Transforming Setbacks

At 22, I moved away from my hometown for the first time. I’d been accepted to the National Theatre School in Montreal; it was far from my first achievement, but it felt like a breakthrough, as if the “National” in the school’s name applied directly to me, now and forever. I envisioned career trajectories that took me straight from NTS to Toronto, or Stratford, or New York City. In no case did I imagine I’d end up back in Edmonton.

NTS in 1997 was a microcosm of the Two Solitudes, with English and French programmes duking it out for space and resources. The teachers smoked unfiltered cigarettes in class. One instructor had recently been fired after years of student harassment had gone unchecked; the year after I left, another long-term teacher got the boot, basically for being a jerk. English Playwriting was a satellite programme to Acting, which meant I got tossed into classes with the actors, often to everyone’s detriment. It was, in short, a mess; and by the time I left there, so was I.

Back then, Playwriting was a two-year programme. I lasted one. I washed out of NTS for various reasons, though at the time they all blended together into an indistinct smear of failure. Some of the blame was mine – I was an argumentative student in an environment that rewarded blind obedience, plus I smoked way too much weed – but other things were not my fault. I was in Montreal during the Ice Storm of 1998, and survived with just enough PTSD to shatter my focus and drive. Naturally, I returned to Edmonton, tail between legs.

Everyone gets their first taste of failure at some point; I was lucky, perhaps, to have made it to 23. There’s probably no ideal age for learning that you’re not invincible, but in some respects NTS was the perfect context. It was a windmill at which I could tilt without much consequence, since most of the students and instructors were from Quebec or Ontario, areas of the country into which my work has rarely taken me since then.

I don’t regret going, and I don’t regret leaving. But I do regret my narrative, for years afterwards: instead of telling the truth (“NTS kicked me out at the end of my first year”), I invented a version that gave me more agency (“I was sick of them, they were sick of me…”). It cushioned the blow of my failure in a way that seemed necessary back then, and maybe advantageous for my career, but which now seems somehow cowardly. It’s not as though I should have written “NTS – 1 Year (Flunked Out)” on my résumé. But it took a long, long time for me to get over the rejection, and I think it was partly because I never stared it down and called it what it was.

In 1998, I failed. Regardless of NTS’s dysfunctional politics, regardless of Ice Storms, I set out to achieve a thing, and failed. It’s easier to say it now, and any reader over 30 will raise a wry eyebrow in solidarity with me. A twentysomething who over-extended themselves? Say it ain’t so! No matter. Fail again, fail better.

Flash-forward to France. We are not ready to accept defeat, despite the set-backs in X’s own educational trajectory. But being effectively rejected from two kindergartens in a row certainly feels like a failure, to us if not to X. Like NTS, it’s a conditional failure in many respects: we chose to remove X from public school, whereas the second school seems in hindsight like it was never really a school at all, but rather a cash-grab by a self-deluded home-school mom. And it’s a different culture, and a different language, etc. etc.

But underlying all the circumstances, there’s a profound and authentic sense that none of these set-backs would have struck if we had raised our kid a bit better. And although the circumstances of our failure are conveniently removed from our daily life – even further away than Montreal was, since we don’t expect we’ll ever be living in France again – there’s one major difference, and that’s X. At 23, I had no one to disappoint by myself, nobody’s fragile psyche to protect besides my own. At 42, I’m well-acquainted with failure – but my five-year-old is not.

When I was five, we went to San Diego on vacation; I remember absolutely nothing. This sabbatical year was never intended to implant fond memories of France in X. Instead, we imagined that our child’s developing brain would adapt to include not only bilingualism but also an open-mindedness, a global curiosity – and, hopefully, a sense of empathy that can transcend cultural and political boundaries. X isn’t going to remember the specifics of French school (or the absence thereof), she’ll just absorb the feeling of a world that’s larger than her backyard.

Now, when I lean into the uncertainty of the situation, I feel as though this idealistic plan has already begun to backfire. Having been rejected by the French system, I fear that X will return to Canada feeling like the world outside her backyard doesn’t want her. Clearly, I’m displacing my own anxieties a bit, and there might be some echoes of NTS muddying the waters for me. But if we come home from France early? Or if we stick it out, but come home saying “I’ll be damned if we’re ever leaving Canada again”? That’s a clear measure of failure, based on my original goals. And it weighs heavy on me, to think I’ve sowed the seeds for another person’s lifetime of insularity, or even xenophobia.

For now, there are more immediate issues to address. We need to keep X working on social development, despite not having a school or another reliable source of peers. There’s no time to worry about long-term detrimental effects when you’re a full-time parent. But there’s the rub –when you’re taking things one step at a time and keeping your eyes on the ground ahead, that’s when the pianos start dropping from above.

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