Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Failure is a Friend of Mine

   Brianna: "Congrats on finishing the year! How does it feel?"
Me: "Sort of like failure."

This text exchange occurred between me and my PC pal on our last day of school last year. After a year of teaching in an Indonesian high school, I certainly had made some strides, but I still battled with planning with counterparts, figuring out curriculum, handling cheating, and effectively assessing students. There were definitely moments of futility and disappointment. A lot of them.

Some days I couldn’t get anything right - even in my down time. One night I planned to watch Short Circuit as a treat for getting through all of my classes, and halfway through the movie, I realized all the scenes I looked forward to watching were actually from Short Circuit 2 – which I didn’t have. Fail again, Erin. 

I had discussions back in pre-service training about what it would feel like when we finished service. Would it feel like we helped at all? I certainly did not come with any naive expectations of changing the world, but I am surprised now to feel I’ve had a lot more successes than I would have originally thought.* My expectations were pretty low, mind you, but I am grateful I will leave PC service feeling like we did it. (WE DID IT!) 

Fall Hard, Fail Frequently**
However, I can’t help but be reminded how important it is to sit with the failures. If there is one thing Peace Corps taught me – it’s how to fall and fail. Hard. 

Let’s take a look at some of the fails:
  • English speaking groups with students and teachers sort of fizzling by the end of my service
  • Feeling like I could've gotten closer with more of my students
  • Never making it to several local schools as I planned
  • Never made my elementary lessons after school sustainable by getting a local teacher to continue them after I'm gone
  • A fellow teacher telling other teachers how I failed because after 2 years she still couldn't speak any English (in my defense, this teacher talked to me about 5 times in all my two years and never attended one teacher's English club)
  • Never made that world map painting with my students
  • Feeling like I could have generally spent less time in my own head or in my room and more time with my community than I did
  • Never did any environmental projects
  • Not doing more with the runners at my school
  • Didn’t spend the night in the pesantren, or Islamic boarding house, like I planned
  • Never got my students to learn about or connect with kids from the SLB (special education school) as I hoped
  • Never got the elementary school English teachers in my village together to talk about ways I could help them with resources
  • Didn’t get as many books for the library as I wanted
  • Didn't get all of our teaching lessons posted onto our teaching blog as planned
The icing on the cake came one week before completing service: a teachers’ group I helped create was deemed “illegal” by the local office of religion. It felt as if I was “shot right through the tomato” (for you Wonder Years reference lovers). This might have been my worst PC moment. Got it in just under the wire.

Embrace the Fail
In motivational speeches I would often ask why people were afraid to speak English, and they’d say they were afraid of making a mistake. To which I’d say, “Yes. You will. You will all fail.” 

This wouldn’t exactly get me a round of applause. And probably wasn't exactly the motivation they were looking for. But I tried to explain that once they accept that they will fail at speaking like a native speaker and their grammar will probably never be perfect - so what? Failure will come. There should be no surprise. With failure as common an occurrence as it is, why should we fear it as we do? In a way, doesn’t the regularity of it kind of make it less daunting to try? 

Peace Corps not only helped me learn this, but to embrace it. After some time in my school and village, failure became my safety net. Before entering class with Ms Olif, my pre-class pump-up saying was, "This could be a complete disaster. Let’s go.” 
The Fail in Full Effect
For some reason, a few volunteers*** and I thought it'd be a good idea to run a marathon in Bali after service. Here's a tip: you should train for marathons. Having not run for a good two months prior due to the wave of departure preparations from my village, I was forced to look upon this self-inflicted disaster as more of a "reflection experience" than a marathon.

Each 10k represented a semester of service that I could reflect upon whilst subjecting my body to excruciating torture. It was a chance to relive each friend/family visit, PC training, vacation, teaching success, and new connection made. It was also an opportunity to sit with and reflect upon every illness, loss at home, host family/community difficulty, and teaching/community failure. I made a chart that is forthcoming, once I figure out how to load here. 

In the end, I ran probably a total of 26 km collectively, and I used the remaining time to reflect on my service, cheer fellow runners, make friends, take pictures (see below), and lie on the ground periodically in pain. I strolled across the finish well after I should have - had I actually trained for this thing. But it seemed like a perfect way to end...picking up my failure, accepting it, and carrying it for 26.2 miles.

And now I'm geared up for the next disaster. Thanks, Peace Corps!

Pre-race meal (Liz, you better eat that bread, or I will)

I mean, this outfit could run this thing itself.


John did not fail, and as such, he was entitled to enchiladas and tacos after the race.  


1)The general increase in confidence levels on the part of students and teachers, to me, has been worth the effort. Even if my students are not fluent in English, they are definitely more confident to try - and more confident in interacting with someone different from them. My counterparts have stretched their ways of teaching and are so much more open to searching for new ideas and are more confident in their own abilities. 

2) My school, family, and community definitely understand more about America and that Americans don’t all look like me. 

3) Breaking ground in my area on some new events like English camps and camps for girls.

**Inspiration for this post is from another PC article here: What the Peace Corps Taught Me About Failure. Favorite quote: "Americans are immature when it comes to honestly accepting failure and maybe that's why so many of us lack the emotional depth to make sense of it."

***In other news, fellow PCV Shane (pronounced Shawn) brought 10 of his high school students to run in the races. This was pretty fantastic since this was the first time they'd been out of their village, and they had only started running this past year. Here are the amazing whipper-snappers:

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