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30 April 2005

Celebrate every orange flag

The truth is that everything that can be accomplished by showing a person when he's wrong, ten times as much can be accomplished by showing him where he is right. The reason we don't do it so often is that it's more fun to throw a rock through a window than to put in a pane of glass.” - Robert T. Allen

Three stories, one theme:

The first story

Emmas_birthday_164_1One afternoon a few weeks after my older daughter started first grade, I picked her up from school and drove to my husband’s bookshop to say hi. When we pulled up, John ran out to see us, leaning in the car window to give Emma a kiss. “How was school today, Buddy?” he asked.

“I had my first test today!” she exclaimed brightly. (How wonderful, I thought. A whole lifetime of testing has opened up for you…).

What was our first question to her?  “How’d you do?” (Yes, let’s get straight to the bottom line.)

“I got 30%!” she proudly shouted, a huge grin on her pixie face. The body language between me and John was unmistakable. “Oh my lord,” we were both thinking, “she’ll never pass first grade, we’ll have to hire tutors her whole life, she won’t get into college…”

My first impulse was to say “you must feel terrible,” but by some miracle, I stopped myself. Instead, I asked, “How did that make you feel?”  “I got some right!” she burst out without hesitation, so proud of her accomplishment.

Wow. What a fantastic way of looking at the world.

I’m not suggesting we aim for 30%, but why don’t we stop to celebrate the successes we do have?

The second story

OrangeflagI remember a “trek -in - the - woods - team - building” event years ago with colleagues from work (in the freezing rain, no less). We were on a scavenger hunt in the forest, trying to learn these lessons: 1) if we worked together more effectively, we would all succeed; 2) What we could accomplish together was more than what we could achieve alone; and 3) Etcetera.

I didn’t learn what the organizers intended. What I learned instead were six things:

1) I don’t like freezing rain. It makes me cranky, itchy, and very, very cold.

2) Freezing rain appears to make other people passive aggressive.

3) If you would just tell me those lessons rather than make me suffer to discover them, I would believe you. I promise.

4) Some people don’t care who is left behind or who falls down in the mud.

5) People don’t stop being bullies when they grow up. They just dress differently to fool you.

6) Human beings are lousy at stopping long enough to celebrate those precious moments when we find the small orange flags in the woods.

Every time our muddy selves found another flag on our team-building expedition, rather than take 10 seconds to say “aren’t we fabulously bright, talented, and frozen scavengers!” our leader (self-proclaimed) would scream angrily, “we need to move faster! You’re slowing us down!” Though there was definitely therapy in his future, he spoke for many in the group—we’ve got to do it better, faster. Celebrating would take precious time that we could be achieving (or over-achieving, as the case may be). “Why?” I thought to myself. “Why not allow for that momentary glee, just a group ‘yee-haw’ or the tiniest round of applause?”

The third story

On January 10, 2002, Emma was in the fourth grade, laboring over a timed 6-problem test on “Pythagorean Division.” Thank god that special hell is reserved for the young. Her dad found the test paper recently. There were six word problems, the kind that used to drive me insane—why on earth is Mr. Smith driving 15 miles per hour anyway? Isn’t the speed limit 55? Why doesn’t Mrs. Smith tell him in no uncertain terms to pick up the speed? And why does he eat only 5.25 apples? Why not splurge and eat 6 apples or give the other .75 to the long-suffering Mrs. Smith? Who cares which pencil is the sharpest, who gets to town the quickest, who breeds more llamas, or how long the train tracks are?

Emmamath2Looking at Emma’s childish, penciled notes, scared and tentative in the margin beside the questions, it broke my heart. I can just imagine her bent over the paper, not quite 10 years old, fiercely biting her nails and struggling to make sense of how many chirps a cricket makes as the temperature rises. The question about 5-cent and 7-cent stamps seems a particularly cruel one, with Emma resorting to creating a circle of numbers to the left of the question, 5¢ shouldered by 7¢, 3 connected to 30¢ to 6 and back to 5¢, a maypole circle of confusion, with small almost invisible question marks above the 5¢ and the 7¢.

When her thirty minutes was up, Emma had only written in 3 answers, leaving blank the questions about how many acres a large tractor can plow in an hour, what would come 90th in a repetitive lineup of thumbtacks, paper clips, and pushpins, and, of course, the horrific and damaging stamp question. Of the three she answered, she only got one right: at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, a cricket would chirp 108 times. If only I had known that years ago, my life would have been complete.

So, after 30 minutes of timed torment, my poor little Emma got only one answer right.

You can just imagine what her teacher wrote in big red letters at the bottom of the page.

But no, it wasn’t what I expected: “1 out of 6,” Miss Coti wrote, “Great effort!”

Two words that made all the difference in how Emma felt getting that paper back and how hard she tried the next time. It was obvious from her deranged figuring in the margins that she was drowning while testing; Miss Coti chose to celebrate the 108 chirps. It was Emma’s finest year in school yet.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Emmas_graduation_may_2003_047_2In our house, we sometimes run out of vital supplies like toilet paper, light bulbs, and Häagen Dazs Dulce de Leche ice cream, but 365 days a year you can be sure of finding a rather impressive supply of birthday candlesTess_with_candle_in_peaches on hand for impromptu celebrations. You lived through the swim test? Your pancakes tomorrow morning will come to you in a blaze of glory. Today you’re celebrating your half birthday? Get ready for a half-cake after dinner. It’s the first snow of the season, National Light Bulb Day, new haircut day, leap year? Lighted cupcakes will no doubt line the floor from your bedroom to the dining table tomorrow morning. You survived your evil 5th grade teacher who shall remain nameless? How about Cheerios with candles stuck through them for breakfast? You learned to tie your shoes? You fell off your horse and got back on? You read a 1,600 page book? You learned to cover your mouth when you cough? There are candles in your immediate future.

Everyday, ordinary, daily life should be a rambunctious celebration, a focus on the positive, a paean to possibility and glee. Slow down, take time, encourage, celebrate your 30%. Stock up on birthday candles. Use them with wild abandon.


“If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.” -Dorothy Law Nolte

“Correction does much, but encouragement does more.” -Johann von Goethe


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I can quite honestly say that I've never been more inspired by a blog post before now. I thank you for sharing this much needed inspiration with me and with others. I know that my daughter will benefit by my reading this. I will check back often to see what other pearls of wisdom you have to share so graciously. Thank you! With kindest regards, Ez

wow. what a very nice note - thanks so much for taking the time to write...i'm just glad that something about this post was meaningful for regards - patti

*puts "copious amounts of birthday candles" on her shopping list*

What a glorious blast! I'm still doing the unusual and getting away with it! Cheers to all the children who benefit! Give my love to Emma and to your whole family. You knows? My sister lives in NC. I'd love to hook up you some day. Let's make it happen.
Thanks for sending me your heartfelt blessings.

Note to self: Buy Candles!

I am learning to praise the good rather than shout at the bad - I have a new puppy.

Just wanted to say it was a great note, I am taking all the candles out of the cupboard:-)
Thank you

What a great idea! I'm buying candles tonite and celebrating something. :o))

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