Failure can be good


During my days as a graphic designer, I saw countless colleagues at conferences make presentations that showed one success after another. Which got boring. Like a cynic at a Disney movie, I started pulling for the hero to fail. “For God’s sake,” I would think. “Show me something that flopped!”


Was that so weird? I don’t think so. “Failure teaches us more than success,” wrote Robin Trehan, someone I found on an Internet search. He’s right. We hear so much about triumphs, we tend to tune out them out.. Sure, President Lincoln and Martin Luther King and Oprah Winfrey faced obstacles on the road to greatness — big deal. We’re used to that.


A failure, though, can make us take notice. Like the first time I watched the 1974 film Chinatown, I was unprepared for the bleaker-than-bleak ending where Faye Dunaway is shot and her evil father gets away with — everything. A happy ending would have been more satisfying, but the depressing conclusion seemed more realistic and made me think more deeply about the movie and its characters and wonder where the good guys went wrong.


In researching Best Teenagers Ever, I found lots of stories that were more like Chinatown than the Disney version of The Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Andersen original is more like a Chinatown for kids). Seventeen-year-old A.P. Tureaud, for example, was the first African American to integrate a Deep South public university, attending Louisiana State University nine years before James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi. So why isn’t Tureaud famous? Because he dropped out.


Should we celebrate what Tureaud did, or tried to do? Of course. In fact, the Tureaud story may be a better lesson for today’s students. Most have no idea how rotten race relations were in the earliest stages of the civil rights movement. Tureaud has said that white students refused to speak to him and some professors wouldn’t even touch his homework papers. Put yourself in his shoes, and you really feel the punch-in-the-gut reality of racism.


Tureaud was one of many risk-takers that we, as a society, say we admire, but I wonder if we only care for risks that succeed. I used to fight with an editor who claimed to favor risk-taking yet blanched at anything that might possibly fail. He would then explain his preference for “safe risks,” an oxymoron on the lines of “hot ice” and “friendly fire.”


As I see it, a risk is a 50-50 proposition, give or take 20 percent one way or the other. Sure, we should admire those who took a chance and won, but sometimes they took far less of a chance than those who fought injustice when resistance was stiffer.


I want someone to write a book about “glorious failures” and spotlight people like Shelby Knox. The subject of a 2006 PBS documentary titled “The Education of Shelby Knox,” she spent her four years in high school trying to get the Lubbock (Texas) school system to teach sex education. Technically, she failed in her goal, but she succeeded in showing a documentary audience how hard it is to triumph over imbedded ignorance. I feel like I learned more from her “failure” than I would if all the parties in her conflict resolved their issues and sung “Kumbaya” as the credits rolled.


Among the most glorious non-winners in Best Teenagers Ever are Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett, who in 1932 qualified as the first two African-Americans to make the U.S. women’s Olympic track team. Later, they were replaced by two white women who ran slower times at the trials. Should the racism that cost them a chance at Olympic glory be held against them? Of course not. Again, I think we can learn as much, if not more, about injustice from their so-called defeat than we do from later victories.


To me, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett are just as much heroes as they would have been had they competed and won gold medals. They deserve our recognition, and respect.

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