My youth was punctuated by the clink-clink-clinking of my grandma's knitting needles. When we would sit down to watch our evening television, Grandma would curl up in her rocking chair and take out her latest project. I never really had any interest in learning how to knit--I shunned activities in which I thought I would be no good. I score very low on bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, trust me.
Fast forward twenty five years later. I decided it was time to revive Grandma's tradition of knitting. I've been knitting since January of this year. I signed up for knitting class at our community recreation center, eager to get started. Learning to knit--how fun! I had visions of all of the amazing pieces I would create--stuffed animals and afghans for my pregnant friends, socks for my mom, Barbie clothes! I couldn't wait to dig in.
My first project was a square washcloth. Simple enough, right? Well, remember how I mentioned my lack of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence? My fingers apparently were not connected to my brain for much of the project. My washcloth had morphed into a trapezoid marred with holes and crooked stitches. As we came back for the next class, I figured, "Eh, this is probably hard for the others too?" When I walked in, I looked around at the other perfectly constructed washcloths in the room (I have a feeling that many of those women were NOT beginning knitters. Having never touched a pair of needles qualifies you as a beginner in my book. Just sayin'.) The woman to my right commented on how "easy" the washcloth turned out to be. Easy?! Seriously?! What must I be doing wrong that some people actually thought this was easy? I cracked a few jokes at trainwreck trapezoid before I sunk lower in my chair. Right then and there, I almost quit knitting before I really ever started. I felt defeated. All over a dumb washcloth.
Class was pretty much over for me. I couldn't attend to the new project our instructor was sharing. I shut down. As I sat slumped down in my chair, I had a moment of realization: kids feel like this in school all the time. They feel defeated. They want to give up before they start because they are scared of creating the one trapezoidal washcloth in class. They hear their classmates proudly proclaim, "This is easy!" and they don't want to be the kids who say, "This is hard!" Those words would indicate a lack of skill, talent, or intelligence. And, who wants to be seen as less intelligent?
My mind wandered to some of the kids in my math class. We have worked hard to change the language of taking risks, of making mistakes, of not reaching your goal the first time. We seek to embrace our mistakes, and we actually celebrate the opportunity they provide for growth. Now, I hear kids say, "Oh, Mrs. Traber, I'm not good at this," and a classmate chimes in, "Yet. You might not be good at this yet." When a student experiences success, he/she doesn't say, "This is easy." He/she says, "This is easy . . . for me." Using this language has allowed all of the kids to feel free to express their challenges and their successes, honoring the idea that we don't need to "get it right" the first time. They understand that intelligence is not a fixed attribute--the first time you complete a task is not indicative of your talent or skill level. I can tell you that there is a lot more learning going on among the kids who truly believe this.
After that class, I found myself telling people, "I can't knit." Then, I realized that statement goes against my fundamental beliefs of the human capacity to learn. All my life, I played it safe. If it looked too hard, I didn't attempt it. I didn't want to fail. I also didn't want to hear the "This is easy" statement from the people around me when it wasn't easy. . . for me. More importantly, I was worried that someone in my life expected me to get it right the first time.
It is now March 7th, and I just arrived home from a sock knitting class. I am going to knit a pair of socks. I held my head a little higher during this class because I realize that I DON'T HAVE TO BE PERFECT. Since the disaster known as the washcloth, I've knitted a cell phone case, worked on a winter hat for my son, and started a lacework scarf for my daughter. I needed to let go of the images on the patterns, realizing my work doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be. The work reflects my learning as I go, mistakes and successes captured by yarn and bamboo needles. I choose to keep going because no one expects me to be perfect. Not even myself.
I hung my first washcloth up in my classroom and shared the story with my fourth graders. Their eyes popped out of their heads when I told them I had made it. I looked into their shiny eyes and told them, "Yes, I made that, and yes, I am still learning. Knitting is hard for me, and that's okay. But, I am going to keep practicing because the only way to learn to knit is to go on and knit, just like the only way to learn is just to go on and learn. It may not be easy, and you will make a lot of mistakes. The end product may not turn out how you anticipated, but you will be stronger for having tried." One of my kids piped up, "Just like you tell us, 'It is o.k. not to know, but its not o. k. not to try. You tried, Mrs. Traber!" If I teach my students nothing else, I hope they walk away knowing mistakes help us grow.
I'm never gonna take that washcloth down. Its very presence humbles me and connects me to the process of learning, of being old enough and wise enough to know that I don't have to get it right the first time. Life's not easy. . . for me, and I may not be good at it. . . yet. But, someday, if I keep on keeping on, I just might get the hang of it.