Learning from my students: life isn't about getting it right

One of the things I love about teaching is that my students are always teaching me. All you need is a classroom full of people learning to write, some struggling and some wanting to be anywhere but in a writing class, and you remember how hard life is.

My students tell me that the thing that makes writing hardest for them is being read by a teacher, an audience who is judging them.

Today in class a student asked, “What format should the paper be in?” It’s a question that makes my teacher’s heart hurt. They’ve been taught that writing is about format, double spacing and citations and margins.

So, I said to my students, “I don’t care about the format. Just write.” Five or six of them just sighed, relieved, unburdened.

All I want from them at this point in the semester is words and sentences, ideas and thoughts, responses to questions that I’m asking them. I want them to think like writers, to see that writing is a way of understanding their world.

What I don’t want from them is error free, double-spaced, 12-point type paragraphs that don’t say much.

They’re reminding me about my own struggles. I’m working hard to be less sad and less anxious. I have caregivers and medications and mindfulness exercises and lessons that I’m working hard to learn. Acceptance. Compassion. Curiosity. Confidence. Gratitude.

My whole life has been about being a student. Give me the assignment and I’ll study. I’ll do my homework. I’ll reach and strive and achieve. I’ll word harder than everyone else in the room.

My students remind me, however, that life isn’t about “getting it right.” It’s not about being happy and calm. It’s about being. Living.

Van Morrison’s song, “I Have Finally Come to Realize” says it just right:

I have finally come to realize / Child don’t do what I have done / Cut my nose to spite my face / Made my own odds 10,000 to one

I saw the Empire slowly fade away / Tried to grasp it with my hand / Then I saw that it was not up to me / I’m just one tiny, tiny grain of sand

Oh, sweet release, oh how you soothe me / When I let go, I love how you use me / I have finally come to realize It’s in the doing that we find / A certain way that we can live our lives / And I’m takin’ some peace of mind

And so, for right now, I’m letting go. When I walk my dog, I’m shutting down the micromanager that says, “Be in the moment. Notice your breath. Look at the sky.”

When I’m fretting about a writing project, I’m letting myself feel anxiety. I’m letting that anxiety work its way in me, letting it just be.

When I’m sad, I’m letting myself feel sad. I’m a person who sees the darkness more keenly than other people. That’s just me.

It’s not that I’m giving up on myself. It’s not that I’m going to stop learning or growing. But I’m taking a break from grasping, relentlessly seeking to get it right.

Maybe it’s contradictory to tell you that I’m training for a 5K at the end of October. I’m having to start from scratch and do the hard work of the Couch to 5K training process, run 1 minute, walk 4, and then build.

But running is different for me. I’ll never be fast or have good form. I’ll never run a marathon. All I ever want to do is try. My modest goal for October is to finish, even if I have to walk part of it.

And, when I run, I can’t think about anything except running. It takes a lot of concentration for me. I’m totally in the moment because I have to breathe. I can’t think about what’s coming up or what work I need to do. I can’t think about being kinder or about whether I’m sad or anxious. All I can do I breathe, move my arms and legs, look into the medium distance and be.

Oh, sweet release.

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