New Light for Long-Ago “Failure”

December 14, 2021

In the spring of 1971, I got permission to do my student teaching at a progressive elementary school in London, England. It was based on the concept of the “Integrated Day,” a project-based method of teaching, where students engage in lots of different activities that require a mix of science, social studies, math, reading, writing, and art, as well as lots of sharing of what they are learning.

The classrooms in that school were messy and noisy and effective and I loved it. On the basis of that experience, I was hired for my first teaching job, in Hingham, Massachusetts the following fall. But when I tried to create the kind of classroom I envisioned, my enthusiasm was met with resistance I wasn’t yet strong/ brave/ smart enough to meet, and under considerable pressure, I resigned in mid-October. I’ve always thought of it (felt it) as a personal failure, not entirely my fault, but not a good foundation on which to launch a teaching career. In the years since, I’ve been a successful teacher and writer, and that first feeling of failure has faded. I’m left with good memories of the children I taught and the community of Hingham, and I sometimes wonder about who those children have grown to be.

Then, the other day, I opened an email from one of the 6th graders in that class, asking if I was the Helen Frost she remembered. When I confirmed that I am, she wrote an amazing email to me, remembering my brief time in that classroom:

“I loved the way you dressed. I loved your enthusiasm! I knew you cared deeply for all of us! I was heartbroken when you left! … you made an impact that I will always cherish! You gave me so much!”

She remembered that I rode my bike to school and that I once came to her home for dinner. (I had let the parents know I’d welcome such invitations, and many of them did invite me.)

I’m touched and grateful that this long-ago student sought me out 50 years later to let me know she had become a teacher, and that she remembered me with such warm affection. (I haven’t asked her to describe the way I dressed…hmmm, it was 1971, I can imagine.)

My wish for you, for all of us, this season is: May all our failures be fruitful! We really have no way of knowing whose lives we may have touched, and how we are remembered.