“On flights from the west coast to the east, pilots spend about 90 percent of their time off course. The rest of their time is spent making small corrections.” Luis Garza, Dance Teacher
Sometime ago, I resigned myself to the fact that I had never gained a vital life skill: how to learn something difficult. Now I know, learning how to learn something challenging is key to a happy life.
After all, I’ve made most of my academic and career choices to hide the fact that I never mastered basic math. As an undergraduate, that meant art school instead of a university and thus giant holes in my knowledge of the sciences and foreign languages, subjects I now find beautiful, if only from afar.
As a child, I happily spent hours drawing, dancing, reading, and writing. Even when I experienced difficulties there, I made quick improvements or received affirmation that made the risk of continual effort seem worthy.
Math was never like that. At its most basic level, I didn’t understand how it worked, and I didn’t like things that had propensities for right and wrong answers. I felt I might be more easily found out in disciplines where there was no room for nuance or gradation. What secret parts of myself I felt necessary to keep hidden as a child, I do not know.
I was competitive, yes, but I lacked the commitment required of actual competition. I wanted to win without hard work and without being seen as a failure. That meant if something didn’t come easily or I couldn’t learn it quickly, I pulled away.
Thankfully, life presents many opportunities for failure. Repeated failure, I’ve discovered, is necessary for a life of richness and depth.
In the third grade, Mrs. Giovanetti gave the class a short story assignment. Afterward she called me over to Thomas’ desk. “Show him how not to begin every sentence with ‘and,’” our teacher said. I took the task of helping Thomas as a sure sign I had written my own story well.
At that age, it never occurred to me to think about how Thomas might feel. Perhaps he was the budding Donald Barthelme of our class and his ands were a grand experiment, mining the power of repetition and narrative expectations. My role: help him cross out every one.
Second story (a memory which makes me cringe to recall). I once spent a summer in Malaga, Spain enrolled in a language immersion course. I was a terrible learner, lacking both the ability to easily recognize language patterns and the willingness to memorize them. Spanish became the language I was dumb in.
I sat in cafes, for hours staring blankly at my homework, once something about the subjuntivo. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what we were meant to do with it; the teacher gave all instruction in Spanish. I cried in frustration and panic. Imagine that: an adult woman; an American woman; in a café; crying over a textbook. I was ridiculous and knew it.
Later with tear-stained cheeks, I walked under palms lining the beachfront promenade where I recognized a family I had seen more than once: an elderly couple and their adult son, a retarded man, who looked like someone with Down syndrome. As they walked a few feet ahead of me, I listened to the family’s gentle chatter––a breezy elegant Spanish.
“Fine,” I thought. “Sure the parents can speak it. I get it! But the son? With his condition! My envy was no joke. At that moment it consumed me––its constriction as hot and thick as a blanket.
After that I put aside dreams of linguistic mastery and stuck to things I already did well, or at least things I thought I did well. But somewhere in my middle age, a life spent doing things acceptably, competently, seemed like a very small kind of life, indeed.
It occurred to me that even though I might never know how to speak Spanish well, with enough effort, I might learn to read my favorite authors in their original voice, or at least enjoy sounds their words make in my mind.
Even if I lose every came of Words with Friends, a game at which I’m abysmal, there might nevertheless be a strange joy in trying.
And then there’s tango: of all the social dances, surely the most difficult. I now take pride in learning how to learn something at which I’m just not very good.
To not be good, and to do it anyway is a true freedom. The hours I’ve spent breathing in the hot-cabbage breath of an equally beginning partner, who guides me around the floor while simultaneously cataloguing every error in my footwork, are hours I now treasure.
What freedom to stick with lessons long enough that I can now be guided by similar partners and no longer focus on their breath or critique.