Making Mistakes, Making Human Beings
One of my first core memories as a kid involved me making a mistake. I was 6 years old in the first grade, and one day, I was attempting to quickly finish up my lunch as my 85 year old British teacher ushered me back inside our classroom. In the chaos of it all, I dropped my strawberry Danimals yogurt drink I had in my hands all over the sailor uniform I wore to school every day. My teacher’s expression shifted in an instant. She had a look of disgust on her face as she stared me down and said, in the most shrill and disciplinary tone, “You’re the messiest child I have ever met. ” My young heart sank because I made an adult who I deeply respected extremely upset with me. But I was also confused-I couldn’t remember having done anything else to warrant such a reaction from her. I don’t think I had so much as spilled a drop of glue on the classroom floor before that day. But it only took a single bad moment of mine for her to make a permanent judgement about me as a person in my entirety. That specific example further cemented in my mind a harmful ideology-making a single mistake is the end of the world. One mistake could change everything for the worse.
My experience with my first grade teacher wasn’t the only thing that informed my toxic life philosophy. As a first generation American, the first in my family on either side to be born in the US, I had an enormous amount of pressure on me growing up to lay the groundwork for the future generations of my family in this country-and it was a pressure I realized from a very young age. I felt that any mistake I made-minor or major-would be examined under the most powerful social microscope.
Unfortunately, that turned out to be pretty true. Any time I didn’t get a perfect score on a test, accidentally spilled a glass of water on the floor, or lost something, it was met with big reactions from a lot of people around me. And I internalized every single one of those moments to mean that I had to be perfect-that I wasn’t ever allowed to make mistakes.
Because of what I internalized, I developed some horrible habits throughout the rest of my childhood. Any time I made a slight mistake, I worked 9x as hard to cover it up to ensure that no one thought I did anything wrong. I avoided asking for help at all costs no matter the problems I was experiencing, school or otherwise. My anxiety surrounding making mistakes escalated, and I realized that I was putting an enormous amount of pressure on myself to be perfect.
So, when I became a teacher, I wanted to ensure that my kids never felt that similar pressure. I wanted to make sure that I could always be someone my kids came to whenever they needed help with anything or made any mistake-academic or otherwise. Because of my own experience growing up in relationship to making mistakes, I wanted to be someone they could feel comfortable making mistakes with, someone who would always see them as human beings no matter what.
For the most part, I did that pretty successfully. Whenever my kids spilled something on the floor, accidentally said a curse word, or had a conflict with someone that they regretted, I made sure to never raise my voice, to let them know that I love them, and I worked very intentionally to separate them as a person from the mistake they might’ve made.
But one of the most critical parts of teaching is modeling-and it wasn’t until one of my students called me out (in a loving way, might I add) did I realize that while I’d been really great at affirming them, I was horrible at doing that for myself. I was visibly terrible at giving myself the patience and grace I gave to them whenever they messed up.
One day in class, I accidentally told one of my students to work on the wrong page of a math packet. Upon realizing my mistake, I immediately blurted out “Oh, God, I’m such an idiot!” without even thinking. My student looked at me and said something to the effect of“It’s ok, you made a mistake. And why are you so nice to us when we mess up, but so mean to yourself whenever you do?”
At that moment, it hit me-in verbally thrashing myself for making minor mistakes, I was showing my kids that it was ok for them to do the same thing to themselves. I was modeling to them an unhealthy level of pressure and expectation of perfection with every personal blow.
I think back to that moment a lot, because it helped me reframe my own conception of mistakes. Growing up, mistakes-however big or small-were the end of the world to me. But if I want my kids to see mistakes as learning opportunities, not as the end of the world, that was only going to happen if I started applying that idea to my own life.
Don’t get me wrong-old habits die hard, and recently, there’ve been plenty of times where I’ve said some unkind things to myself whenever I’ve made a minor mistake. It’s not easy to change years of social messaging overnight.
But nowadays when I bake a cake and crack an eggshell into the batter, wish someone a happy birthday 1 day later, or forget to bring my lunch to school for the 4th time in a row, I don’t always immediately break down and get paralyzed by my perfectionist tendencies-I make an effort to acknowledge my mistakes, laugh it off, and find a way to move forward.
Thanks to my kids, I’m slowly but surely starting to encourage the messes in my life, because however bad-I know that they can always be cleaned up.