Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Fri, 29 Nov 1996 08:31:33 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Random Thoughts: Making Mistakes

It's the morning after Thanksgiving. Everything is in quiet repose. If we were bears, we'd all be preparing for winter's hibernation after shamelessly gorging ourselves on heaps of sweet potato, mounds of stuffing, mountains of turkey, and piles of desert. I know I have a lot to be thankful for: a loving wife who is my best friend, two sons who are neat people, a daughter-in-law soon to be, close family, dear friends, good health, a rewarding passion for teaching, and a healthy outlook on life.
But, you know, as I looked out this quiet morning wishing I could walk the dark streets--my degenerating neck disks have been acting up for the last week or so and I have been placed under house arrest by my beautiful warden under threat of being shackled if I disobeyed--I got engulfed by an unexpected surge of thankfulness. Do you know what I really felt most thankful for at that moment? Never even thought about it before. Don't ask me why it popped into my head. But, I am really thankful for having learned five years ago when I had my epiphany that it's okay to make mistakes, that it's really necessary to make mistakes, and now being able to make those mistakes.
But, until that fateful moment of self-revelation five years ago, MISTAKE was a devil who striped me of hope, faith, confidence, dreams, optimism and all those attitudes that power the bright light of creativity. I knew all too well how he and his cancerous minions can turn well-intentioned, capable, educated, talented, bright, alert people into frightened, paralyzed, submissisve servants, punching in and out, hiding behind closed doors and thick walls, nesting in safe little pigeon holes.
Now, remember I'm not taking about the students. We know about his work among them too well. But, from experience I am talking about how, like a deadly viper, hhis bite injects his paralyzing venom in the veins of too many of us educators.
Too many of us, though wont to admit it, have had the acquaintance of his insidious entourage whose number is larger than hell can hold. To paraphrase the Bard, too many oif us know all to well how in the darkness they create they can breed fearful imagination that can turn a bush into a raging bear.
Let me uncopver some Mistake's loathesome horde whom I've had the displeasure of knowing. There is ugly "Imposter" who constantly goes around devilishly whispering in ears, "Go ahead and try it. But, remember, do you want them to think you're not qualified to do that? Screw up and they'll find out that you don't have the expertise. You'll lose your authority! They won't admire and respect you. They won't listen to you."
His pimply comrade, "Accuser", never ceases to impishly dance around, saying with a mocking smile, "Remember when you tried this before and you really messed it up? It's not you. You don't have it in you."
Hunchedback "Humiliator" is ever perniciously snickering an eroding challenge, "Go ahead, but remember, they're looking. Look like a fool. You only want to try this to look good."
There's creepy "Failure" constantly poking a spiny finger into ribs, "It's not going to work anyway, so why try? Do you want them to see that you're not up to it?"
Slimey "Perfectionist" is always singing taunts, "Why do it? It's not worth much to think about in the first place. It'll never be perfect. It'll never meet your standards of excellence. Go ahead, put your reputation and values on the line. I dare you!"
And then there are Mistake's two master henchmen, the dangerous, "Besides", and "If Only." They are the most conniving, deceptive of all these sons of darkeness. They disguise their bottled poisoning, paralyzing wares by romancing you with flattery, tempting you with escape, fooling you with the unrealistic, deluding you with false dreams. They cater to, patronize, pander: "Besides, why waste your time taking the risk when there are so many other things you can do with your time. If only your colleagues and students would understand. Besides, they won't appreciate what you do. If only it was worth considering. Besides, if you don't try it, you won't fail, will you? If only there were more studies. Besides, there are still a bunch of options to consider before you... If only someone would notice. Besides, you don't have to prove it to them. If only you had the time. Besides, whatever you is right! They're all just jealous. If only you had the adequate resources. Besides, you'll wear yourself out trying to do it 'right.' If only you could get enough support and encouragement to.... Besides, it's too nice of a day to work. If only I could get the respect of.... Besides, it will never be totally effective anyway. Besides.... If only.... Besides.... If only.... Besides.... If only....
This despicable collection creates the foreboding sounds and sights of all the trouble that lies in risking a mistake. They tout all the difficulties that will be encountered, spotlight all the reasons for not striking out. They make every issue an insurmountable obstacle. Their insidious voices, selling fear, grab tight hold in constricting and restricting bear-hugs, half-nelsons, and hammer-locks: chests tighten, confidences drops, mouths dry, horizons lower, shoulders droop, paces slackened, guts rumbles, challenges are rejected, heads hurt, eyes look about, exhilaration dampens, feet go limp, the pot settles, stomachs sicken, waters are kept calm, and passion fades.
But I learned that the real mistake is in being afraid to make a mistake, not making one. We educators should not post "Mistake-free Zone. Violators will be prosecuted" signs around our institutions. We are in the mistake-making business. We are all in a profession and in disciplines the essence of which is probing, questioning, reaching out, stretching, searching, questioning, challenging without guaranteed results: trying a new dance step, scoring a new arrangement, developing a new story line, playing a role differently, writing a new computer program, testing a new treatment, introducing a new method. We shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes takes are just opportunities for learning something new no less than are the successes. That's what it should be all about, whether we talking about a choreography, a script, a score, a manuscript, a canvas, a test tube, a teaching technique; whether we're in the studio, on stage, in the lab, in the classroom, out in the field, in the study, in the office. Even if the effort doesn't work, it works; even if it goes no where, it's arrived at somewhere. There is no failure in making mistakes. There is always value in making a mistake: the value of learning something new; the value of growing and developing something from it. And, that makes every experiment, every dare, every risk, every striking out, every investigation a success, a learning experience, and a teaching moment.
If we're afraid of taking a turn at it for fear that it will not turn out, it will never be our turn. Never try to pull it off, and you'll be pulled around. Be afraid of not looking good, and you won't look good. Be hesitant of screwing up, and you've already screwed up your teaching. When you think it's too far beyond you to try, it usually becomes so. When we start requiring guarantees, we've lost our faith. When we feed on safety, we're dangerously starved. When we opt for security, when we're afraid to be on the edge, we've lost our edge.
No, I learned that the second I think I can never make a mistake, I've made a doozie. The moment I show confidently I cannot err, I show my lack of confidence. The instant I am reluctant to admit that I am at a loss, I'm not worth much.
I came to see that if I am afraid of a "let's see what happens", I've cut off the fuel supply that keeps me burning. If I can't risk an "oh, well. Back to the drawing boards" my life force is sucked out of me: how do I keep my balance on the forever shifting ground; how can I meet the constant differences and changes; how can I grow; how do I find my newness; how can I share; how can I be positive, patient, calm, passionate; how can I take a peek under or around or over; how can I be understanding of and forgiving of mistakes--including my own; how can I be humble, not take myself so seriously, and poke fun at myself; how can I know a lot about myself; how can I be real and reveal my fallabilites, show that I am human. I am after all; how can I have faith in myself, the students, and the greatness of teaching; how can I not be counted among the sheep.
I think it's okay to be afraid and worried, but if I let Mistake and his dark minions rule me instead of converting my concerns into a creative energy, how can I learn, create, believe, dream, enjoy, wonder? And, when things cease to be mysterious to us, when we can no longer wonder aboout and marvel at, when we are unwilling to take a curious peek under the cover or look around the corner or peer over the wall, our minds have dulled, our eyes have dimmed, our ears have faded, our feelings have numbed, our step has halted, our muscles have loosened, our horizons have lowered, our creative energy has dissipated, our imaginative force has weakened, and we are as good as dead. We may be living, but we're certainly not alive or enlivening.
I guess, then, if we're afraid of a goof, how do we instil or help our students--much less ourselves--be more than skilled drones; to find the knowledge, the confidence, the words, the passion, the humanity, the power, the independence, the honesty, the excitement, the flexibility, the belief, the wisdom, the questioning, the joy, the ideas, the respect of themselves and others, the curiosity, the humility, the values, the passion and compassion, the awareness, the love, the beauty, the reverence, the thinking,
No, don't think a quiet, resigned, safe, boring picnic with "ho-hum" is the way to meaningful and effective teaching. I think the only way to strive for success and effectiveness, the only way to embrace a "Wow", is to have the courage to hold hands with an "Ooops."

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
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