I Failed. Now What?

Artwork by Noah Massey

The following personal account is written by Los Angeles Shambhala member Allison Conant.

Acharya Pema Chodron is one of the most senior teachers in the Shambhala Community and I treasure her as a teacher. She doesn’t sugar coat. She can laugh at herself. She can fail and has the bravery to write a book about it. So in the spirit of Pema Chodron, here is my story of failure.

R, fourteen, was a bright, funny, artistic, quick-witted young lady that my partner, Noah, and I each had in one of our classes (Noah and I teach at the same high school). Early into the year, we became concerned about some of the patterns we were noticing in her: missing schools, not doing homework, drifting in class. She had grown close to Noah and let him know that she had moved into a less than ideal foster home over the summer. The situation there was becoming increasingly oppressive. She wasn’t happy. She couldn’t thrive and we wanted that for her; we saw the need and took the leap and began considering fostering her ourselves.

We took slow steps: talked to our school counselor, talked to her social workers, our own therapist, and, of course, talked to her. She had dinner with us. We studied together, took her to her first dance, met her best friend J, drove her home from school. She met our cats and our dog and our bunny. It all seemed like such a good fit. She talked to her social worker and indicated that she wanted to make it official; she wanted to live with us.

When her social worker called us with the good news, she let us know that R had a nine-year-old little sister, L, who was looking for a new foster placement. She asked if we would consider taking her on as well. Sisters. Who hadn’t lived together in six years. We said yes.

The two girls moved in right before holidays. We took them shopping to decorate their room. Friends donated furniture, sent money, helped me write kid friendly menus. There was a beautiful tree, presents, shopping trips. We had their older sister and younger brother over for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – no failure in sight!

In the middle of January, we began to see the nine-year-old, L, manifest some disturbing behaviors. She was bullying her classmates at school and they had begun to ostracize her. She was lonely, angry. She’d been moved from class to class because of aggressive behavior. She began teasing one of our cats in an alarming way. She asked me what I would do if something happened to our family dog – what if he died, what if he got out, what if he got hurt. She would fly into fits of rage, seemingly out of nowhere. Her entire little body would shake and her limbs would seize up, her hands like claws, and she would scream at us. When the social worker spoke to her about it, she said nothing.

R, the fourteen-year-old, was failing four classes and, as we discovered, regularly ditching many of them. The teachers at our school kept us informed, but the more we held R to her responsibilities, the more she pushed back. One day she had an incident with another teacher about her phone. When we tried to speak to her about it, she ran. With the help of the police we finally caught up to her – she was heading into an unsafe neighborhood. When she saw all of us – Noah, the dean of our school, the police, me – she stopped running and just huddled against a stranger’s fence. She refused to speak to any of us. Somehow I coaxed her into our car and drove her home. She wouldn’t come in the house, so she sat outside against the wall of our home for hours. I brought her tea and a blanket and sat with her. I told her that we cared about her, that her happiness and well-being mattered to us. I was determined not to fail.

In the months that followed the behaviors from both girls escalated. We enlisted the help of our therapist, the social workers, counselors. L’s anger issues intensified. R withdrew more deeply into herself. She lied about who she was with and where she was going. Our house once so joyful and full of promise became a place of simmering anger and fear.

In the spring I had planned to spend a week at family wedding in Massachusetts. Initially we’d had a fantasy of all four of us going together, but as the girls’ behavior became more erratic, I knew it was impossible. While I was gone, there were a series of fraught phones call home: R had disappeared with her boyfriend, L had been screaming about having pudding in her lunch, teachers were emailing, homework was forgotten. When I saw a call from Noah coming in, I no longer answered “Hello” but “What’s wrong?” Calls ended with the girls yelling in the background and a rushed and worried “I gotta go” from Noah.

When I hit the tarmac in Los Angeles, I called home. Noah was distraught. While I was in the air, a social worker had come to the house in hopes of easing the situation. R refused to speak to her. She said she wanted to leaved and would do anything to get thrown out of the house, and as if to prove her point, she jumped our six-foot fence, and got into a stranger’s car.

When she finally arrived home that night (thankfully safe and sound) I tried to have a conversation with her. I told her that I cared so much for her. I wanted to see her have a happy life. I told her I would be there for her every step of the way, but I needed to know that she was willing to take a step or two down that road. The tiniest of steps would do. She was like stone. L, sensing something in the air, was equally intractable, though infinitely more vocal about it. All of us were miserable. The social workers, despite their best efforts, could offer no help and counseled us to find a new placement for the girls.

We had wanted to create a safe place for them, a place in which we could all live happily together and we seemed to be on our way. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, they had begun having unmonitored conversations with their mother. She had been telling girls she was going to get them back. According to the social workers given the mother’s history, it simply wasn’t a stable enough situation to allow the children to live with her, and it probably wouldn’t ever be. The social workers knew it, we knew it, perhaps even their mom knew it – but the girls didn’t. They wanted to be with their mom. She’d made an offer to them that no kid could walk away from. Noah and I had become an obstacle to the girls’ happiness. They were determined to sabotage the situation.

Many tears, therapy sessions, and long talks later, Noah and I accepted the truth of what the situation. It was over. I called and asked for a new placement for the girls. And I was left with the feeling that I’d failed. I’d failed at the single most important thing I’d ever tried to do.
Left alone with my failure I wondered: how do I survive this? How do I live with myself? There was so much blame and judgement. It seemed unworkable.

So, I reached out to members of my meditation community. I posted in our google group. Told the whole sad, shameful story. I felt selfish, stupid, naïve. Within minutes I received words of comfort and encouragement. My Shambhala family spoke to me about my bravery, my courage. They spoke of the dignity of karma. They told me to take it easy on myself and gave me, and Noah, their love and encouragement.

I thought it was crazy. Take it easy on myself? Failure at this level – it’s just not a “take it easy on yourself” kind of thing. But I was beaten up. Badly. I needed their kindness and their wisdom. They put my pain and my failure “in the cradle of loving kindness” and there it has remained.

The girls have been gone for months now, and it is still hard. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of a girl who looks like R and my heart seizes. I miss her so much. I miss having the girls at the table, laughing at my horrible Spanish accent. I miss them laughing at the weird “white people” food we eat (parmesan cheese, eggplant, arugula). I miss watching kid movies, signing L’s reading logs, and having the kitchen table overrun with spontaneous art projects.

There are still times when I feel the weight of my failure – heavily. Times when my fervent desire to have things other than they are runs away with me, and I feel the weight of that suffering. But when I keep my “failure” in the cradle of loving kindness, I’m not judging whose fault it was, I’m not taking a count of the red flags I missed, or agonizing over the what-ifs or the should-haves.

Acharya Chodron encourages us in her book to Fail, Fail Again, and Fail Better. In allowing myself to experience failure without judgment, I am able to feel the pain, the sadness, the immensity of the loss. I stop rationalizing and intellectualizing and become a become softer, more compassionate person. That’s not failure.

I know I will fail again. I hope that next time I do, I am again wiling to place my failure in the cradle of loving kindness. One thing is sure, I have a Shambhala family to share my failures with, a family that will accept me and encourage me to trust in my own goodness.

The last thing I said to R was “You are a good person, R. You deserve goodness in your life. You are basically kind, basically good, basically wise, and basically strong and no matter what happens, that will always be true.” The intelligence of the lineage has a way of manifesting when I need it.

This is not failure.

Allison Conant has been teaching public high school in Los Angeles for seventeen years. She is a writer and a lover of pitbulls. She has been a member of the Los Angeles Shambhala Center for over ten years.

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