A perfectionist from the time I can remember, I learned effectively from my mistakes every day. Through cuts, scrapes and broken bones, I learned to climb gaspingly high into treetops, navigate slick rocks across rushing creeks, and coast my bike with no hands or feet. Most learning from mistakes as a young child was painful for me, physically, emotionally, or both.
Before I went to school, my errors fueled my determination. Angry with myself for my own blunders, or at those who teased or punished me because of what I’d done or failed to do without knowing any better, I blasted energy into renewed efforts to do it right, whatever it was—whether something I longed to accomplish for myself, or something other people insisted I perfect. My learning evolved as I grew, as it does for all of us. I came to understand I had limitations, as did the world I lived in, and that I had to accept and work around them. Eventually, I learned to be a good girl, to stay still and silent, and to forget one of the most important lessons of life—that mistakes are simply opportunities to become what we want to be.
At age six, I entered first grade in my hometown, but shortly afterward my family moved from what had been a supremely perfect neighborhood for my adventurous and independent self. In our new town, my parents enrolled me in a private school for girls. There were few children where we now lived, and school became my social world. In addition to my brand-new, hideous corrective shoes, I was kitted out with a blue serge uniform, complete with blouse, blazer, and blue knee-socks and an equally crisp gym tunic. The nuns wore their own uniforms. Their habits shielded every aspect of their physical beings except for their faces and hands which seemed to bulge out from the constriction of wimples, collars, and cuffs—a visible tightness that echoed that of their hearts.
Despite my fear of these new and oddly clad adults in my life, I felt great anticipation for all I would learn at my new school. I’d known how to read and write for several years, and I’d already experienced the first moments of “real” school before we moved (although kindergarten had proved a painful disappointment of my expectations). As the new girl on my first day at St. Mary’s, I learned to write the headings on my papers, a long process that required not only my name and the date, but also the name of the school, the teacher, and a cross at the top. Sister Geraldine told me I must write this heading on every page of my copybook, and every paper I turned in.
I loved to write. Letters to my uncle and aunts and grandparents on crisp stationery my mother provided, crayoned stories on construction paper, and dialogues in comic bubbles where I eked out narratives for the characters depicted in my coloring books. My first homework assignment at St. Mary’s was announced: write a story about your favorite animal. The stories would be entered into the primary school’s annual contest. Perfect. Duchess, my elderly English Setter, was the most important living being in my life.
While the other girls worked in intriguing fat books with pictures, I was instructed to write out the alphabet, numerals to 100, the days of the week, and the months of the year—a test, I knew, of what I’d previously learned. I set to the task, anxious to receive a book like the other girls’. I carefully shaped my letters according to the sizes dictated by the new-to-me handwriting paper that displayed blue lines for the upper case and dotted lines for the lower case letters. As I counted to make sure I’d included all twelve months, I saw I had misspelled February and tipped my pencil over to erase and correct my mistake.
My seatmate, Helen, gasped and shifted away from me. I was brushing the pink bits off my paper when Sister Geraldine suddenly stood behind me. Her right hand seized my pencil, and her left smacked my desk as she leaned in close over my small pig-tailed self, a dark shadow of authority that would plague my life for many years to come. I felt her hot breath on my cheek as she hissed into my ear, “You. will. not. erase.” She sharply extracted my nearly finished paper and told me to start over.
I began again, my hand shaking and my eyes unable to see my own lettering clearly. When Sister called for the collection of seatwork, Helen nabbed my paper from beneath my still moving pencil and shook her head silently cuing me to swallow my half-uttered protest. In that intuitive way most children have, I responded to her communication knowing it held that mix of self-satisfied superiority and fair-minded solidarity that would mark my academic interactions well into my adulthood. I was now in school and learning that the objective was to balance trying to be better and smarter than everyone else whilst acknowledging that we were trapped in this oppressive system together. The implicit pact: to do what we could for each other without threatening our place in the almighty teacher’s pecking order. In the years that followed, Helen brokered my experience of this complex school culture, sometimes cuing me in warning if she were confident in her own superiority, other times undermining me to ensure I would be humiliated.
My new school did not believe in erasing. Period. It made no bloody sense to me even at age six—“Then why do pencils have erasers?” I wanted to ask. I learned quickly, however, that if I were to survive school, I had to follow their rules, whether they be about erasing, or wearing the right color gym socks, or somehow ensuring I would be collected by my mother within an acceptable window of time after school. Demerits and detentions, meted out even to first-graders for any infraction led to visiting the Principal, the terrifyingly tall and severe Sister Bernadine, and a call home—even worse.
Sister Geraldine explained to me the reasoning behind the school policy when I finally mustered the courage to ask her during recess: “You will only mark on the paper your very best work. You are offering this work to God. That is why you place the cross at the top of every paper. You will think before you act. You will make sure that you are correct. Only then will you use your pencil to write. God does not like mistakes, nor does He smile upon hiding them.” My rebellious and authority-questioning nature collapsed in the face of her confident certainty.
At school, my work slowed. I was a child who learned by doing, who needed to see things before I could suss out my mistakes, so the do-not-erase rule nearly crippled me. I learned, however, to write my homework with an unnaturally light hand so I could erase and repair my mistakes invisibly with my special artists’ eraser that left no marks. I did this secretly and shamefully, for I now believed I’d saddened God doubly: first by making the errors and then by hiding them.
I wrote the story about Duchess. I won first prize in the primary school contest. I was awarded a small statue of the Blessed Mother standing on Satan (represented by a green snake) and the dubious privilege of reading my story aloud to the entire high school student body, which frightened me so thoroughly that I wet my pants and negated any possibility for enjoying some semblance of public honor.
I never admitted to anyone that I’d defied the school’s rule when I wrote my story. I’d erased, repeatedly, dozens of words so I could get it just right. I knew I was sinning, breaking rules, being a bad girl. Yet, had I started over to write it all out perfectly, I wouldn’t have had time to climb my favorite tree, an ancient ash on the edge of a neighbor’s field, one of the only places I ever felt safe and whole and free. Though I won the first prize, my shameful sin robbed me of any pride in my accomplishment.
That statue of the Blessed Mother, chipped and crackled now, stands on a shelf near my desk though I have long forgone Roman Catholicism and come to recognize the terrible damage those nuns inflicted on children. I find myself now, nearly 50 years and more than a few published pieces later, still feeling ill when I write. Sister Geraldine and so many others’ strangling presences stand behind me, hissing their warnings to make no mistake, and the Blessed Mother watches from beside me, serenely victorious over Satan who made, according to some, the ultimate mistake. Yet, if John Milton’s Paradise Lost is truly understood, that snake represents the risk to assert personal vision and power. Misguided though he may have been, his character makes the archetypal story rich—provides the darkness to contrast with the light—and Adam and Eve are certainly far more interesting beings who as a result of their own mistakes peopled our world (metaphorically speaking of course).
What we learn from making and repairing our mistakes shapes our lives. Do we allow ourselves to live frozen in fear that we might do or say or write the wrong thing? Or do we risk and choose, making ourselves vulnerable to failures and judgments as we test out ways of being in the world? In spite of it all, my pre-school determination to learn from making mistakes rather than desperately avoiding them has returned to me. I erase and correct liberally and unashamedly because it is the only way I can live true to myself. Make no mistake: the real snake under the Blessed Mother’s feet is the one who insists that God only smiles upon perfection.
©2017 RedHawk Arts