It was my gentle reminder to myself that if I was going to have a great day, it meant a game with no flaws; not just errors, but no bad throws, no swing-and-misses, no mistakes. Those three words helped get me through countless struggles on and off the field, up until May 4th of 2005.
"Johnnie, come on in. Have a seat."
It was our annual player/coach meeting, the one where we go through the year and how everything went, where I would need to focus over the summer, and what next year had in store for me and my role on the team.
Earlier in the season, while stretching before a game at Cal Poly Pomona, my shoulder popped. It wasn't the gentle grinding that I'd been feeling since September, the one that warranted a fresh bag of ice after every practice or round of catch. No, this one was different. It didn't hurt. No shooting pain, no throbbing, and no odometer reading of many throws since the time I was four years old. No, it was numb. Due to play catcher in game one of our double header and be the designated hitter during the second game, I quickly rushed to Pomona's trainer and asked for a quick diagnosis. He lifted my arm, but there was nothing; I had no strength.
"That's fine," I said, "I'll just see if I can throw and work through it."
I went back to the line where the team was warming up, dropped to one knee, held up my glove, and received the first throw from Derrick, the starting pitcher for game one. I reach into my catcher's mitt, grab the ball, and wind back... but can't. The ball barely leaves my hand, as do my hopes and dreams of ever playing professional baseball. I knew at that moment something was terribly wrong.
Neither pain killers, therapy, ice, nor alcohol would help soothe the pain of not partaking in an activity I had grown to love since Kindergarten. After all, I had refused to fail, yet my body had failed me.
"Look Johnnie, we appreciate what you've brought to the team, but I'm afraid I can't keep you on the roster for next year. I don't know what's going on with your arm, but I can see if another school could use you for next year if you'd like."
I went from being worthy of the Major League Baseball draft to getting cut in the matter of one conversation. One arm circle. One failure. This was final.
The months that followed were the darkest days of my life. After all, there wouldn't be another chance to refuse failure. As soon as I walked out, I knew that I needed to accept it. But how? I've been telling myself since I was 4 that I loved the game of baseball and since 12 that I refused to fail.
The poster above, grabbed from one of many Pinterest boards, touts this acronym that makes me cringe. It's been the tagline for many educators on Twitter lately and gets shared around as a way of encouraging students to persevere. After all, it suggests, it's OK to fail because ultimately you'll succeed. But what if they don't? What if they continue to work, thinking that it's "yet another first attempt" and don't see the gains? What if, after years of working toward a goal, they just... fail?
I get the premise, and I'm all for encouragement. What I fear we are doing here is using a four letter word defined as a negative and desperately attempting to pivot it into a positive. Instead, I would love to see us eradicate the word "fail" from anything that isn't absolute. If you're going to give a test, quiz, project, or assignment that can be made up or re-taken, students can't fail it.
As I've thought about this idea, I realized that my small shortcomings weren't failures. Hall of Fame sluggers routinely create an out 70% of the time they come to bat. We say that those people are successful, yet our definition says that they fail more than twice as much as they succeed. Realistically, my the underbill of my ballcaps should have all read:
It doesn't ignore my first attempt in learning, and it also doesn't ignore my second, third, fourth, and so on, as long as I reach success.
Think about the students who struggle the most in our classes. If we tell them that an F is alright because, "even though you failed, it's your first attempt in learning the content," we're lying to them and they know it. Those kids have more than likely struggled through a number of classes and phases of education.