The Loneliness of Failure


I wanted to clamber onto the stage and get up in the grill of some choir students, who were behaving like Philistines during a concert. 60 out of the 65 students sang their hearts out.  The other five flicked people’s hair, purposely and loudly sang wrong notes, shouted to friends in the audience and made obscene gestures with their hands.

I took over a chaotic high school choir program in a tough, inner-city school one January day.  The previous vocal music teacher simply walked out of class a month earlier, never to return.  In four years, four teachers tried to wrangle these students. I was the fifth.  My new students home stories broke my heart every single day. Their complex behavioral issues left me drained.

On top of my most motivated students being dysfunctional, my choir classes received consistent dumps of students with severe behavioral problems.  They didn’t bother to meet with guidance counselors  to choose electives they liked.  When those classes filled up, everyone else got dropped into my class.  Most days, 7-8 students fidgeted in various time out locations.  With zero interest in music, they were incapable of sitting by other students.

As our concert approached, I gave the anti-choir bunch the option of writing a paper rather than perform.  When they all chose the concert, I reminded them they would be tested individually on the concert music along with singing in the actual performance.  We all discovered that two weeks of paying attention doesn’t compensate for seven weeks of tomfoolery.

Even if every student sang their best, that concert would have been sketchy.  With all the discipline problems and staff changes, students never learned to sing.  The few naturally talented singers couldn’t overcome the earnest sounds of everyone else.  The polite golf claps after each song spoke volumes.  The next day choir students endured mocking in the hallways.  My first concert in a new school went into the fail column. I felt a dreadful loneliness as I listened to the successes of other classrooms during my lunch breaks in the teacher’s lounge. I seemed to be the only failing teacher.

Feelings of isolation often accompany failure.  It seems that our eyes fall on others succeeding in the areas we are failing.  I went to a music teacher’s conference shortly after that concert and left half way through.  Everyone but me was winning awards, growing programs, hiring assistants, etc. etc.   I’m guessing some of exxagerated.

It’s not failure that keeps you from success.  All successful people experience failure.  It’s what you do afterwards that leads to either achieving goals or settling for less.  For example, I went from  top music dog in my high school choir to a college freshman who couldn’t land a single solo or dramatic role. Nevertheless, I kept on auditioning until I finally scored some great parts.  It took two years.  That’s like an eternity when you’re in college.  Why didn’t I quit or change majors or something?  I credit my parents with some of my success principles.

  • Failure is no reason to abandon a passion or talent.  When my father first entered the greenhouse industry, at the age of forty, he lacked knowledge and experience. Consequently, he authored several crop fails initially. The sickening sight of hundreds of plants tossed on our dump pile is still unforgettable.  In the face of that, his passion and gifts for growing beautiful flowers propelled him to learn from his mistakes and adjust.  Today people will drive 45 minutes past other greenhouses to buy his products.  Whatever passions and gifts God places in you must endure the tests of failures to be fully developed. Gain knowledge, make course corrections and keep moving.
  • Successful people get up, overcome obstacles and do something towards achieving their goals every day. My mother endured moderate to intense back pain from childhood until the day God took her home.  It would have been understandable for her to stay at home and rest.  She didn’t.  She wanted her three children to attend college, for she and Dad to pay off our house and to have great health insurance.  To reach those goals, she worked outside her home for over fifty years.  All successful people must find their way under, around, through and over obstacles.

So, what happened with the choir?   The concert fail pushed me to gain knowledge and adjust my course.  I didn’t give students the paper or concert choice again.  They either made honest attempts to learn and perform or they failed the class and took a different elective.  I sought knowledge about behavioral problems and learned to put enforceable boundaries into place for example, “I only teach when students are listening.”  Fairly quickly, unruly students figured out that creating music together was a lot more fun than spending the whole hour messing around and failing a class.

At our next concert, applause was enthusiastic, students excited and parents grateful. Most of them had never experienced a successful choir performance.

God places passions and gifts inside you.  Expect some failures as you work to turn them into life goals and then achieve them.  That’s the nature of the fallen world we live in.   Don’t allow the heartbreak and loneliness of failures push you into a mediocre, unfulfilled life.



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