May 14, 2014

Failure as Fuel for the Fire

What could have been:  A speech I submitted to the College of Education for consideration for the Graduate Student Keynote Speech...
Needless to say I wasn't accepted.  I've heard one should never let a good speech go to waste so here it goes...
Thank you President Theobold, Dean Anderson, and distinguished Faculty of the College of Education. It is an honor to be the graduate keynote speaker for the College of Education.  Let me begin by acknowledging a few people, for whom if it were not for their assistance, guidance and support, I would never have made it this far.  The original, OG Doctor Rhoden, my mom.  As they say, the duplicate is never as good as the blueprint. I intend to do my best to honor and uphold the dignity and scholarship of the “family business.” I would also like to thank my Dissertation Committee, which covered three departments and two colleges and helped to guide my intellectual and emotional push towards successful completion.  Without their encouragement, both in person and long distance via e-mail, and Skype, I would not be standing here. Finally, I would like to thank my family and friends, and of course, my wife and son, who perhaps one day might be standing here before such an audience.

I would like to focus my remarks around utilizing failure as fuel and motivation.  From middle school on, I wanted to be a lawyer. I read about law, interned at a law firm, and of course, watched every law movie and TV show out there. Fortunately, in my educational background, I never experienced what I colloquially called a “Malcolm X moment” in which, to paraphrase, his teacher told him that he should not aim so high.  My teachers, family and friends all encouraged me to achieve my intended goal.  Of course, standing here today with an educational doctorate, we know that that dream did not happen…yet??  Instead, my intellectual journey was eventually driven, albeit in a crisscrossing, bi-coastal long strange trip, towards urban education.

The greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jeffery Jordan is quoted as saying “I can accept failure. Everyone fails at something.  But I cannot accept not trying…Fear is an illusion.”  Everyone sitting in this audience today understands failure and fear.  Unfortunately in the current microwave society we live in, failure is magnified and fear is unspoken. Rather than being a blip on an overall trajectory of positive outcomes, our failures and foibles are retweeted, shared and posted on social media.
One of the key findings from my dissertation is that trust is essential to building resilience. This is vital in helping to counteract fear of failure. We feel immense pressure to be perfect, to not make a mistake, to hold back our true thoughts for fear of offending someone.  If anyone knows me, they know that I’m not afraid of offending anyone.  Not deliberately or maliciously, unless the person opposite me is a New York sports fan, but rather, I seek to engage in meaningful, respectful discussions about controversial issues.  I trust that the dialogue will help advance our knowledge, even if it is sometimes painful. We have to not be afraid to be wrong.  We cannot be afraid to be afraid.  And most importantly as educators, we cannot be afraid of both engaging in uncomfortable discourse and in saying, humbly, “I do not know.” 

As I was writing my dissertation in local coffee shops around both Philadelphia and Phoenix, and let me give a shout out to local coffee shops, I would sometimes be overcome by the magnitude of what I was writing.  Was I honoring the Black male students I interviewed, or just my own educational experiences?  Was I telling their truth or interpreting, or rather misinterpreting their truth through some distorted lens of educational privilege?  Were my conclusions really what I saw, or was my analysis somehow flawed?  All of these negative thoughts, and a few others that I cannot say in a family environment, weighed heavily on my shoulders trying to push me to open Facebook and procrastinate.  Two other important findings from my dissertation are that it is critical to seek out assistance from peers and mentors, and that understanding the connection between socio-emotional, racial and gender identity is extremely important to positive academic outcomes.

My fear of failure, and of not finishing, fueled me towards being, arguably, as focused as I have ever been concerning an intellectual goal.  Thankfully, whenever the inevitable self-doubt and fear crept into my psyche, I had a longstanding support network to lift me up. And that, is indispensable.  I know a lot of quantitative people who looked at my college GPA, or GRE scores and determined “unequivocally” that I would not succeed, nor should I even be in education. Without my network and, of course, the folk at Temple who saw beyond my abysmal numbers and instead saw my intellectual potential, even when I had self-doubt, who knows what I would have become. No doubt, not a lawyer, and not an academic.

So what does failure as fuel mean?  As we embark upon our next journey, for the undergrads, perhaps into grad school, and for us grad school graduates out into academia or the harsh realities of the world as it is, I am reminded of the words of Melissa Harris-Perry, the MSNBC talk show host, and Professor at Tulane University. In a commencement speech at Wellesley College in 2013, she said; “Never become so enamored of your own smarts that you stop signing up for life’s hard classes.  Remember to keep forming hypotheses and gathering data.  Keep your conclusions light and your curiosity ferocious…”
Nelson Mandela eloquently concluded after 27 years of physical imprisonment mostly on Robben Island, that; “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.  The brave (wo)man is not (s)he who does not feel afraid, but (s)he who conquers that fear.”

Let us all go forth, not in absence of fear, but with that fear as a blanket to be used as a fuel to guide us towards making positive social change.  Not for our own financial or professional benefit, but for the honor of using our education to assist in the service of others and in seeking to reduce the educational inequities that exist in this country and elsewhere.

Thank you.  

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