The other day I was drafting a piece of writing on paper and I spelled the word probably with two p’s instead of two b’s, so it became “propably.”  (I mention the paper only because the error couldn’t be blamed on typography.  I just plain spelled it wrong; some sort of temporary glitch in letter retrieval.)  This was an ironic error because I’d been working on the spelling of this very word, several days earlier, with a 10 year-old I know.

I sent her an email right away to tell her.  And I’d be willing to wager that after learning of my mistake (and after the good-natured teasing that I’m likely to endure from her in the coming weeks), she’s unlikely to misspell it again herself.

In my own time as a young student, I learned (by watching) that the job of an adult is to appear as error-free as possible.  But later when I became one of those adults, I discovered that there’s something surprisingly powerful about an adult’s willingness to be fallible, imperfect. There’s something about it that renders a child available for the acquisition and retention of information and skill that few other factors do.

Or maybe, actually, it’s not surprising at all.  Maybe it makes perfect sense.  The opportunity to see the possibility of error, in someone a child is expected to look up to and model after, erases the chasm between child and adult – the one that can make children feel as though they’re less, to feel as though it’s a great wide sea they have to cross to get to where the adults are.

For the child I informed of my spelling error, the notification will be connective.  My mistake will give the two of us something to talk and laugh about.  “Propably?” she’ll likely exclaim the next time I see her.  And at least for that moment, we won’t be teacher and student – one charged with appearing perfect and the other charged with trying to get there as soon as possible, no matter the cost and stress.  We’ll just be two people making our way in the world of writing stuff down, sometimes getting the words the way we mean to, other times messing them up.

It may seem like setting such a tone would make for shoddy work, but in my experience it doesn’t.  It makes the work feel real, and safe, and when things feel real and safe, the mind is freed up to do its best most adventurous work.


3 Responses

  1. Yes! I love this piece, especially how beautifully you express the connectivity that come from an adult’s willingness to be fallible. This is why I really cherish a parent/child Spanish class my son and I took many years ago. We were both students in the class and it was magical (knowing how my traditional education had felt) to watch him watch me as I got frustrated with my homework or stumbled in my class presentation. His fears and self consciousness were lessened, and our life of learning and living together truly began.

  2. Your last paragraph, Meredith, is wonderful – beautifully expressed and capturing a key truth about “good” learning. Thank you!

  3. Thanks again, Meredith, for a beautiful piece. It validates my view that when I’m working with children in school (I’m an O.T.) and I make some kind of mistake……I always say to the child, no matter how old they are or what their abilities are, “see, even teachers make mistakes”. Thanks again.

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