“You must never feel badly about making mistakes … as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
When I was five, I attempted to slip down a slide on my stomach, feet first. I ended up with a bloody nose. Ten years later, while sitting on a narrow pier railing, I lost my balance and fell headfirst onto craggy rocks below. My two black eyes, broken nose, facial lacerations and concussion were harsh reminders that I should be more careful. I never tried either of those actions again.
Over the years, I’ve fallen on my face in different ways. The injuries were not physical; they had nothing to do with fearlessness or recklessness, but rather the fear of being imperfect and making a mistake.
Here is one incident that took place when I was a seven years old.
Second grade: October 1954. I’ve been sick. Nothing serious, just a mild cold. School has been in session for six weeks and though I’ve missed only three days, I’m full of first-day jitters.
My classmates and I sit on swivel seats attached to wooden flip-top desks. We face each other in a half-circle, but though I see their faces, these classmates are still strangers to me. Mom has told me to be patient. “Smile a little more, Barbara. Be kind and share your materials with the other kids.” Her advice has started to work. Last week, Annie shared a cookie with me at lunch. Another nice girl, Judy, picked me to be on her dodgeball team during gym class.
Making new friends has been reassuring, but today, since I’ve been gone for a few days, I’m concerned about remembering my teacher’s rules.
“Always wash your hands after you go to the bathroom.”
“Don’t slam your desk lid.”
“Don’t speak out of turn.”
“Always raise your hand before speaking.”
“Don’t interrupt and don’t chew on your pencil.”
Breaking rules in this room is something best to avoid because, when our teacher, Mrs. Bradley, gets angry, she stops in the middle of whatever she is doing and stands tall like a giant tree. Her forehead wrinkles above her thick eyebrows. Her mouth curves downward towards her chin while her eyes grow slitty like a crocodile. Even my worst pout face looks friendly in comparison to hers.
Once Mrs. Bradley is sure she has our attention, she walks to the front of the class and orders the offender to get up and stand next to her. She points and shakes her finger at her victim while she scolds, “You were naughty. Very naughty. Shame on you!” Some students cry. Others turn strawberry red and stare at the ceiling as if the sky might fall. If a student does something really awful, like sassing her or hitting another student, Mrs. Bradley sends them away to see Mr. Horn, the principal. I don’t know what happens to children in his office, but I figure it is far worse than standing in front of the class.
So far, I have escaped the torture and don’t want to mess up now.
I decide to focus on my school work which is something I’m comfortable with. I finish my math assignment with ease, confident with my addition and subtraction answers and relieved that I haven’t missed anything important. Mrs. Bradley is so busy slashing workbooks with her dreaded red pen that, when I put my workbook on her desk, she doesn’t even notice me.
Eventually, she stops grading papers and says, “Children, put your arithmetic away and get out your reading books. Open them to page ten. We are going to take turns reading out loud.”
I love reading this way because it’s like being an actress. I can use expression like my mom has shown me and I know how to pause at the dots called periods because I learned that in first grade.
When I am finally called upon, I sit up straight and pronounce each word carefully.
“See Jane walk. Walk. Walk. Walk.”
“See Dick run. Run. Run. Run.”
“See Spot jump. Jump. Jump. Jump.”
I’m proud to be able to read like this and proud that I am such a good girl too. I follow all the rules and am a hard worker. I figure I must be one of Mrs. Bradley’ favorites even though she hardly ever smiles at me.
When we finish our ‘round robin’ reading, Mrs. Bradley announces, “Class, we are going to see a movie today. Please put your supplies away.”
Everyone is beaming. Movies are extra special since we don’t get to see them that often. Some of the less obedient kids slam their desk lids when they put their books away, but not me.
Mrs. Bradley sees that we’ve put away our materials and orders us to line up single file. We shuffle to the door and proceed down the hallway following her like little ducklings while she snaps, “Quiet! No talking!”
The movie projector room is located in the school basement. The hard surface of the concrete walls and stairs amplify all kinds of sounds.
I don’t like to walk past the boiler room which is at the bottom of the stairs because of the strange metal clanks, gurgles and hisses that come from behind its door. Today, I can hardly hear the boiler sounds because my classmates are whispering and talking so loudly. I don’t want us to get into trouble. I warn them with a hiss of my own., “Sh-h-h-h!” I say.
Mrs. Bradley whips around to face us. I see fear in my classmates’ eyes. Her face is far scarier than the boiler.
“Who said that? she demands. “Who said, SH-H-H-H?” Her forehead wrinkles into a sea of fresh creases. I look down at the floor in order to avoid her stare.
Some of the kids point at me. Ann and Judy look away. I quickly shake my head in denial. “It wasn’t me.”
I read the other kids’ minds. I know what they are thinking.
“See Barbara lie… Lie. Lie. Lie!”
Looking past me, she yells, “Class, I told you never to say, ’SH-H-H-H!”
I don’t remember her saying anything about this rule. The law must have been declared while I was at home blowing my nose all day.
Mrs. Bradley raises her voice another notch. “If the person who said, ‘S-H-H-H ‘doesn’t speak up immediately, none of you will see the movie! You will go back to the room and put your heads down on your desks!”
Some of the kids give me dirty looks. I shrink and say nothing.
Back in the classroom, Mrs. Bradley pulls down the window shades and turns off the lights, a move she makes when she wants to emphasize the seriousness of an incident. I put my head down on my desk like the rest of my classmates. I don’t dare peek at anybody. They know the truth. I’ve fallen on my face and it hurts far worse than a bloody nose. I’m not so perfect after all.