A couple of days ago I was standing in my kitchen before a class with a couple of my students, Mary and Christy, and I was telling them about all the mistakes I’d been making lately, dropping balls left and right, and Mary, who teaches a desktop publishing class at a college nearby says, “Hey, those mistakes are important,” and goes on to tell us what she says to her class on the first day. “You can take desktop publishing from anyone,” she begins, “but the reason you’re taking it from me is because I’ve got 40 years of mistakes to share with you.”
So let’s get that straight. The teacher isn’t the person who knows more than you, not the master at whatever it is you’re trying to learn, the golden one who maybe you’ll be able to emulate one day. No, she’s just messed up more than you – and seriously, you can’t buy that kind of talent.
40 years of mistakes is quite a trek, and if you’re lucky, you’re still making them, at least I am.
This last month has felt exactly like learning how to parallel park a big old clunker of a car with a whole crowd of people standing on the sidewalk watching. I’m doing it Lucille Ball style; hitting the car in front of me, then the car in back of me, over and over until the big car is reduced to a sardine can. Nothing elegant about it. Cue the laugh track.
Of course I’m making every day mistakes like forgetting someone’s name or forgetting to call on a student to read when everyone else has read, but the more horrifying mistakes have happened in my Wild Writing Teacher Training, where 12 brave souls have given me a lot of dough and their time so I can take them on a five-month journey to become Wild Writing Teachers. And maybe because I’ve jumped into something bigger, raised the bar on myself so to speak, I’m carrying more stress around this work – like, I better not mess up.
Here are the kinds of balls I’ve dropped with them:
Sharing a trainee’s personal information with the class because I thought it was cute, but realized only later when she spoke to me that it wasn’t my information to share. This in the midst of trying to create a safe space for everyone.
Increasing the number of my Wild Writing Trainees from 10 to 12 this season, and realizing that the schedule doesn’t work the way I thought it would with 12, and having to re-jigger the flow of class in front of the group to try to make it work. I got it to work, but it wasn’t ideal and I have to live with that.
Created a lot more work for myself in the process.
Meant to read a really great writing prompt to them last week, but forgot entirely and my teaching felt clunky.
I was talking to my friend Sandy – another type A perfectionist – and we admitted how attached we are to making things look seamless. We talk about the importance of making mistakes, but when it comes to our own, not so much. We actually don’t know much about making them at all because we’re constantly working in overdrive to ensure that they don’t happen. Then when we do make a mistake, we’re totally freaked out, like a great wind has come along and blown all our clothes off. Especially if we make these mistakes in front of other people, and particularly people who are paying us for our expertise. It really messes with the self-image, but we barely have to deal with it because we don’t make enough mistakes to learn how to make mistakes.
“The best yoga class I ever taught,” says Christy,“ was when I’d pulled my psoas muscle and hobbled into class one day, slid down the wall and poured myself onto the floor. ‘So you want to learn yoga?’ I said to my students. ‘Here’s what’s up today; Non attachment, impermanence, the destruction of the ego. Let’s have at it!”
Let’s have at it indeed.
If I’m doing anything right, it’s that as much as I want to double over and vomit when I mess up, I am trying to share my mistakes with my students, who will become teachers themselves. And maybe, like Mary says, I can save them some trouble.
In the first Wild Writing Training last year, I invited six students to stay with me at my house, thinking it would be a cozy slumber party, but didn’t consider that I’d also be cooking, shopping AND LEADING the weekend workshop. I also gave my bed away to a very nice woman, and ended up on a military cot in the office that was so tiny I had to lay my arms across my chest to sleep. By the end of the weekend they could see my frayed nerves and I had to open the damn kimono and tell them what happened.
I come by this incredible efforting honestly. I saw my mother take on too much my whole life. She could come home from the tennis court, create a 5-course meal for 20 people and emerge from her room looking dazzling in her beaded gowns and heels. Of course there was a strong drink while she cooked, and a couple after the guests came, not to mention the raw exhaustion and anger that seeped out of her while she was trying to make everything beautiful.
Taking on too much, making things look seamless, keeping a smile plastered on my face, trying to keep everyone happy, thinking that the more I take on the more incredible I am. As I get older, operating this way becomes less and less tenable. It’s not sustaining and it’s not fun. Maybe the fact that the balls are falling is a good thing, an inevitable, organic life-saving thing, and something to learn from. Falling like the fat Camelia blossoms in my yard, heavy and bright and beautiful as they touch the ground.