Amidst cursive, the times tables, and Ancient Egyptian history, I was taught something else in the third grade: To learn from my mistakes.
It was a common practice at lunchtime to pass “germs” from one boy who we all viewed as strange and awkward (I look back now and wonder… and I wasn’t strange and awkward?) to each succeeding person at the lunch table. “Robert germs” we’d say, as we touched the person next to us. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, didn’t think of the consequences of my actions or how it must have made Robert feel.
That was until the day my teacher found out. He asked all of those who were involved in such a mean-spirited activity to come sit on the classroom carpet and have a talk with him. I, the only girl who confessed to participation, and never having had gotten in trouble before, immediately burst into tears. As I listened to him talk, spouting phrases such as “unbelievable that you could treat someone in this way,” “utterly disrespectful,” and “I am so disappointed in you,” my insides clenched and a sensation of extreme guilt rushed over me. I couldn’t stop crying, and Mr. Crouse gave me a box of tissues and told me to go into the bathroom until I felt better. I was so embarrassed for having such a reaction, but I couldn’t help myself. That night, Mr. Crouse told us, we were expected to write a letter of apology to Robert.
I wrote my letter, thinking for the first time about how I would feel if someone had passed “Colleen germs” at the lunch table. I couldn’t even remember what was so weird about Robert in the first place. Why had I done that? How could I be so cruel? When I turned my writing in the next day, I vowed I would never do such a thing again.
I’ve never forgotten that experience and that vow. Even now, as a senior ready to graduate from high school, I still remember “Robert germs” and remind myself not to treat people with the disrespect I showed to Robert in the third grade. At seventeen, I don’t feel the same shame and embarrassment that I did as an eight-year-old, but the mistake I made and the lesson I learned from it are still clear in my head.
As I go out and make my way in the “real world” I know I will continue to make mistakes. But I also know that positive things can result from these errors in judgment. I believe I can learn; I believe the best life lessons come from the things done wrong rather than right; I believe I can improve by falling. I will stumble, but then I will stand.
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