Making Mistakes

I’ve told the story about Elena’s birth for the seven years since it happened and I’ve made the same mistake in telling it every time. Yesterday, a friend from a different hemisphere popped up in instant message to gently correct me.

I’d said that Elena was born at 10:16 pm and if it had been four minutes later it would have been 20:20. But, of course, it wouldn’t have been. It would have been 22:20.

You’d think a trained mathematician could add twelve to ten and come up with twenty-two. That I didn’t is one of the many things I love about this mistake. What I love most is that I’ve been making this mistake for years.

That may sound a bit nuts. I’m happy and perhaps relieved that I’ve made this mistake in addition for seven years.

In college, my brother majored in psychology. It’s been twenty some years since then, but I remember a study that he told me about with old people and memory. There are some older people who have Alzheimer’s or some other condition that has an impact on their memory.

But most older people don’t forget things more or less than younger people. The issue is that when a young person forgets something, they just shrug and say “oh, I just forgot.” But when an old person forgets something, they worry that they are losing their memory or have Alzheimer’s.

The same rate of forgetting items is dismissed by the young and worried about by the old or by their caregivers.

Suppose you go out for coffee with a friend once a week. This week you bring up a topic that you discussed last week. They have no idea what you are talking about. You remind them that you talked about this just last week. They don’t remember at all. If the other person is young, you joke about it and tell them their memory stinks. If the other person is old, you quietly sigh and give them a pitying look.

And that’s why I feel good about this mistake. If I had only started making such mistakes since Elena died I would have made much of it. “Oh why can’t I remember things? Why can’t I do something as simple as add ten and twelve? What’s wrong with me?” But, since I’ve been making this mistake for years, I can smile and say, “Duhhh, what an idiot.”

Maggie and Elena used to do a routine from “The Amanda Show” that would result in one of them being called an idiot. Over time, Maggie got to keep the idiot label for herself and Elena would declare that she’s a snot. What kept this from being cruel was, of course, that Maggie is extremely smart and Elena was extremely sweet. But Elena would prompt me to call her a snot so that she could make a loud snorting noise with her nose and she and Maggie would laugh “Snot, get it dad, snot.”

So had Elena been born six minutes later, it would have been 22:22 but that’s not as good a story. And four minutes later was 22:20 but that’s a story that makes no sense. I may continue to tell the story as 20:20 and point out that I now know that that’s not true but that for seven years I was sure that it was.

I never mind making mistakes. Not little ones like that.

When I was teaching education courses at the college level, I would tell the prospective teachers that the first time they made a mistake on the board that a student points out was the most important moment they would face. How they handle that moment would set the tone for the rest of the semester.

They could dismiss it as a little mistake that is no big deal. Sometimes that’s appropriate but more often, what is little to us as subject matter experts seems to be important to the novice.

They could tell the class “I was just testing you to see if you would catch the mistake.” It was probably hearing a teacher say this that first made me want to go into teaching. What a stupid thing to say – unless it is true.

They could consider the mistake and correct it, making a point to thank the student for speaking up and pointing out the error. This acknowledgement changes so much.

One teacher in training asks “but what if you never make a mistake?”

There are teachers who never make mistakes. They carefully write out all they are to do and say in the classroom. I’ve had really good teachers like that – so there is no wrong or right. For me, so much of what I wanted to communicate was the passion for the subject and not the details.

But if and when you make a mistake that you don’t catch yourself as you are making it – embrace the person who corrects it (particularly if they do so politely).

In the dining room is a stack of yellow flashcards we cut out a couple of weeks ago for Elena to practice her addition. Maybe during breakfast I’ll run through the cards a couple of times so that the next time we meet I’ll know what ten plus twelve is.

Published in: on March 8, 2006 at 8:02 am  Comments (8)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Daniel, Kim and Maggie,
    Living in the Canton area I had heard the news story of a young girl dying, but of course didn’t put the name together with you until my mom called the next day. I cried for you all and for Jill, Ethan and your parents – all part of that wonderful place we grew up in.

    Thank you for your beautiful writing. I grieve for you and think of you often.


  2. There is a tradition in telling that story with the math mistake that honors the seven years of Elena’s life… to change the way you tell it ust to correct a small math error seem unworthy.

  3. This is hysterical…I LOVE that you’ve been making that error for years and aren’t ashamed to admit it–most people would quickly go into spin mode to try and explain it away. And really, who likes a perfect person anyway? Certainly not the rest of us humans!

    (PS…that memory thing comes in handy with my husband quite often…he HALF listens to me all the time and so now I use it to my advantage and when I’ve slipped a little something new into the household that he notices, I’ll go…”oh, that old thing, I told you about it weeks ago, but you weren’t LISTENING to me.”)

  4. Dan, That’s a great story and rings so true with those of us who married mathematicians and have now come to expect what I’m told are arithmetic errors (not mathematics errors). I’m sorry Billy and I couldn’t be there with you, Kim, and Maggie but Jody and I read your blog every day to check in on you and to learn a little more about ourselves, our families and our priorities. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and emotions and, as always, for teaching us so many important lessons. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of you each day.


  5. Hi Dan,

    I had lunch with Casey today and she told me what had happened. We met briefly in during your days, but it obvious how much you loved your girls and what a great day you are.

    My heart goes out to you and your family. You’ll be in my thoughts and prayers.


  6. I still stumble over the words “…since Elena died…” It must be surreal to type them.

  7. […] There are teachers who never make mistakes. … For me, so much of what I wanted to communicate was the passion for the subject and not the details. dear elena […]

  8. Thanks for this great post, i have bookmarked your site in the hope there will be more of this



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