The Right to Fail

I was concerned about Joey (that’s not his real name). Joey came into my public speaking class and announced sheepishly that this would be his fourth time! I smiled and said, “well, I’m not sure what happened the other three times, but I’ll help you get through this class. Perhaps the fourth time will be the charm. After all, no one wants to take public speaking more than once!” Joey looked unconvinced.

Joey was a good student, he just had a few tough breaks. Like many kids, he had come to play sports. Getting an education was secondary. Unfortunately, the sports thing didn’t work out. He was drifting. He lacked purpose.

Joey was a little timid, but he surprised me. He was pretty sharp and was completing his work. I imagined great things for him. He wasn’t much of a talker and was a closed book. He approached me at the end of class in week three saying, “I’m gonna need you to sign this.” He gave me a form and a pen. I had seen this form several times before and it was no big deal. It was a validation that a student was coming to class. I tried to make light of it, “Just the date and my name so that they knew you came to class?” I asked. “Yeah, I just got in some trouble,” he said. “No need to elaborate,” I responded. “I’m just glad you’re here and you’re doing well.”

Joey missed a class, but no big deal. He told me in advance. Then, at about week ten Joey missed two in a row. He was still on track to pass, but he missed a couple of vital assignments.

I sent him an email saying I missed him in class and to let me know that he was okay. I promised any type of aid to help him get back on track. No response. He missed the next class too—it was now three in a row. I sent him a desperate email pleading for information assuring him that, although it was late in the semester and he was way behind, he could still pass the class. Silence.

In frustration, I contacted the head of the Comm department and explained my dilemma. “I’ve never really had this happen,” I complained. I’m not sure what to do. She gave me some great advice. “It’s a tough thing to deal with, Wayne, but students have the right to fail.”

She was right. His absence was hitting me hard and I was taking it personally as if I had let him down. I am passionate about education now and a perpetual student, but, it hasn’t always been that way.

My mind went back to my senior year in high school. I was always just a mediocre student in school. Things really went downhill the last couple of years. I just barely skated by in eleventh grade and then tanked as a senior. I wasn’t unintelligent, I just didn’t get it and didn’t want it.

As a senior, I just decided to skip school. Not just days, but weeks. In fact, I missed more than a month. I wasn’t sick. I just didn’t want to go and hid it from my mom.

“Who needs an education?” I thought. As a senior in high school, I was a lead guitar player in a band and my future was already laid out. I was going to be famous. I was also into drugs and the party life. I could care less about school.

Several dramatic events changed the course of my life. First, I was busted for not being in school and my mom found out. The school allowed me to enter a work program where I went to school half a day and worked half a day. In addition, I would have to go to summer school. I ended up graduating with my class, but on the day of graduation, they handed me a blank piece of paper. My diploma would not come until after the completion of summer school. I begrudgingly finished.

The second dramatic event was being taken home in handcuffs by the local police for possession of drugs. Because I was seventeen, I was taken home and not to jail. I was in big trouble and had to go before a judge and perform community service. The final life-altering moment was recognizing my need for a savior and entering into a relationship with God through Jesus and getting involved in church.

Some years later, something clicked. I believed God was calling me to become a pastor. Now, I actually wanted to go back to school and get an education. By now, the educational fires had been lit and I was passionate about learning and excelling academically. A switch had been turned on.

It was called a “mishap”. On January 24, 1961, a U.S. B-52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs broke apart over rural North Carolina. The two bombs fell into a field. Thankfully, they didn’t detonate. The results would have been catastrophic as the bombs were 250 times more destructive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Finding the two bombs became priority number one for our military. The first bomb was routine. A safety parachute deployed and the weapon landed safely and remained in one piece. Crews were easily able to find, deactivate, and haul the bomb away. The second bomb proved more troublesome.

The major problem with the second bomb was that the parachute did not deploy. The bomb catapulted to earth at 700 miles an hour. Although it did not go off, it was deeply buried in a swamp. Crews worked frantically to find the component that contained the arm safe switch and the 92 detonators burrowed in the swamp.

When they found the arm safe switch, they were horrified to find it was in the “on” position. They deactivated the device. It then took the crew 8 days to find and remove all the explosive material. The core, however, was never recovered. It is still buried in rural North Carolina and believed to be about 200 feet below the ground. The best that workers could was to encase the area in concrete.

Most of this information was a mystery and hidden from the general public. The details about the “mishap” were not fully known until 2013 when the information was declassified. The story is unbelievably frightening. The event could have been devastating.

I wish Joey’s story ended differently. Joey never came back to class and I never heard from him again. With him went a piece of my heart. Maybe because I saw part of me in him. Joey failed the class. He chose to. I couldn’t force him to care or force him to pass. He was one of the ones that got away.

But, Joey’s story is still being written. It’s his story and it’s classified. Every semester I look to see if he’s on the roster, but it hasn’t happened yet. One day, perhaps, he’ll be there, and who knows, maybe the fifth time will be the charm. Success is up to him. The switch just needs to be turned on. When it does, I’d like to be there to see it happen and I’d love to be a part of the process.

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