Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. - Bill Gates
It was the kind of call every mother dreads — news that, in the grand scheme of life, is nothing serious but seems so if you happen to be the person living through it. Even before I answered, my cell phone vibrated with more intensity than usual, as if it had been juiced up by rage.
What now? I thought, spying my youngest son’s name on the screen.
Holding the phone away from my ear, I let him vent for about 30 seconds, then reluctantly clicked closed the document I had been massaging into some semblance of perfection on my computer. I slipped on my Mom hat, the pointy one with the scalloped brim that holds the wisdom of too many years, too many failures, too many heartbreaks, and ordered him to begin at the beginning, always the safest place.
He began at the end. The math major had flunked his Logic test. That statement was accompanied by a correspondingly appropriate rant, then by the prediction of a dismal future, something along the lines that he was done. DONE - in capital letters and bold faced.
I prodded for clarification and got this: There was a high probability that he might get a C in the class.
“A C isn’t so…”
Obviously I had not grasped the extent of his despair. Of his shame. His humiliation. His disgrace. A C could ruin his perfect GPA, and oh my, in such a way.
Our conversation zigged and zagged for a few more minutes until he arrived at what we journalists call the nut graph. Or, by any other name, the kernel of truth in the bowl of creamed corn. My son had crashed head on into the wall of his own limitations.
“Maybe,” he said, in a voice that would have drawn blood from a stone, “I’m not as smart as I think I am.”
On the contrary. That admission, I explained, was probably the smartest thing he had said in all his 19 years. It would free him to work harder, struggle more, grow more respectful of what it takes to achieve. When things come easily, the joy is tempered, the cost too cheap.
After we hung up, I sat for a few minutes at my desk, staring at a dark computer screen. I knew something had shifted in my son’s world, as it had in mine. He was leaving chilldhood behind. I hoped both of us would be the better for it, though it would take an inordinate amount of restraint on my part and a heavy dose of introspection on his.
After all, one of the most difficult things a mother (or father) will be asked to do in the course of a lifetime of parenting is to stand back. Stand back and allow the child to learn from his mess and mistakes. But it hurts so to stand on the sidelines!
When we spoke again the next day, my son had calmed down and charted a game plan for the rest of the semester. He couldn’t see me, but I managed a couple of celebratory fist pumps as his voice drifted over the line, now more serene, more composed.
Always, in the end, failure proves to be an ingenious instructor.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.