Another School Year: Fail Better

Autumn Semester classes get underway this week at Ohio State University, and as they do, I’ll enter my thirty-sixth year of teaching. I know I’ve written about this before, but two stories bear repeating.

My mother taught elementary school for thirty-eight years. She found plenty to keep her busy in her retirement. She helped my father on the farm, she worked as a housekeeper and laundress at a local nursing home, she tutored students who needed extra help with their lessons. Then the day came when she stopped working at the nursing home, and my father died, and I moved away to enter the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, and there my mother was, alone.

We wrote letters in those days, and we spoke on the phone each Sunday. Once, in autumn, she wrote to me to say that a group of little girls went by her house each morning on their way to school, and she felt that she should be going with them. Their bright voices, she said, seemed to be calling her back to the classroom. She was meant to teach grade school children. She was patient, kind, nurturing, and she possessed a tremendous faith in the power of learning. I have no doubt that in her later years, she missed the classroom and her students deeply.

When I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the chair of the English Department liked to tell this story at our first faculty meeting before the Autumn Semester. He said that one year he’d been in the building the evening before classes began, and he saw a young man in the hall, standing in the doorway of a classroom. The chair asked the young man if he could help him, and the young man said in a quiet voice, “This is where I’m going to have my composition class. I just wanted to see it.”

I recall the awed voice of that young man, and his reverence, at the start of each new school year. I recall the bright voices of the little girls on their way to school and the tug of my mother’s heart to be going with them. There are times when I fail in the classroom. I hope my students forgive me as I forgive them—as I hope they’ll forgive themselves—on those occasions when they fall short. That’s all part of the game, right? Not just in the classroom, and not just in our writing, but in the larger world as well. Remember what Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

So I start another year of failing better. I wish all of you—whether you’re teachers, students, writers, or people facing the challenges your lives present, a good year of effort; of grace, large and small; of triumphs; of successes; of failures and the lessons they teach; of genuine, honest efforts to help someone else along his or her journey. At the times when I’ll fail—and, of course, those times will come, either in my classroom, or in my writing, or in my personal life—I’ll do my best to remember that young man’s reverence as he looked upon the place where he’d sit and learn, and I’ll do my best to remember the excitement of those young girls passing my mother’s house on their way to school, and I’ll do my best to remember how my mother yearned to be going with them, and I’ll try again.


  1. Roy Bentley on August 21, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Wishing you a terrific year, Lee. Oh, and those fortunate souls who will spend part of their journey with you!

    • Lee Martin on August 22, 2017 at 11:50 am

      Thanks, Roy!

  2. Cathryn Essinger on August 21, 2017 at 9:48 am

    Oh, I know how your mother must have felt! I’ve been retired five years now, looking after my parents, and still every fall my hands feel empty. As much as I loathe the “Back to School” signs, I love the comraderie of teaching.
    My mother died last month. She taught in one of Toledo’s inner city high schools for 20 years, and some of her students, now on Medicare themselves!, came to her memorial. Despite teaching during turbulent times, she never had any problems in the classroom. She always said, “I liked them and I think they knew that.” (She also taught them how to swear in public, so they wouldn’t get expelled!)

    • Lee Martin on August 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

      Your mother sounds like a special person, as are you, Cathy.

  3. Mary J. Breen on August 21, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Hi Lea:
    “Fail again. Fail better”! What an important thing to keep before us as we travel along! Thanks so much for this and for all your the wise and kind advice.

    • Lee Martin on August 22, 2017 at 11:51 am

      Thanks, Mary!

  4. Jeanmarie on September 15, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    On the eve of my daughter’s entrance into college, I hope to give her such eloquent advice. But more likely, I’ll be holding back tears – of joy and relief and sadness for this period of child-rearing ending.

    • Lee Martin on September 17, 2017 at 8:50 am

      Hi, Jean Marie! Oh, I imagine it must be so complicated to let a child go off to college. Such a gathering of contradictory emotions.

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