But for the sake of perspective, Igert is fondly remembered by many of us old Willard-ites. She BELIEVED IN and ENCOURAGED her students. Summers, however, only sounds vaguely familiar to me. I either managed to not take a single one of his classes for the entirety of high school, or he was just so insignificant to me that I do not even remember him. Thank God for the Igert’s when you are a tender-hearted high schooler! She brought out the best in her students!

    Congrats on avoiding her haunting!

  23. Todisue says:

    I was searching for Mrs Igert on yahoo today and came upon this. Why was I searching for her, one might ask? I was considering the final part of my “readiness assessment exam” for entering my masters program. In my mind, I saw “DJE!!” and “excellent” (in red pen, of course). She encouraged and challenged me as a student and person, mentored me as a teacher, and grieved with me as a friend when my brother passed away.

    As for Summers, well, the best example I have of him was when I asked to go to the nurse for a safety pin because my pants or skirt had ripped and his response was “let me see”.

    Wouldn’t MLI wince at my run on sentences and other grammatical errors? She need not worry. I still remember. I am just too lazy to edit this!

  24. Brandon says:

    Fine story. I was just searching because I was thinking of Igert and a few other teachers that stood out. I followed a career in Science because of what some others st WHS invested in me and brought out. Glad you are creating and not wasting time doing chemistry.

  1. December 29, 2009

    […] To my second son It’s not for my nipples My phirst time On failure […]