James McBride on Failure and the Power of a Teacher's Words

At the inaugural South Meets Southwest Regional Forum in San Antonio, keynote speaker, James McBride, took the audience through his life journey.

At the inaugural South Meets Southwest Regional Forum in San Antonio, keynote speaker, James McBride, took the audience through his life journey—from student and musician to author and teacher. Two things he learned along the way: fail fast, fail often; and the power of a teacher’s affirmation to change the trajectory of a student’s life.

McBride reflected on his high school experience. As an underclassman, he was disinterested in academia as evidenced by his frequent patronage of the “cool out spot”—an area in the front of the school where students who skipped class would congregate. It was also a “spot” that was visible from the guidance counselor’s office—an act the students perhaps considered cool defiance.

During his sophomore year, McBride and his friends were placed in a special class that required them to have weekly, one-hour sessions with a guidance counselor, who was also a psychologist unbeknownst to the students. Each week, McBride entered Dr. Silverman’s office, where he sat silently with crossed arms, waiting for the conclusion of the visit. After weeks with little to no progress, Dr. Silverman said it was okay if McBride was resigned to continue down the same path but it would be such a waste of talent. At that moment, something shifted for McBride. That single moment was a catalyst for change.

Later, as a student at Oberlin college, McBride’s introductory English professor, Tom Taylor, encouraged McBride to pursue writing after an impressive short story submission. “You have a touch for this,” Taylor said. McBride dismissed the praise at the time, but as we now know he would later become a distinguished author. When he assumed his position at The Washington Post after graduation, he wrote a note to Taylor thanking him for seeing his potential when he didn’t see it himself.

Failure builds resilience and creates an opportunity to grow according to McBride, and he encourages teachers to give students the room to fail. McBride learned to be comfortable with failure. “Every time I’ve failed, I always have in my mind [that] I’ve seen people around me fail and they just get up, they keep moving, and they do it with a smile,” he said.

McBride credits his success to his ability to fail and the encouragement he received from educators and mentors throughout his life.

In closing, McBride addressed the audience, “you [educators] are the beacons of light in a world that has been darkened horribly. The only thing that is going to save this country is the work you do."

He continued, "the war is here. You and I are in it, and we will win it. And we'll win it the right way—with love, and reason, and discourse."