My mother is an educator. Professionally, it is the only thing I have ever known her to be. As I continue my own journey as an educator, I often reflect on the lessons that I learned in watching her interact with children and students of various ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Her ability to creatively establish a classroom culture where children not only learn, but also develop deep, lasting relationships with her is something I have always admired. So, in my youth and on days when I may have been out of school myself, the opportunity to accompany her and assist with her workday was a highlight of my childhood.
I can recall it with crystal clarity. We arrived at the childcare center early. The lights were off and the smell of a freshly mopped floor and disinfectant drifted its way into my nostrils. She turned on the lights. The brightly colored bulletin boards caught my attention and lured me in. Soon, another woman arrived and began preparing breakfast for the children: grits, a slice of cheese, juice. Tiny bodies began to fill the room. My mother and the bubbly woman she worked alongside greeted them and guided them effortlessly to the little chairs and tables that were just right for them. It was like a dance. In complete awe, I observed from a tiny chair of my own.
After breakfast, it was time for a learning activity. Each child was given a piece of paper with various images printed on it. Their task – color the images using the appropriate crayons. For example, there was fire hydrant with the word “RED” beneath it. Chubby fingers anticipated gripping chunky red crayons to color those hydrants red! Here’s where I came in. My mother, in all of her sweetness and serenity, asked me to bring the crayons over to the table. Not one to disappoint (and especially not her), I attempted to lift the large tray of crayons. It was a white cardboard tray, possibly the lid of a box once used for another purpose, and it contained several smaller baskets that I’m sure were once used to hold strawberries or other small produce items. They were little green baskets each holding a designated color. The tray was a little heavy, but I could handle it. I knew I could. I steadied my arms and hands, found my footing, and turned to do what my mother had asked.
BOOM! Within taking my first step, the crayons were on the floor. They scattered about and it was as if I was peering into a kaleidoscope. They left waxy, vibrant marks on the white floor. I could feel myself shrinking. How had I managed to fail the first and only task my mother had assigned? Why hadn’t I taken the strawberry baskets out to the tables two at a time…one in each hand? What was I thinking???
At that time (and for many years since then), I focused on those very questions. It was my first experience of feeling as if I’d failed. It was the first time failure was a known and all-consuming sentiment. My sole purpose for being there that day was to help my mother, not to create bigger problems than the children whose lives she set out to make just a little brighter each day.
I’ve seen myself there, pictured that seven or eight-year-old girl in that classroom holding the cardboard tray void of crayons at many points in my adult life. When I didn’t do as well as I wanted to on a test or paper in college, I was that girl. When I promised myself I would be smarter with my finances and still made poor spending decisions, I was that girl. When I vowed to never love again, then found myself falling and maybe even hurting later, I was that same, incredibly sad little girl.
But in all of that, I was missing the lesson. I was missing what I learned from that initial experience with failure. I botched my task that day, but I immediately learned what I should have done instead. I should have taken the crayons in smaller loads. I saw a big task, and I told myself I could do it without considering other options. I failed, but I learned. So often we see ourselves facing big tasks. Do I leave this job I have no passion for without a backup plan? Do I date this person even though I’m afraid they’ll hurt me? Ultimately, the choice is ours. We can grab our loaded tray of crayons and attempt to flawlessly deliver them to their destination. Or, we can choose to tackle the task at hand one or two baskets at a time. I continue to drop crayons, possibly even daily. But I never want it to be said that I didn’t try; to love, to succeed, to learn, and to grow.