Lyme Resident’s Book Challenges Parents and Kids on Failure

  • Jessica Lahey, at her home in Lyme Center, is the author of The Gift of Failure, a new book that urges parents to keep from shepherding their children through school. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

  • Lahey is at work on a new book informed by her experience teaching writing to at-risk adolescents.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 08, 2015
Lyme Center — With the promotion of her book for parents of school-age children, The Gift of Failure, approaching cruising altitude this summer, Jessica Lahey knew that something would have to give.

“I usually grow our own food, so our garden is a mess this year,” the teacher-turned-author said with a chuckle last week, during an interview at the house she shares with her husband, their two sons, two cats and yellow Labrador retriever. “It’s ugly out there. Some things are thriving on their own and some are just not going to make it.

“It’s a Darwinian garden out there.”

Everything else seems to be coming up roses for Lahey: Two years after leaving Crossroads Academy in Lyme, where she taught English, writing and Latin to middle school students for five years, The Gift of Failure on Friday hit No. 8 on the New York Times best-seller list of education tomes.

Lahey had long been a writer, but her first book has turned it into a career. She’s preparing to hit the road on a book tour, and is looking ahead to a second book about educating at-risk students.

Since Gift came out in mid-August, Lahey has been fielding media inquiries that dwarf the attention that came her way (www.vnews.com/news/schools/4385679-95/lahey-parents-atlantic-teachers) after The Atlantic published her 2013 essay, Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail , which led to the book. During her nationwide tour she’ll visit schools and hold sessions first with parents, then with students, on her thesis that parental obsession with sheltering children from academic failure and shepherding them down narrow paths of achievement only sets them up for disappointment and shell-shock in college and the world of work.

“It’ll be the first time I’ll come to an audience that’s read the book,” Lahey said. “I expect to learn a lot.”

And at some point — probably late fall, maybe early winter — she’ll return to her adopted home base to attend more of her kids’ activities. H er elder son is settling in for his first year at St. Johnsbury Academy, and the younger at the Lyme School. She also hopes to resume teaching writing to adolescents undergoing drug and alcohol treatment at the Valley Vista rehabilitation center in Bradford, Vt.

“It’s so different,” said Lahey, who spent about a year at Valley Vista. “At Crossroads, some of those kids had me for three years at a time. (At Valley Vista), it’s kind of like working in an emergency room. You patch them up and let them go. I’m not allowed to follow their progress or keep in touch when they’re done.

“So it’s a constantly rotating cast of kids. They’re there for varying amounts of time. The classroom dynamics change every week. I had to change my ideas of what a successful teaching day was like. It changed what I write about in my column.”

What the Valley Vista students, many of whom had struggled in foster care and state care, were writing about gave Lahey the direction for her next book project.

“The stories that were coming out were just … heartbreaking,” Lahey recalled. “And frustrating. We’re not doing enough for kids with mental-health issues, kids at risk.”

Toward that end, Lahey sees a role for the schools as well as for social-service agencies and rehab centers.

“The next book is more about what kids need in their heart and soul from an education,” Lahey said. “What a lot of them need is connection. In this book, the focus was on the issues of motivation and autonomy and competence. Connection is the one I didn’t have the room to explore this time. It really deserves its own book. There’s a real hunger to connect what they’re learning with their lives, something they’re motivated to chase down.”

For a recent column for The Atlantic in which she explored those issues, Lahey consulted Valerie Maholmes, chief of the pediatric trauma and critical illness branch of the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development.

Lahey wrote that “There is no more important predictor of success than hope, Maholmes said, describing it as the ability to envision a more positive future, even when all evidence points to the contrary. Hope begets resilience because it is the magical force that enables children to adapt and heal emotionally from their adverse childhood experiences.”

In an exchange of emails last week, Maholmes said that children from families struggling to make ends meet “understand quite well the whole idea of trial and error and moving forward despite adversity. Of necessity, they pursue creative strategies to make their lives ‘work.’ The problem for these families, unfortunately, is that there is a very small margin of error for them. For the most part, children and families of privilege are given much more latitude to explore and fail because they are likely to have more safety nets. Their failures are less likely to be detrimental.”

Toward that end, Maholmes added that she hopes as many helicopter parents read Lahey’s next book as are snapping up The Gift of Failure.

“Teachers are so instrumental in guiding students through the ups and downs of the learning process,” she said. “Such a book will validate the tremendous effort teachers put forward to ensure students experience success even in the midst of failure.”

Between interviews for the current book, Lahey is in the early stages of shopping the idea for the new one to publishers. After the initial buzz for her article in The Atlantic, 11 publishers took turns bidding by email on The Gift of Failure during a three-day auction.

“It was crazy and wild,” Lahey recalled. “To keep me distracted while waiting for emails, I cleaned my house from top to bottom.”

Not long after HarperCollins won the bidding war, Lahey cleared her schedule by leaving Crossroads … with great reluctance.

“It was a lot of tears,” she said. “It was really, really hard. I cherish the middle-school teachers at Crossroads. It was very much a team. We had each other’s backs. … But once the book sold, it became really clear that I couldn’t give 100 percent to both my teaching and the book. Teaching is more than a full-time job as it is. I found myself grading late into the night, and not getting much written. And I also had to keep in mind, ‘Oh, yeah: My kids.’ ”

Lahey submitted the first draft of Gift in early November 2013, right around the time she landed her column on education with Th e New York Times.

Then she ran into some adversity of her own.

“I was thrown from a horse and got a pretty significant head injury,” she said. “Luckily, I was with my husband, who doesn’t usually go riding. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I was. He asked what book I’d just written.

“I didn’t know.”

During the ensuing four months of recovery — “My publisher and my agent were so supportive in getting me the time I needed” — Lahey listened to audio books to do some of the research she couldn’t do on the Internet or in books.

She also spent some of that time reflecting on changes in course that she’d followed in her own life as a student, in the Boston suburb of Sherborn, Mass., at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and especially in law school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“What happened in law school taught me a lot,” she said. “School had always been really easy for me. A lot of the other law school students were taking practice exams, but I didn’t think I’d need to.”

Not until she received her first score on a real test, in a class on civil procedure.

“It was a 68,” Lahey said. “I had to go to the professor’s office to find out whether or not I had failed. My first response to that grade was, ‘I have to quit law school!’ My friend at the time had to talk me down. That was my first gift-of-failure moment.”

While continuing to pursue her degree in juvenile law, Lahey taught a class at nearby Duke University’s Talent Identification Program for gifted adolescents.

“The first day changed everything,” she said. “I came home that day and Tim asked me, ‘Are you going to finish law school.’ I was all lit up.”
After finishing law school, Lahey followed the light in a new direction.

“That’s why it’s so much easier for me to be able to tell kids who are feeling all this pressure to achieve to relax,” Lahey said. “It’s such a wandering path to figure out what they’re going to be.”

Jessica Lahey will sign copies of The Gift of Failure at the Dartmouth Bookstore in Hanover on Sept. 15, starting at 6 p.m.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.