“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.” ― Mother Teresa
“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.”—Richelle E. Goodrich
I reread the client’s text in disbelief. How could I have made this mistake? I looked at my Google calendar. Nothing there. I looked at the business app. Yep. It was there, but I had not checked there. On a hunch, I glanced once more at my calendar, but ahead one week. Insert face to palm as I felt a knot begin to form and constrict my insides.
I once learned that there are three default modes for humans when reacting to a so-called “threats:” fight, flight, or freeze; and, I have years of experience with freezing—absolute glacial freeze. Inside my body, it feels as if the great glaciers of the ice age are tying, twisting, turning and tearing their way through my gut; while on the outside, starting at my extremities, and moving across my outer skin, I physically become cold to the touch.
How could this have happened? I am 53 years old. In addition to 31 years as a teacher in various schools, I also worked at a number of other locations from an early age. For years, as a teenager, and into my 20th year, I worked as a part-time opener for the local McDonalds, which meant, depending upon which job I was assigned, I had to be at work between 3:30-5:30 am. Never. Never did I miss a shift. Never have I not shown up for work. Ever. Until age 53.
What happened? I had accidentally plugged the date into my Google Calendar for the following Friday. I could feel my face growing red; my heart pounding in my chest. I could feel that icy sensation crystallizing like shards of glass on a window pane across my epidermis as my innards became more bound up like wet, sweaty socks balled up and stuffed inside a sports shoe for later retrieval. Was it too late for me to be retrieved and cleaned, or was I stained for life?
My current employers and clients don’t know me—at least, not my work history and work ethic. They don’t really know my passion and drive regarding the ridiculously high bar for which I set for myself. Honestly, what do they know about me other than my visible outward work behavior, which, up until this point, had been taintless? Now, this mark, this failure, this complete and total mess-up by me—was now part of my work legacy.
That’s when the tears hit. My heart shattered. I made my way to my bathroom, turned on the sink water, then slumped to the floor in a heap and cried. Tears of regret. Tears of remorse. Tears of, “if only I had.” Salty, briny, bitter tears.
This began all over again when I received the typewritten censure. Here was a young lady, still in her twenties, having to reprimand me. ME! It was more than I could I take. Great sobs of failure racked my body. I had let the team down. I was a disappointment. Moving forward I would be asked to . . . , I felt the weight of my error
The clients, though, were nothing but nice when I communicated with them. Words like, “Everybody makes mistakes;” or, “It’s no big deal;” and, “I still love you and the business,” only made me feel worse. Not because I thought they weren’t sincere, I think they were, but it still only pointed out more, at least in my mind, that I was a complete and total failure, a letdown.
Hours later, as I studied my home Armstrong email inbox, which had contributed to the problem—I did not receive my typical reminder email regarding substitute teaching. Earlier in the week, for some inexplicable reason, my emails began appearing in a jumbled, random order; and, it now appears that I am not receiving all of them either. I continued examining the inbox, hovering over one tab, and then another, in an attempt to find a way to correct the issue, when an email popped up—of course, in the middle of the inbox, rather than the top, from an unknown name with the subject saying, “Your columns in the Herald Dispatch.” Hmm . . .
As I moved, like a distracted squirrel to grab this little nut of possibility, another email popped up—also, not at the top, but toward the bottom of the inbox—with the subject, “On wearing purple,” the name of my most recent column. Now, I really felt like a squirrel in Ritter Park during the autumn months when acorns are abundantly available. Which should I grab—click open—first?
Then, my sense of order kicked, strengthened only by years of a teacher schedule—first period, is followed by second period and so forth—I clicked open the one that entered chronologically first!
Wait, what? I could not believe what I was reading. Without revealing the content of the emails, let me just say, I found myself once more teary-eyed—this time from the sheer sweetness of the thoughtfulness of a stranger’s words. They did know of my epic-failure that occurred earlier that morning. Neither did they know of the so-called stain upon my reputation—they only knew the heartfelt words that pour out of me week-in and week-out.
Writing this piece, after a mere two days of reflection, I recognize, first, that a lesson in humility is NEVER a bad thing. Additionally, heading into a new school year, this was also an extremely VALID lesson for me to have experienced what it means to make a real mistake, so that I can better empathize with, and teach, my incoming 6th , 7th, and 8th graders. Human beings err, fall short, and make mistakes. No one is perfect—not even at age 53.
Thus, I have learned three lessons, so far, from this experience. (Though I suspect there will be more.) First, be humble—in word, deed, AND thought. Who was I to pretend to be Stephanie Supersomebody who would NEVER _______ (fill in the blank)? How haughty of me! Secondly, humbly admit a mistake, not only to others, but also to yourself; learn from it (double check dates when inputting to Google calendar, and check your business app daily—rather than relying on memory) in order not to repeat it again; then move on, offering yourself forgiveness. Lastly, and I think, perhaps most importantly, while actions do matter, so do words. All spoken, written, and thought words influence us–often imperceptibly. Therefore, not only is it important to take the time to speak, or write, positively to others, but also offer yourself, in thought, kind words—even in the midst of so-called failure. After all, in the words of Henry Ford, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learning nothing.”