Five Hands Too Many

5 hands too many

“Close your eyes,” I began hopeful that the added layer of anonymity would give the 21 obviously surprised, but suddenly silent students in my daughter-in-law’s 5th grade class at Amanda Arnold Elementary School the freedom necessary to more honestly respond to the $64,000 question to follow. “Now, raise your hand if you’re perfect,” I continued, “if you’ve never made a mistake in your entire life.” I then asked those who had “their hands in the air” to “keep them up” and everyone in the room to “open their eyes and look around.” “Be honest with me,” I said, “how many of you expected to see at least one hand in the air?” A few hands sheepishly went up – likely believing (naively) that certainly their teacher fit the bill! “How many of you are GLAD you didn’t?” I continued, as a large chorus of hands began shooting up and bright, knowing smiles, including my own, burst forth around the room. Seizing the moment and before they could think too much, I then asked: “How many of you wish you WERE perfect – that you didn’t have a single flaw?” (5 hands) “How many of you think it’s possible TO BE perfect? (same 5 hands). Twenty percent – I had some work to do.

“Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” I said, glancing towards the classroom door to make doubly sure no one else was listening. “When I was your age, I not only wanted to be perfect, I believed it was possible to be perfect. In fact, I was convinced of it.” “To make matters worse (and, believe me, it did make matters worse),” I said, sharing my heart, I was pretty sure there was someone in my life, my dad, who EXPECTED me to be PERFECT.” I could see (and feel) the sudden shift in the mood in the room. “Don’t get me wrong,” I proceeded, “it wasn’t as if he ever told me that, but you know the way parents are, they don’t actually have to say things for you to know what they’re thinking. You can read it in their faces, in their moods . . . in their silence – and my dad was never very good about hiding his disappointment in me, especially when I came home with test results that fell a little (or a lot) short of 100%, had an untimely strike-out at a key moment in a little league baseball game (there were no shortage of those!) or missed a key putt or shot in a high school golf or bowling tournament.”

“Before long, my dad’s disappointment in me (real or imagined), became mine in myself. Every time I fell even a little shy of perfect at whatever I happened to be doing (school, play, work, friendship, etc.), I got upset with myself – very upset. The funny thing was: even on those RARE occasions when I managed to be ‘perfect’ at something (e.g., got A+/100% on a test, won a tournament, mowed the lawn without missing a single blade of grass, etc.), I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it for very long, because I knew a ‘new something’ was lurking in the shadows just around the corner, waiting to prove to me that I wasn’t quite as perfect as I thought I was or thought I needed to be. As I got older, I began to feel a tremendous amount of guilt and shame in my imperfection, because, in one important way, I wasn’t any different from every other kid I knew: I wanted my dad to be proud of me. I wanted to avoid disappointing him and, in my mind, every mistake I made – no matter how big or small – made it that much less likely I would get what I wanted most.” By now, the room (teacher and adults included!) was totally silent and I was fighting back the tears, hopeful they (especially the 5) were getting the message.

“I struggled to be perfect for a long time – a very long time. The more elusive it became, the harder I tried to track it down. And then, one day, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I was never going to be perfect – that making mistakes is just part of being human, that all of us make them – I make them, you make them, Mrs. Blackwell makes them, your friends and classmates make them, (whispering) even your parents make them. I also realized that making a mistake is not the end of the world, that it’s actually an important part of learning and that being willing to make a mistake is necessary for us to take chances in life – unafraid that things might not work out the way we hope they will or might not work out at all. Recognizing that we’re imperfect also makes it a lot easier to be humble, to reach out to others for help instead of feeling like we should be able to do everything perfectly all by ourselves. Most importantly, knowing that we’re just as ‘good’ at making mistakes as everyone else makes it possible for us to ask others for forgiveness when those mistakes cause hurt and more willing to forgive those who in their own imperfection fall short of our expectations or hurt us.”

“But, here’s the KEY: Mistakes can only do all of those great things if we let them – if, instead of beating ourselves up every time we make one, instead of allowing every mistake we make to convince us that we’re a “failure,” that we’re “stupid,” “that we can’t doing anything right,” instead of letting others use them as weapons against us, we see them for what they are – a MISTAKE (“mis•take – verb \mə-‘stāk\ to understand (something or someone) incorrectly; to make a wrong judgment about (something)”) and use them for what they were intended: To grow and become stronger! I know that’s a lot easier to SAY than it is to DO – believe me, I know. It took me nearly 40 years to do it – 40 years of racing around like a greyhound trying to catch an electronic rabbit (perfection) that I was never going to catch, because it doesn’t exist! I don’t want you to spend 40 years of your life doing that. In fact, I don’t want you to spend another 40 minutes doing it. I want you to love YOU for who YOU are – imperfections and all – and I want you to encourage your friends AND YOUR PARENTS to do the same!”


The Beauty Of Writing By Ear


One of the things I shared with my daughter-in-law’s 5th graders during last Friday’s chat about mistakes is the fact that I hate grammar – likely because I’ve never been very good at it!  The students were shocked to hear that as part of my “classroom confession” given that I was there in my capacity as a writer! I told them I write by ear and put punctuation wherever it seems to fit. I also confided that commas are a particular weakness of mine much to the chagrin of my lifelong editor (i.e., my son’s 6 grade English teacher). They loved the idea that an author has absolutely no clue what punctuation goes where and that I seemed almost proud of it. I’m not, of course. Actually, I’m more than a little bit embarrassed by it, but I was willing to swallow my pride to make a larger point about embracing our mistakes, which, based on the following “thank you” note, I think I mostly succeeded in doing:

Dear Mr. Blackwell,

Thank you so, very much for coming and, talking to our class today. All the way from Miami, Florida. I also, am very thankful for the book, you signed for me. I really liked it when, you told us about what inspired you to write and, when you told us how to publish a book. Thanks again!


P.S. The commas (and periods) might not be in the right spots. You inspired me to put them in the wrong spot!

No need to be alarmed Emma Manning Blackwell! I’m pretty sure Cooper knows where they really belong!

“Because Friends Don’t Say Things Like That!”


A few years ago, I had the privilege to speak to my daughter-in-law’s 5th grade class at Amanda Arnold Elementary School regarding my second “children’s” book, Rounding Third, which they’d read earlier in the week.  It’s always a treat to get the opportunity to influence the lives of young people in a positive way and that “Author Visit” certainly was no exception, as evidenced by the following exchange:

Me: How many of you have ever made a mistake and thought (or said) to yourself: “How in the world could you make a mistake like that? You are so STUPID!”

5th Graders: Lots of hands in the air.

Me: How many of you, upon learning that your best friend had made a mistake, would say to them: “You are so STUPID! How could you make a mistake like that?

5th Graders: No hands.

Me (looking confused): Why wouldn’t you do that?

5th Graders: “Because it’s not nice.” “Because it would hurt their feelings.” “Because friends don’t say things like that to each other.” “Because it would make them sad.”

Me: Then why would you say it to yourself?!?

5th Graders (light bulbs illuminating): Smiling. :)!

A Sliver Of Silver


Having an exceptional memory is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you seldom forget anything, especially things that matter, and it’s a curse because, well, you seldom forget anything! Fortunately, most of my memories are fond ones, a by-product of my having cherry-picked the ones I allow to populate the “living spaces” in my life ( Some are not ( However, experience has taught me that, if I’m attentive and willing to look beyond the “personal crisis” of the moment, there often is a sliver of a silver lining to be found embedded in even the darkest of the not-so-fond memories – an image or truth that affords an opportunity for growth, plants a seed of hope or serves to quiet the inner storms just long enough to allow me to regain much needed perspective.

And so it was ten years ago as I sat down to dinner with my then 19 year-old son at a nice restaurant in North Dallas. We were en route home from Kansas at the time and, for reasons that are mostly inconsequential to this post, it had been a very long and difficult day. Between seemingly interminable car rides, airport delays and plane rides and two prior sit down meals, we had long since exhausted all the words we had to say to (at times scream at) one another and, in the process, expended a week’s worth of emotional energy. To borrow a phrase from a friend, I’d had enough ( All I (and, I suspect, my son) wanted to do was eat (in silence), walk back to the hotel, get a good night’s sleep and keep our fingers crossed that tomorrow would be a better (more peace-filled) day.

That’s when I saw them – the young couple sitting at a candle-lit table near the window, bearing the unmistakable look of love. What made it so unmistakable that it was plainly visible clear across the dimly lit dining room, that 10 years later the image would be as clear in my mind as if I’d seen it yesterday? Was it the sometimes playful, sometimes seductive, but always peaceful smiles that graced their faces? Was it their arms – outstretched, holding and tenderly caressing each other’s hands? It was all of those things (and more), but mostly it was their eyes – the way they looked at each other – eyes fixed on searching one another’s soul, not for flaws that they could stockpile as ammunition for some future petty squabble, but for tiny doorways that might lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the gift sitting across the table – eyes in search of adventure and filled with gratitude.

As our dinner arrived and I was catapulted back into my own moment, I struggled to hide my tear-filling eyes from my son fearful that he would mistakenly feel responsible for them, when, in fact, they were borne of hope – a gift from the young couple by the window – hope that one day the young man sitting across the table from me (and his sister) would be fortunate enough to know and be beneficiaries of that kind of love – a love that consumed them, that just when they thought they’d had their fill of it would leave them thirsting for more, that in the other’s absence, left them physically aching for the other’s touch, a love that never stopped eagerly searching for those little doorways and the promise of something new hidden on the other side of their thresholds – and that, when it came, they would be willing/able to stop long enough, be vulnerable enough to see it and fully embrace it.

And to think, had my own darkness not momentarily distracted me, had I not looked beyond myself and “above” the emotional clutter of a difficult day, I might never have seen the silver lining that was there for all the world to see that night or experienced the soothing silent tears that I finally “allowed” to stream down the side of my face.