Friday, November 22, 2013

Be thankful for mistakes and the lessons they bring

From today's Briefing:

This Thanksgiving season at the Damm house, we’re making A-to-Z lists of what we’re thankful for.
Depending on which family member you ask, A is for angels, the Avett Brothers or airplanes. B is for the beach, the Beatles or biscuits. C is for Cooper, cooperation or chocolate.
Jump down the alphabet, and M is for Margie (the dog), moms and mistakes.
Mistakes are big on my list — typically when the mistakes are memories rather than fresh wounds.
One Damm child recently suffered through a particularly intimidating competition. Said child didn’t perform as well as expected and was devastated. In the aftermath, I struggled with what to say.
I started with, “You practiced so often and did so well. One small performance doesn’t define you.”
I listened. Waited. Then added, “Next time, you’ll be better prepared for what to expect.”
It may sound like a platitude, but it’s true.
Way back in my middle school days, I was in choir, directed by Mr. Finney, a firecracker of a man.
Every year, he would take on the monster task of staging a musical. In sixth grade, I had small roles in the production Oliver! The next year, Mr. Finney chose Annie. And he told me over and over what a great Annie I would make.
I was petite with naturally curly hair. I was a hard worker. I could memorize lines.
What he didn’t know, because I blended in to the chorus so well, was that I was a not-so-great singer — a particularly essential quality for the title role in a musical.
I didn’t practice much for the audition. After all, Mr. Finney kept telling me that I was ideal.
I stood in the middle of a darkened stage. A spotlight hit me, and I began to warble “Tomorrow.”
Oh, thank goodness for the lack of video cameras, smartphones and YouTube in the early ’80s.
I was terrible. But I didn’t truly realize how awful I was until I was standing alone, mangling a beloved song of optimism, in front of judges. In that spotlight moment, I could hear for the first time my complete lack of talent. And I could see it in Mr. Finney’s disappointed face.
I was cast as a Warbucks housekeeper. Two lines. No solos. All for the best, really.
The whole audition fiasco was the kind of mistake with lifelong lessons. If you want to try for something, by all means go for it, but put some effort into it. Don’t assume that any part, job or position is yours for the taking. And don’t be afraid to admit that you’re not good at something; spend time cultivating your natural talents.
I moved the next year, to a new town and new middle school. As always happened when I moved, I was convinced that at this school, I would somehow magically transform into an outgoing, popular girl. I hadn’t yet embraced the real introverted me.
Not long after arriving, we received notice of a semiformal dance at school. My stepmother created the most beautiful teal tea-length dress with a ruffled off-the-shoulder collar. I wore my first pair of heels. My naturally curly hair was hot-rollered and even poufier than usual — de rigueur for the time.
When I walked into the gym, my confidence fizzled.
The theme wasn’t semiformal (we must have read the flier wrong?). It was Hawaiian luau. I stood out like a less-than-jolly green giant in a sea of Jams shorts, leis and T-shirts.
I escaped to the bathroom to compose myself. A girl I didn’t know pointed and whispered indiscreetly to her friend, “How sad,” as I stood at the mirror.
Again, so many lessons. Double-check the dress code before an event. Be ready to deflect unkind words with witty rejoinders. Most important, don’t let mean girls — or being unique — steal your joy.
I expect my child will one day reflect on that difficult competition and find value in the experience, despite the painful results. I’m hoping there’ll be a list of self-discovered lessons — on composure, confidence, emotional preparedness — plus some thanksgiving for mistakes.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

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