The full quote by Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United State (1913-21) is “You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” He spoke these words well before his time as President , whilst Professor at Princeton, then not a fully fledged University, when speaking the annual address to the College fraternity. Now as then, these are remarkable words for young people to hear, as it helps fashion in their imaginations some shape to ambition and enterprise.
We have just celebrated our Secondary Schools Speech Day, and been won over completely by a 21st Century educator, this one a Vice President of Discovery Education, an enterprise somewhat different and in terms of scale, somewhat larger it must be said than Princeton of yore. Our guest speaker was Susanne Thompson, teacher, facilitator, mentor and from the Northern states rather than the South as Wilson was. Speaking to some 1200 of our community gathering of pupils, students, faculty, parents and guests, Susanne held us spell bound. “Please raise your hands if you have failed!” she asked of us. Dutifully, we all raised our hands. She did not draw our attention to the great and wonderful things we were capable of doing, but to the many and various daily failures to which we managed to succumb.
Citing by pictorial quotation in her talk she reminded us of the very many career failures of Michael Jordan, of Thomas Edison’s mantra that he had but found 10,00 ways that did not work, that a google search on celebrating failure throws up almost 40 million ways so to do, and perhaps my favorite, J.K. Rowling’s take “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you have failed by default.”
Honestly, as Susanne met each of the prize winners by hand, she made them feel very special, for that moment in the spotlight, one could see a very real connection of interest in the learner. Children and adults know that they are likely to ‘fail’ much of the time, and that can weigh us down, stifle ambition and kill curiosity. Her closing thoughts for us were to remember to fail forward; “that’s the way to ensure you make progress”.
It might seem odd to you, dear reader, that I mix the thinking from two Americans separated by 120 years. What was so obvious yesterday was that Susanne Thompson was assisting her great forebear in the mission to open our children’s eyes to what was possible, as exemplified by their many and various successes. “Carry on, learn from the wonderful examples around you and take your failures as lessons to help you succeed further in the future.”
At the close, Susanne confided in us (a personal message it must be said, each just for our own hearing); “My father was Scottish, my mother was English” she said. And suddenly she was in our hearts, to take home at Claires Court, ‘one of us’, to nourish our future days, sometimes to learn from our failures I guess, and more often I hope to build our future successes.