“So, what’s up with this paper?” my students ask, wafting in from the hall and settling in their desks with a nonchalance only possible after lunch, when a free afternoon beckons and “we can only handle school if it’s relaxed” is the motto of the hour. Don’t ask too much of us; it’s sixth period.

The paper in question was a disaster. I knew it as I graded the first few, writing essentially the same question on each one:

If (CHARACTER) is a symbol of (IDEA), then what statement does Nathaniel Hawthorne make about (IDEA) with what happens to (CHARACTER)?

I had pressed on–circling the egregious haunting of passive voice, writing “Too much plot” next to topic sentences–like a grading automaton, for all 33 of my honors students’ papers. Now, a week later, I have to tell them the hard truth: These weren’t good. Redemption is possible, but it will take hard, meticulous work.

“The papers,” I reply, noncommittal. “We’ll talk about them.”

“First period said they were really bad.”

The students of first period, alert traitors that they are, reveal all secrets, utterly powerless in the face of the insistent question, “What are we doing in English today?” Doubtless they answered, “Hearing about how bad our papers were.”

I begin by sharing their collective strengths, commenting how it was clear that they’d actually read The Scarlet Letter, itself an arduous task, and that this was a difficult book and their comprehension alone is commendable. Then I compliment their proofreading. Following these consolations, we begin examining the cracks: flawed thesis statements and careless topic sentences, along with an overall misunderstanding of the concept of symbolism.

I’ve thought a great deal about failure in the last few weeks. As I share with my students, I’m no stranger to it. Though I could share about the math tests on which I’ve scored in the low 20 percents, today it’s far more relevant to reveal that I, too, have earned a C or a D, here and there, (gasp!) on an essay. And while I’ve forgotten most of the A grades I ever received, I still remember the exact contents (or lack thereof) of those horrid papers.

Educators discuss “rewrites” and “retakes” to exhaustion, curious about the consequences to the students of being given a second chance with their “final” assessments. As I reflect on my own failures, however, I realize that the ones from which I’ve learned the most–in school, in relationships, in cooking, everywhere–were the ones that involved going back and redeeming my mistakes.

I’m always eager to leave the crimes behind, hoping that everything will take care of itself. That the bad paper’s grade consequence will diminish in importance as more grades fill the spreadsheet. That the harsh words will be forgotten, buried under better ones, before I have to apologize. That I can call the cookies “muffins” to explain their having half the required amount of sugar. Just don’t make me go back, I sometimes plead. I don’t want to worry about this anymore.

But the going back is where the learning happens. Though it’s not standard academic practice, it happens that the essays on which I did worst, both in high school and college, were ones that I was required to rewrite. It was a tortuous process, involving in each case sitting with the instructor and then rehashing material I hadn’t bothered much with in the first place. I remember sitting down with a sigh, putting my mind and fingers back to the work of rebuilding, hoping to do better this time. I did, and I’m a stronger writer for it.

That’s what I hope to teach my students this week, with their returned essays. “They’re not great, these papers,” I tell them. “There’s no other way to say it, really. But you’ll do better next time. And I’ll help you, don’t worry. We’re in this together.”

Failure is important, I tell them, but only if you look at it the right way. Almost everyone writes one bad paper, but you’ll keep writing them, again and again, unless you learn from this one. It’s only when we acknowledge our failures, when we look them straight in their lackluster faces, that we can see a way forward, a way to repair, to apologize, or to start over. Only then can we move on, leaving the failures gracefully in the past to seek a better next time.


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