My Best Mistake

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It was writing period, and my fifth graders were miserable.

One boy misspelled "bicycle" for the fifth time. Another had begun writing about his favorite food, changed his mind to writing about his hamster, finally deciding to write about soccer. He erased so many times a hole appeared in the paper. One girl writing about her family trip to Disneyland stopped, explaining "I made a mistake... I wrote the wrong date."
Finally, I marched to the board and wrote, "My Best Mistake."
"That's today's topic.  Write about the best mistake you ever made."
The kids looked at me like I was crazy. How can there be a best mistake?
"Write it and see."
And slowly, pencils started moving. And everyone had a story.
The boy who couldn't spell "bicycle" wrote about learning to ride one. He described his dad teaching him, falling and falling, finally getting it. Every fall was one step closer to learning how to ride. Those falls were his best mistake.

The boy with the eraser stopped erasing and wrote about focus. He always had so much going on in his brain, he couldn't decide. Play video games or play outside? Baseball or soccer? Ripping his paper taught him something; to concentrate, forget everything else for the moment, and do one thing well. Erasing a hole may have ruined his assignment, but it was also his best mistake.

And that girl with the wrong date, still couldn't remember it but she describe that Disneyland vacation in such joyous detail, I almost felt I was on Space Mountain with them. Dumb details like dates didn't matter, she wrote, what's important is the wonderful time she'd had with her family. Stuck on the small stuff - that was her best mistake.

Student after student had written tales of best mistakes -- big mistakes, little mistakes, and the gift each mistake had brought.


And I could see it dawning on these kids that sometimes mistakes can be the best thing that ever happened. What some call a mistake, others call progress. And if my students learned nothing else that day, I hope they learned it's OK to make mistakes. Those mistakes are a better teacher than I will ever be. 

And I told the kids Theodore Roosevelt put it well: "The man who makes no mistakes," he said. "is the man who never does anything."

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at the Robert Louis Stevenson School in San Francisco.