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“Take the L”: On Quitting, Failure, and Winning

“I’ll take the L,” he shrugged and reached into his pocket to pull out his phone. I squinted up at him with new fascination as he laid it on the table in front of me.

“Thank you.”

I had just confiscated a phone during a study hall from a student whom I knew to be innocent.

We had all been sitting there studying in the quiet of the high-domed, skylit, largest classroom in the school, and then the tinkling, tinny sound of a notification cascaded into the silence. One of the boys had his phone in his lap and was using it. He did not want to admit it, and, to make a long story short, someone else, one of our noble rugby players, chose to surrender his phone like a tragic hero satisfying the demands of justice.

“I’ll take the L.” He was thinking about the bigger picture. He knew that the fault was not his, and that surrender could be a form of fortitude.

“You’re so selfish, dude,” I heard one student say to another, surreptitiously,  in a far corner of the room. True, but it was the last time he had his phone in study hall that year.

I wish all of my students could learn the lesson of that moment: sometimes it is ok to quit.

More often, however, it is not. If you want to be a great student, you have to fail first, admit defeat, and begin to win the next battle. Too often we think that the race begins with the starting gun, that the game begins with the kickoff, that the semester begins when we get the syllabus on the first day. Delusions of second-place finishers. Champions do not think this way. Champions know what winning feels like because winning is the result of a habit, not a moment of extraordinary exertion.

Pride tempts us to hold ourselves back from failure by holding ourselves back from trying. But this is the attitude of a man who is destined to finish in second place in the best of times. Champions fail before they become champions. The antidote to pride is humility. Brett Favre threw more interceptions than any NFL quarterback in history. He is also a champion.

I was a Browns fan growing up, and still am, and so I know what a losing season feels like better than anyone my age. But I never started rooting for the Browns because of wins and losses. I started rooting for the Browns because it was during those games, at the house of my best friend Wes, that I felt like part of a family during some difficult years of my life. So for me, my loyalty to the Cleveland Browns was part of my family identity and some of my simplest happiness. So I could not abandon them if I tried (and God knows that I have tried).

But one thing I could never forgive them is quitting on the season. Every year, at some point, with precious few exceptions, they have quit on the season, and you could see it when you watched the games. Week fifteen, week twelve, week seventeen, whatever. The game would start off fine, everybody giving 100% effort, and then the first sign of the impending loss would appear: the Steelers out to a two-touchdown lead…then a pick six…a three-touchdown lead. And they would quit on the game. “We’ll try again next week,” was the lie that we would read in the paper after the game. No. You will not try again next week. You will quit again next week. Trying and failing and winning all go together. Quitting is in a category all by itself.

Now the Browns have Baker Mayfield at quarterback, and they started next season eight games ago. They clinched another postseason on the couch, but they still came out and fought to the very last drive of the season to beat the Ravens in a game that would have made zero difference to their rankings or draft position. They lost the game. They took the L. That means that they will go into next season able to be winners or losers, but not quitters.

If you are a Heights student reading this, you are probably not open right now to hearing what I am about to say: we stand at the threshold of a new school year, and this can be the year that you become a straight-A student. I know, it is February and we are spending most of our time wondering if Montgomery County is going to call a snow day, but I am quite serious. It is time to get ready for the new school year.

Champions begin the school year in April. In April, when I was in school, I already knew my successes and failures for the year. If I failed, then it was because I lacked talent or industry. If I lack talent to succeed, I cannot gain more talent. But industry—hard work—that is made out of habits, and habits are made out of actions, just as lines are made of points. And just as a habit is like a line, I can project where a habit is going to take me from a long way off. Maybe for you, it is time to recognize that this line is not going where you want to go. Maybe you failed this year; it is time to string together a little win streak before this year ends, so that you will know what winning feels like next year on day one.

I failed Elementary Latin. I know what it feels like. I wish that my students who, today, in February, are staring down a judgment of “failure” in a class and feel like the best they can do is to get by as painlessly as possible to June, would choose to take the L right now. That way they can get a W tomorrow, and build a streak into the end of the year, and start off next year knowing what winning feels like.

But you do not want to do that, do you? Why? Maybe it is just too hard. If that is the case, I do not begrudge you quitting—only admit that the reason why you are quitting is because it is too hard. Usually, though, my colleagues and I can see, if we look patiently, another reason. And you know we can see it. Pride. It is too late for you to get an A, probably even a B. If you work as hard as you can, you will end up with a C+ at best. You are just going to end up taking this class again next year. Or maybe this is your last semester of Latin. Why work as hard as you can?

I have a student right now who will likely fail one of my classes by the end of the school year. I say this merely as a prediction of the future based on years of seeing similar circumstances leading to similar results. I also have wonderful success stories about students, whom I would have predicted to fail, turn their course around and get into the top half of the class. Those students already know what I am talking about.

The best thing this student can do right now is to take the L, to face the facts. But he must remember that a fact, Lat. factum, is a thing that has happened. Admit defeat, but let it lie in the past. Next year begins now. Do not think about how hard you are about to work for a C. You are not working for a C. You are working for next semester’s A. And you will know by the end of this year if it will come. The fall semester will be the culmination of what begins in the spring. No one else can do it for you. Start now.

My self-sacrificing rugger in that study hall did a service to all of us by quitting instead of fighting for justice in its purest form. That would have turned the rest of the period into something other than study hall. We all owe him a little bit of gratitude for the work we got done that day. But all that was at stake was a little bit of work.

Sometimes what is at stake is your academic career. Sometimes it’s your professional career. Sometimes what is at stake is your eternal soul. That’s what we learn when we go to confession: you can’t do it, the sacrament can’t be confected, unless you take the L. You have to say, Domine Jesu, Fili Dei, miserere mei peccatoris (or perhaps something in English). You take the L in confession because you’re admitting failure when you actually failed.

Someone more noble than you and me took the L instead of fighting for justice in its purest form. Now you and I can take the L and start a new win streak. Begin and begin again. You know that you can do that because you know that you are loved. And we become more lovable not by being lovable, but by being loved.

About the Author

Lionel Yaceczko

Latin, Greek
Lionel Yaceczko holds a BA from the University of Dallas, where he wrote a thesis on Propertius, and a MA and Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. His dissertation on education in the Roman Empire led to the publication of his book Ausonius Grammaticus (Gorgias Press, 2021). He is also the author of an introductory Latin textbook, Jerome...
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