At the end of one of my school years, my staff was invited to a dinner and program featuring Chick Moorman, who has written wonderfully useful books on teaching and parenting, including Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit and Parent Talk: How to Talk to Your Children in Language That Builds Self-Esteem and Encourages Responsibility. Moorman talked about mistakes and their usefulness. He advised teachers to ask, “Who made a good mistake?” which he defined as one we learn from. My students in prison, who returned to school as adults after years away, often voiced their concerns about “messing up.” These were people intimately aware of the mistakes they’d made, including dropping out of school, and I sensed that asking about good mistakes was a new and healthier way to deal with their worry about being able to do the work. I heard “messing up” all the time, but their confidence grew and their anxiety lessened, especially about taking tests, when we discussed good mistakes.
I heard a lot of negative statements about prisoners from people who had never talked to or known anyone who had been incarcerated. This one annoyed me: “They all claim they’re innocent.” In all the years that I taught, I never heard this. I heard a lot about being convicted on conspiracy charges; I heard a lot about the injustice of the war on drugs. I heard a lot about the police and the way they broke the laws. My students as a group were remarkably honest. More than one said, “I caught a case and I didn’t do it, but I did other things I didn’t get arrested for.”
We all mess up, all the time. As I wrote in my last blog, we all break the law. But, not everyone takes responsibility or even admits they’ve made mistakes. In a recent commencement speech Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates that we can learn more from our not-so-good experiences that we can from our good ones.
In the current political discussions (which seem at this point to be unending), the Great Blame and Shame Game is on—in full force. Candidates are constantly pointing their fingers at rivals to attack their opponents’ mistakes. But, rarely do they admit their own. To do so, would make them even more vulnerable to being blamed. Part of the American culture doesn’t seem to value looking at our own mistakes, making apologies that repair relationships, and making amends to people who’ve been hurt. Too many people working in the criminal justice system are all about meting out punishment for those who make mistakes—and very bad at not examining their own carelessness, missteps and often devastating failures in carrying out justice. Paying for Years Lost Behind Bars illustrates a terrible wrong. Using the example of Glenn Ford, who served thirty years for a murder he did not commit, the article says he was freed in 2014 but died of lung cancer that was not treated while he was incarcerated. Neither he nor his family was compensated for the state’s mistakes. “Marty” Stroud, who was the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, did apologize. His moving letter is found here: Lead Prosecutor Offers Apology I hope Stroud’s courage gives other people the room and permission to admit their own failings. In some capital cases, people’s lives are at stake.
Taking responsibility for messing up isn’t easy, but doing it lessens the grip and sting. It helps everyone move forward. Sotomayor said, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha” moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise.” 1 One of my thoughtful students said quietly one day, “When I am pointing my fingers at other people and criticizing them, I make myself think about me. Often what I’m criticizing is really how badly I’m feeling about myself.” Great wisdom comes from courageous prosecutors, from Supreme Court justices, and it also often comes from people in the margins, from people we cast out away from us. It would be so much better for all of us if more people in power learned these lessons.
1. Kim Bellware, “Sonia Sotomayor Tells Grads to Embrace the Awful ‘Uh-Oh’ Moments,” Huffpost Politics, May 22, 2016.