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The Country of Successful Failures

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This editorial answers the question, "What is the American Experience?" It is part of a series from the junior AP Language and Composition classes at Oakton High School in Northern Virginia, and was selected by a panel of student judges for publication on HuffPost Teen.

"Perseverance." I first heard the word, which was featured on a PBS cartoon, when I was about four or five years old, and I was excited in a way that only a preschooler could be. A new word, but not just any new word; a big word, a grown-up word! The next day at school, my peers couldn't hear the end of me spewing it out every chance I got, boasting about my newly acquired knowledge. Of course, as a preschooler, I didn't recognize all of the word's complexities. But even at age four or five, I had grasped its fundamental meaning, and it has stuck with me ever since: Never give up.

Over a decade passed before I understood the significance of those three words and what they truly mean in America, that in no other place could the underdog be more favored. In fact, the country itself was founded by the underdogs, from the religious outcasts of England to the second, third or even tenth sons of impoverished families.

Essentially comprised of rejects and failures, the odds were against America from the beginning. However, its people endured. They refused to watch its defeat, and they refused to discard their dreams. Instead, they set the stonework that would become a new nation; they established a precedent that would become the "American Experience."

The American Experience conjures tales of poor and obscure individuals becoming rich and famous, disadvantaged individuals nevertheless leaving their mark on the country. In America, free of ingrained systems of hierarchy and royalty, everyone has the opportunity to experience success, no matter how many times they have failed before.

But the American Experience also invokes thoughts of the Founding Fathers, particularly of George Washington. Almost every American child has had the dream of becoming the next George Washington, or at least the next president. Only a handful of us ever realize that goal; most of us become more like Henry Clay or William Jennings Bryan, relatively anonymous and forgotten in the midst of other renowned historical figures.

Clay and Bryan may have lived in vastly different time periods, but like many modern American children, they shared a common goal: the presidency. Both of them pursued the presidency three times, all unsuccessfully. However, the bitter sting of defeat never made more than mere dents on their weather-hardened morale.

Even after their defeats, Clay and Bryan continued to pursue their political agendas. Clay helped keep the fragile peace between North and South in the antebellum decades, handling both the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. Bryan kept staunch stances on the issues that plagued America at the turn of the century, remaining a fundamentalist crusader for progressive reform.

Clay and Bryan were indeed failures in the sense that neither of them was ever elected as president. However, they never lost sight of their dreams, and they never compromised their beliefs. They kept trying. They fought for party nomination from one election year to the next despite their looming prior defeats. They remained politically active even when the presidency eluded them. And they became two of America's most successful failures.

In America, success isn't necessarily acquiring an initial goal. Oftentimes, success does not even appear to be success; failure is sometimes the catalyst of success or even success itself. No matter if we ever reach our childhood goals, the opportunity to continue to pursue them or others remains. The fundamental values of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness revere hard work. The Founding Fathers set the precedent to reward merit -- as long as we have the will, as long as we keep trying, even as failures we can succeed.

Only in America can individuals emanate Clay or Bryan. They may have been losers in three presidential elections, but they were Americans, and Americans persevere. After all, nowhere else can failures be so successful, nowhere else can losers still win.