I worry that adolescents aren’t allowed to make mistakes.
Toddlers have to fall down over and over and over in order to learn to walk. Luckily, they’re good at falling down and it doesn’t seem to faze them. Little kids mispronounce words and we gently correct them—while sometimes relishing those mistakes or canonizing them into family lore or lifelong nicknames. We know from our own lives that mistakes are inevitable, embarrassing, but also hugely important to figuring out who we are, what we want, and how to move forward.
But high-school students are under enormous pressure. The college race has made parents and kids into nervous wrecks (as if success were measured solely by this one achievement). The competition for spots at elite colleges has escalated to a point where the bottom-line requirement is flawlessness: These colleges could fill their freshman classes with kids whose SATs are perfect and whose GPAs never dip below a 4.0.
There is also pressure on kids to have perfectly curated lives on Instagram (whatever “perfect” might mean to that kid—perfectly edgy, perfectly preppy, perfectly bohemian, etc.), to say all the correct things in whatever political realm they’re in, to be “right” for all their constituencies. (And: how bizarre that teenagers have constituencies, but they do.)
And yet, there are so many realms where it is clear that mistakes are necessary and good. I have spent much of my life involved in theatre—as an actor, as a director, as a teacher. And theatre works very differently from many other aspects of teen life (or adult life, for that matter). In the theatre, several things are true: you need a diversity of talent to make a production happen (lights people, set builders, actors of all stripes, etc.), and you need to rehearse to get the play into presentable shape.
Rehearsal is the process of trying stuff over and over until you find the stuff that works. A good director can guide that trying, but leaves the actors alone enough to discover truths for themselves—truths that can sometimes surprise them or take the production in cool new directions. In tech rehearsals, we find out that a certain sound cue doesn’t work or that a blackout needs to come faster. We discover that the phone needs a longer cord or that the blueberry muffins are too messy onstage but the sponge cake will work in that scene. We learn how to walk in that costume and how to keep the wig on even during the fight scene. By the time a production is shared with an audience, all of that mistake-making has (hopefully) resulted in something beautiful and transcendent. We have transformed mistakes into art, and we are all better for it.
Adolescents need that rehearsal period. They need to be able to try on attitudes and discover that those attitudes don’t suit them. They need to be able to screw up on a paper or test and then be redeemed through patient instruction and hard work. They need to be able to say the wrong thing, live through the repercussions of saying it, and internalize that experience enough to change.
But grades are blunt instruments. The instantaneous nature of the internet’s call-and-response doesn’t encourage reflection or allow for change. The looming college process makes every quiz a high-stakes endeavor.
Several years ago I taught a surly, rebellious young man, a sophomore at the time, who once brought a sleeping bag to my class because he was, essentially, on strike. We had a challenging conversation after that. Many of his teachers had many challenging conversations with him that year and in subsequent years, helping him to understand how his actions affect others, how his education was his to own and use wisely. He even had to be suspended at one point. But, over time, he grew up and became a spectacular senior in our school, went to an excellent college, and is now a successful artist.
Our school is ungraded for as long as we can manage (until, inevitably, we have to generate a transcript for college-admission purposes), and I am grateful for that. I can let my students learn from a “bad” paper and become better writers, without having to worry that that first go-round will inevitably taint the way they and I view their overall experience in my class. In other words, I can encourage and reward change and growth; I can honor the value and beauty of mistakes.
I want to think about how to make adolescence a lab for living instead of a gauntlet for future living. I want to see it as a shaggy, transformative time whose value doesn’t have to be justified—or even seen—until much further down the line. I want teenagers to be able to make mistakes, learn from them, and become wiser without us judging them every step along that messy way.