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Now and Then

If at first you don't succeed, don't worry

First the spring flowers, then caps and gowns. But this isn't a time of nostalgia for me. I didn't see my friends in the class of 1942 graduate from North Quincy High School.

I didn't see the high or low honor students parade across the stage floor, or the ordinary, the mediocre, or the ones that just made it.

I didn't make it. After the principal took away my A in art, I was short a point and did not receive a diploma. In fact, the principal gave a special order. I was not to receive an invitation and if I showed up the ushers were not to let me in. I remember showing up and not being allowed to join the audience.

It doesn't sound like me to show up uninvited, but that is the truth of my memory if not the truth of my life. In fact I didn't much care about not graduating. My father had not been allowed to go to high school, and I knew with a quiet, unjustified confidence that I would become a writer.

I had started to be published in insignificant places and knew through experience that the writing instruction I received would produce bad writing that would never be published.

Although the failure to graduate must have been a motivating force in my life during the next 64 years, I don't remember being angry but amused -- and free of school at last.

My grade in Art was not the only factor in my failure to graduate. I was a Scot Protestant who wanted the United States to join the British in the war against Hitler. My classmates were almost all Irish Catholics who did not like Hitler but hated the British.

My pro-British views were enough for my history teacher to slug me. A joyful opportunity for me, but a big mistake for him.

I had left school early each spring in the 11th and 12th grades, perhaps even in the 10th. Enough already. Everyone seemed to believe I was stupid, and I believed them. Now I know I was stupefied, not stupid. I simply did not learn the way my teachers had learned.

What I did learn at North Quincy High was how to fail. It may be the most important lesson I learned in any school. We were visiting my grandson when he attempted his first steps. My wise son-in-law said, ''He had to learn how to fall, before he could learn to walk."

It is essential to discover that the sky doesn't crack if you fail. I still get rejections, but I now know that those who fail me may not know as much as I once thought. I also know that failure is instructive.

I just failed in a watercolor. It will not hang in the MFA, but it told me what to do the next time, which will be another instructive failure. And so I learn and then move beyond what I know to what I don't yet know.

School wants only successes, but failure should be taught, encouraged, supported. If you get nothing in school but A's, try for an F. You may find your life's work.

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