Lessons from an Eraser
Two weeks ago, I walked up and down the aisles of Party City, eager to find a souvenir for one of my favorite students. As a tutor, I have learned the truth in the saying “when one teaches, two learn,” and this student has particularly taught me a lot in the short time I have spent with her. With public schools beginning class, I thought I could give this student a small token of my appreciation and a reminder that I believe in all that she can achieve.
I walked out with a pencil topper: a bright pink pig eraser to proudly sit at the top of the essential school supply.
Several days later, when my student began to run out of steam towards the end of our session, I motivated her with the promise of a small surprise. She quickly rushed through her multiplication problems and tapped her fingers restlessly on the desk, awaiting her gift. After correcting her minor errors, I pulled two pencils out and held them in front of my student.
“What is the difference between these two pencils?”
“That’s easy: one has a full eraser and the other has just a nub.” She laughed, “Maybe I’ve been working it too hard.”
“Well what can we do to fix that?”
“Put on another eraser!” she answered as she handed me a simple pencil topper.
“But everything else is fine, right? We don’t need any more lead?”
“Right….” she said, tired of answering obvious questions, and looking around suspiciously for her prize.
“Stay with me, I’m almost getting to my point!”
“I want you to remember something when you go into fifth grade. You will make many mistakes. You will use your eraser to correct them. But you are not allowed to run out of lead.”
She looks at me, wondering what I’m getting at.
“You understand,” I tried again, “that we are all supposed to make mistakes. Erasers are used up quickly, but they can always be replaced.”
She gave me her signature smile, “Cassie, I always make mistakes! I know all this.”
Perhaps, I am not smarter than a fifth grader.
I handed her the pig eraser. “This pig is going to be with you for your mistakes. Don’t get too attached, though, he will be worn down quickly. I want you to continue making mistakes and continue erasing to make room for a new attempt. Mistakes are evidence that we care enough to struggle before we get something right.”
She smiled, thanked me, and was out the door, eraser in hand.
That eraser lesson, I found, was less for my student, and more for my own validation. I have come to realize that no matter how many times I stumble, I fail to give myself a break. As a post-graduate, I can officially add “stumbling” as a relevant skill to my LinkedIn: one that, I’m sure, many connections would endorse. It may as well be my full time job. Just when I think I’ve got it figured out, something changes and a rug is pulled out from under me.
Nothing can prepare you for feeling unprepared in the “real world.” There’s no glossary, no professorial advisor, no syllabus, and, perhaps the most disorienting, no grades. I don’t know how I did during my last tutoring session. I’m not sure of my strengths in my last interview (although, I can confidently report many weaknesses). I know my attempt at explaining how to find the greatest common factor to one of my students was a solid C, but who can say about my creative fifth grade pep talk? My progress has always been measured by a straight-forward alphabetical code. Now, I can’t stop comparing my own progress to the status of my former classmates.
I can’t help but think it would be easier to answer the incessant question “what have you been doing?” with a 9 to 5 job title. When posed with that question, I begin to ramble about my side jobs and hobbies. In the end, though, I always end up smiling and concluding with, “I’m just trying to figure it out.” I suppose that’s what we’re all doing; whoever and wherever we are in life.
My eraser is a stub. But I am stubborn. I take out my lead.
Yes; my planner has more crossed out appointments than plans that have come to fruition. Yes, I have accepted too many jobs in a desperate attempt to feel important. Yes, I have whittled down countless erasers, but more importantly, no; I have not run out of lead.
Some of the skills I have learned, I never thought I would need. I have learned how to politely turn down a job offer, how to excitedly accept a position (and subsequently run into a wall and bump into a table), how to teach fifth grade mathematics, how to use coupons wherever I go, how to schedule and re-reschedule appointments, and how to enjoy every bite of my McDonald’s meal that I paid for with my hard-earned money. And I am grateful for that.
The other day I had to tell my student that it was our last session together because of my new job. She teared up. In that split second when a vulnerable fifth grader tugged back her tears, I wanted to take it all back. I tried to explain why I had to go and quickly talked up her next tutor. Throughout our session she would not-so-subtly digress to guilt me about leaving, and we would laugh together. We would laugh because we knew we would both be okay.
We both have a lot of lead left and many mistakes to make.
And I think I can learn to accept that.
[Photo by Julie Bloom.]