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Permission to Fail

2006-05-16 18:22

  Each of us fails from time to time. If we are wise, we accept these failures as a necessary part of the learning process. But all too often as parents and teachers we deny this same right to our children. We convey either by words or by actions that failure is something to be ashamed of, that nothing but top performance meets with our approval.

  When I see a child subject to this kind of pressure, I think of Donnie.

  Donnie was my youngest third-grader. He was a shy, nervous perfectionist. His fear of failure kept him from classroom games that other children played with joyous abandon. He seldom answered questions - he might be wrong. Written assignments, especially math, reduced him to nail-biting frustration. He seldom finished his work because he repeatedly checked with me to be sure he hadn't made a mistake.

  I tried my best to build his self-confidence. And I repeatedly asked God for direction. But nothing changed until midterm, when Mary Anne, a student teacher, was assigned to our classroom.

  She was young and pretty, and she loved children. My pupils, Donnie included, adored her. But even enthusiastic, loving Mary Anne was baffled by this little boy who feared he might make a mistake.

  Then one morning we were working math problems at the chalkboard. Donnie had copied the problems with painstaking neatness and filled in answers for the first row. Pleased with his progress, I left the children with Mary Anne and went for art materials. When I returned, Donnie was in tears. He'd missed the third problem.

  My student teacher looked at me in despair. Suddenly her face brightened. From the desk we shared, she got a canister filled with pencils.

  "Look, Donnie," she said, kneeling beside him and gently lifting the tear-stained face from his arms. "I've got something to show you." She removed the pencils, one at a time, and placed them on his desk.

  "See these pencils, Donnie?" she continued. "They belong to Mrs. Lindstrom and me. See how the erasers are worn? That's because we make mistakes too. Lots of them. But we erase the mistakes and try again. That's what you must learn to do, too."

  She kissed him and stood up. "Here," she said, "I'll leave one of these pencils on your desk so you'll remember that everybody makes mistakes, even teachers." Donnie looked up with love in his eyes and just a glimmer of a smile - the first I'd see on his face that year.

  The pencil became Donnie's prized possession. That, together with Mary Anne's frequent encouragement and unfailing praise for even Donnie's small successes, gradually persuaded him that it's all right to make mistakes - as long as you erase them and try again.

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