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Use Your Mistakes

When I was in high school, I was elected as the President of our school’s chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS). This isn’t a humble brag; I promise it’s vital to the story.

I decided that, during my reign, instead of the usual stuffy induction ceremony we hosted every year in our cafeteria—during which parents and students alike dressed in their Sunday best—I would make it an over-the-top Hawaiian luau. I had the NHS members gluing grass mats to the walls, stuffing silk hibiscus into plastic coconuts, and draping leis over the back of every seat. My mother worked for days on carving pineapples into interesting shapes for centerpieces and threading fruit and meat onto kabob sticks until her hands hurt. My dad burned CDs (I might not be young) of tropical music and filled tiki torches with votive candles.

I spent weeks on the banquet script, working diligently to craft what I would say to a group of proud parents and whip smart seniors, hoping to strike a healthy balance between witty and regal. I worked to weave NHS’s code of ethics and list of values into Polynesian language that would both delight and inform those present.

My mother helped me order a beautiful tropical wrap dress over the phone (again, I’ve been out of high school for a bit). The last task I had to do—maybe even felt a bit rushed to do—was write and design the event programs and send them to the town printer.

The evening before the banquet I was high on accomplishment. The cafeteria was so beautifully transformed you wouldn’t have known it was in the middle of rural Oklahoma. My dress fit perfectly, my mother’s fruit spread was award-worthy, and my father had compiled a soundtrack so atmospheric you would swear the steel drums were in the room with you. My last errand before sleep was to pick up the programs, which I was excited about because I had created a beautiful border out of tropical flowers and, well, it really was icing on the cake.

When the clerk handed me the brown bag containing the programs, I gasped at how beautifully they had turned out. When I got home, I giggled as I laid them out before me at our dining room table. But as I sat there, painstakingly folding them, a funny feeling crept into my mind, clouding any excitement. Something felt off. I was forgetting something. I stopped folding and lowered my head in thought. Flowers, food, candles, lapel pens, mics, script….I couldn’t figure out what was missing.

And then, as if struck by lightning, I knew what it was. My head jerked up just as my parents were walking into the room. They knew from my face something was wrong.

“Meggie?” my mom asked with concern. “What is it?”

I looked at her for a moment in panic before shifting my eyes to the programs before me. “The programs,” was all I could manage to say.

She picked one up, and she and my father stood there looking at it together for a brief moment before their faces began to cringe. “Ah,” my dad muttered.

“Yep,” I said, my eyes glossing with wetness. “I misspelled ‘Society.”

This past year Jim and I have been our children’s primary teachers as our district remained in virtual learning during the pandemic. To be clear, their school and the teachers within it have provided exceptional content and live video instruction for our kids. Most notably, the art teacher has been a source of excellent content for our creative daughters, who love the chance to express themselves with paint and markers. A few months back, they both watched a video in which the art teacher taught them a mantra: “Use your mistakes!” With it, they watched as the art teacher transformed an accidental smudge she made in her landscape drawing into a beautiful bird flying across the horizon. This fascinated the girls, who both suffer with a version of their mother’s nagging anxiety to strive for perfection.

Like most lessons they learn, however, it wasn’t immediately absorbed. Most days Jim and I would tend to one or both of them in tears over some mistake they had made. Sometimes it was Lowery missing a math problem on a test. Sometimes it was London messing up a song she was learning to sing. Sometimes it was both of them upset about a Lego house they were building together that wasn’t coming out how they wanted. Every day Jim and I found ourselves repeating the mantra Use your mistakes! to no avail.

Then, around Christmas time, a magical thing happened. The girls were watching a video their art teacher uploaded about how to draw a holiday penguin. From safely downstairs, Jim and I heard a range of emotions coming from upstairs. First it was giggling, then raising voices, then the crumple of paper, then screaming, then silence, and finally, the light thumping of four tiny feet descending.

Jim and I looked at each other with an equal range of emotions: fear, dread, contempt, exhaustion, and interest. The girls came around the corner with the telltale redness of crying around their eyes, but they were smiling—the sort of two-faced disorientation that is the cornerstone of the young.

“What’s up?” I asked cautiously (you can tell I’m a seasoned parent because I did not lead the witness with, “What’s wrong?” or, “Are you okay?”). Lowery was beaming and London was giggling.

Jim and I looked at each other and spoke with just our eyes: don’t make a move, this could be a trap. “Lowery finished her penguin!” London excitedly blurted out. Lowery laughed as she turned the paper around in her hand to display her drawing. And there it was. A penguin, with brown boots, a scarf on its head, a hook for a hand, and an eye patch. I sat unmoving—again, seasoned parents know that how you react to a child’s drawing is the single biggest predictor of their need for therapy in adulthood. “Are you happy with it?” I asked, my expression unchanging.

London was nodding and laughing and elbowing Lowery. “Tell her!”

“I messed up on this penguin at first,” Lowery said, smiling. “And I got super mad about it.”

“So I asked if I could have it,” said London, practically levitating with excitement.

“And I got mad at her because it looked so stupid and I didn’t want her to keep it.”

“But I still wanted it!”

“I had messed up on one of the eyes and the whole thing was ruined.”

“But I liked it!”

“So I said, ‘Fine, you can have it but let me fix it first.’” Lowery was talking fast. “And I took a big black crayon and just scribbled all over the bad eye.”

“And I started laughing because it looked like an eye patch!” said her sister.

At this point Lowery was laughing with London. “And her saying that made me mad, so I said ‘Oh? An eye patch? Fine, I’ll give the penguin a hook hand too then!’”

“And then she put that scarf on its head and I said, ‘You should add an earring!’”

“So I did,” said Lowery. “And now I have made a Pirate Penguin!”

“And she’s letting me keep it!” London hooted.

“Well,” Lowery said, looking back down at the drawing. “I don’t know…I really like it now.”

“Lowery! You promised me!”

And with that, the girls became entangled in the twelfth fight of the day, all before Jim and I had a chance to weigh in on the penguin, or point out to them that Lowery had, in fact, successfully used her mistake.

It made me wonder if this is what my parents experienced when they came home to find me at the dining room table crying over a typo on a banquet program. At the time, they remained calm, but they had quickly started formulating a solution to the problem.

“I’ll call Barbara at home and see if she can go back down to her store tonight and reprint them,” my mother said. (By the way, when you grow up in a small town, everyone can track anyone down and make them do things like this).

“And we’ll pay for it,” my Dad said. “The school won’t be out any money for the reprint.”

I sat for a minute watching them continue to come up with ways to solve this for me. After a few moments, clarity came over me. “I think I have the perfect solution,” I said, my voice strengthening with resolve. And I didn’t say another word to them about it.

The next night, at the banquet, I walked around the room filled with laughter and talking. I greeted my friends and hugged their parents and was happy to overhear all the compliments on the food and the music and décor. I continued to eavesdrop, hoping to hear someone, anyone notice the glaring typo in big bold letters on the program. And eventually, like a mallet hitting a gong, I heard it from across the room. The stepfather of a good friend of mine turned to his wife, held up the program and said, “Socitey?”

That was my cue.

I walked quickly to the podium and tapped twice on the microphone. A screech went out across the room, quieting the crowd.

“Good evening parents, and welcome!” I announced. “Thank you for being here tonight to honor the best and brightest students in our school.” Applause rang out.

“Well, let me be clear. Not all of us are the brightest.” The crowd went silent.

And from there I went on to make a joke, at my own expense, about misspelling the word “Society” in the name of a club that recognizes people for being smart. I made a correlation between that and the unfortunate grammatical error in the poster promoting literacy that hung in our school’s hallway for years. I reminded them of the now-obvious need to donate to the English department’s fundraiser. And I ended on a zinger that, to this day, I regret not writing down for posterity. But I do remember it kicked off the night with a bang. From there, the ceremony went off without a hitch.

A year ago, I unexpectedly ran into a high school classmate whom I hadn’t seen since graduation. After catching up briefly, she reminded me of the NHS banquet and how I chose to keep the mistake in the program and use it as a way to open the evening. “I think about that a lot,” she said. “How I would have just reprinted the programs and never told a soul.”

I shrugged and batted a hand. “I think I was just so tired from creating that over-the-top Hawaiian theme that it seemed easier to just make a joke of my mess up than to reprint the programs,” I laughed.

“What Hawaiian theme?” she asked.

And that, my friends, is why you must always remember: you are being watched more during your mistakes than your accomplishments.

But, if you play it right, no one will be able to tell the difference.


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