On Parenting and Teaching: Confronting Regret and Rejecting Perfect

Regret is a significant part being human—especially for parents and teachers.

If I must confront my greatest regrets, most would be those too many times I have fallen short as a parent; close behind would be my failures as a teacher.

My parenting regrets are most weighty because I have one daughter, and thus, had only one chance each time along the way of both parenting and learning to parent. With students, we teachers suffer the delusion of starting over a little better each academic year with new students so the stumbles and falls sort of blend into all the years, as well as into all the many successes.

Kind words, loving words from a daughter or a student can mean the world, but I have noticed my daughter and many of my students are far too kind, far too forgiving, far too likely to have seen when I got things (mostly) right. And for that, I am eternally thankful.

But I have noticed during the recent debates and discussions of Adrian Peterson’s physically harming his child while practicing what Peterson has described as simply how he was disciplined as a child that many people extend that nostalgic view of their parents and teachers in ways that demand perfection in order to be good.

In other words, embracing “my parents did X, thus it must be OK” creates the necessity of being perfect in order to have been good. And this in turn fails, actually, the very best parents and the very best teachers who, in fact, often present us with negative examples—by having failed, we learn what not to do.

One of the most fortunate events of my life was being assigned Lynn Harrill’s tenth and eleventh grade English classes when I entered high school. It was those years, looking back, that turned me toward the man I have become and the careers that define me—teaching and writing.

Other than my blood kin, I cannot imagine anyone more important in the first decades of my life. But Lynn and I have often talked about the many ways he feels he failed us as an English teacher because he was in his first few years.

Of course, I had only seen the good—the kindness, the patience, the challenges, and most of all the free-wheeling and energetic class discussions that Lynn was a master at fostering among us.

In my tenth grade, however, I was an uber-nerd, reading science fiction and collecting comic books. And here Lynn and I many years later recognized that his negative attitude about those hobbies were well off base—passions of mine he should have fostered instead of telling me to move on from such childishness and to more serious stuff.

And despite Lynn being well ahead of his time as a teacher of English (one of the early few influenced by the National Writing Project), his class remained trapped inside several traditional practices that were torture for me—notably the vocabulary workbook and tests merry-go-round.

I loathed those homework assignments and my course grade was lowered significantly because of my poor vocabulary test grades.

About five years after high school, I found myself in Lynn’s seat, the English teacher replacing him as he moved to the district office.

And I taught high school English for 18 years, daily trying my best to do his name and work justice by being the best English teacher possible, including often implementing practices because I had learned from Lynn what to do but also what not to do.

And then several years later, when my daughter was born, I embarked on the hardest thing I have ever done, parenting. And I botched that often.

I had wonderful and playful parents growing up, but one of the worst experiences of that childhood included being spanked (often with a belt) and much of that punishment came from a “do as I say, not as I do” mindset that ruled our home.

Children were to be seen and not heard, and when food was put before you, you were to eat it, regardless.

The greatest honor I have maintained of my parents’ love and my mostly wonderful childhood was that my daughter was never spanked and she ate as she pleased.

Teachers and parents do not have to be perfect to be good, or even great.

The people who shape us and guide us do not have to be viewed through a distorting nostalgia in order to remain the ones we love and cherish.

In this my 31st year of teaching, my 25th year of parenting, and my first year of grand-parenting, I am moved and honored as I watch my daughter be the parent I was not as that rests comfortably with all the ways that she has committed to many of my better qualities as a father.

Yes, the human condition is often about regret, but we also are afforded possibly more than we deserve the cycles that are life.

Like the seasons circling back around onto themselves, we are presented the same opportunities again and again. It is not about being perfect, but about seeing where we did well in order to repeat and where we failed in order to do better next time.

My parents and many of my best teachers were far from being perfect, and I love them all—and I can honor that love only by my commitments to not be them when they failed me each time my new chance comes around again.

Like Emily in Our Town, we must recognize that regret comes from not looking hard enough—and looking hard enough includes seeing the wonderful and the misguided.

Instead of claiming or seeking perfect, then, we might better navigate around and through regret if we simply commit to looking hard enough and then to following a path to happiness.

Kurt Vonnegut’s in “Knowing What’s Nice” offers:

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

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