your tornado may cause you fear
is cause for dreaming more
is not your tornado
is not your tornado
-from Tornado, a poem by Gene Pfeiffer
The “#SAFailsForward” series has featured very personal stories of personal and professional failure. Many of these stories have portable and immediate lessons to instruct us, or words of wisdom to inspire us as we march through time. I am humbled by each of our contributors; you rock.
My story does not fit into this category, though. There is no great redemption, no moral or professional high ground. There is no victory. There is, in the end, just a life—my life. I want to tell some stories of my life, and of my failure, even though I know it does not fit neatly into #SAFailsForward and might not immediately resonate with you, my audience. I want to use my story to illustrate the potentially harmful effects of isolating perceived failure from its larger context, and I want to challenge us to remember that failure, like any values-based construct, is intersectional—it is social, cultural, and deeply personal. I want us to examine more critically the ways we both define failure and utilize those definitions in our conversations with colleagues and students. I want us to recognize the privilege that comes with re-framing stories and directing those narratives. Like many of you, I believe in the liberating power of transparency; I also know the silencing power of unrecognized bias and microagression. We can, in sharing our stories of failure and failing forward, inadvertently silence others who may contently embody the very definition of failure we believe we overcame. I want to encourage us to practice mindful, tender storytelling, most especially in our work with students. Let none of us feel as though we must hide in plain sight.
To understand why I feel this way and why I think all of this merits examination in the first place, it might help to know a bit about me. By some folks’ standards for failure, I am, today, a consummate loser: I’m nearing 40, but I have not started my PhD nor have I ascended beyond the “entry level.” I’m on my second marriage, and, as of this writing, I could stand to lose about 20 pounds. I don’t dress for the job I want; I dress for the budget I have. I possess modest financial means. I drive a car that needs a bit of body work. I have been told that my hair is too long and my skirts are too short and my laugh is too loud and I don’t “act my age.” I haven’t attended a national conference in years, but I have been to a quite a few concerts.
Despite the external standards that would have me do more and be more and alwaysalwaysalways pushpushpush growgrowgrow nownownow, I am content with every fluctuating and static aspect of my life. This, some might say, is my most staggering failure of all—that I am able to find satisfaction amidst so many personal and professional shortcomings.
Now, to understand how and why all of this has come to be, it may help to know a bit more about me. Perhaps I can even redeem myself a bit. I have been working in student affairs for a short time; I share the “new professional” descriptor with people 15 years my junior. Before I completed my master’s degree in 2012, I spent ten years working on my bachelor’s degree as a part-time, employed, non-traditional, first-generation, commuter student. Despite having been accepted into a prestigious university my senior year of high school, I started my postsecondary education at a middling community college. I can hear the readers’ wheels turning…knowing this about me creates a framework for understanding, a series of reliable statistical probabilities developed from research on lived realities.
But to really understand how and why THAT came to be, it helps to understand MY lived reality. Twenty years ago, I became one of the worst kinds of social pariahs: I became an unmarried pregnant teenage female, a poster child for failure. I had failed my parents, my public education, my community, my abstinence-based sex ed program, my friends. I was instructed to believe that I had failed myself. Words like “white trash,” “slut,” “failure,” “ruined,” “disappointment” were flung at and about me by those closest to me. When I strode across the stage at my high school graduation, my pregnant belly and honors cords commemorating my stunted potential, I felt overwhelming shame.
And, to understand how and why THAT came to be, it helps to understand the myriad of ways abuse, and poverty, and generational familial dysfunction conditions children. Statistically, I was pre-destined to fail. My parents had not failed forward from their own lived experiences, and did not encourage their children to fail forward. Life was hard. I received food stamps and free school lunches and still managed to know hunger. I had tremendous teachers and friends and still managed to know the isolation of hiding in plain sight. I was sad a lot.
Working through that morass has created in me a sensitivity to how others define failure, and an awareness of how I do and do not meet or exceed those marks in any given moment. I am often confronted with students who share with me stories of their young friends, cousins, and neighbors getting pregnant and “ruining” their lives; I must explain myself. I am confronted by colleagues who mistake me for a traditionally-educated practitioner with a traditional SA trajectory; I must explain myself. I am confronted by people who assume that the photos on my desk are not of my son, but of a brother or boyfriend, and again I must explain myself. I am confronted by people who assume that my desire to promote equitable postsecondary access and opportunity exists because I am a liberal and white-privileged “do-gooder,” not because I want to pay the benefits of my own struggle forward. Over and over and again and again I explain myself. Those assumptions about me often feel like expectations. Not living up or down to those expectations can feel like failure in and of itself.
It is hard work, grappling with other people’s definitions of success and failure while simultaneously trying to establish your own. Attempting to live an authentic life further complicates this process. I don’t see my life as having come to some triumphant “forward” moment where I conquered my upbringing or broke free from my statistically-ordained destiny. Underneath all of the talk of failure and success, there is just me, living my life as well and authentically as I can live it. And that, for me, is enough, even if it looks like failure or inertia to you. Forward is a construct. Failure can be a lie. My tornado is not your tornado, is not your tornado.