“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Albert Einstein
Something I do a lot of in Senegal is make mistakes.
I don’t greet someone accidentally (which can be a huge social slip-up). I forget people’s names on a daily basis (insulting). I use my left hand to handle money or greet someone (it’s your “dirty” hand). I do something culturally inappropriate for women or for someone my age and get called out for it. I forget to remind my host mom of my schedule, or I do something my family doesn’t know about and get in trouble. I get ridiculed for being a dumb toubab when I do anything different.
Sometimes these remarks stay with me, they grate and chafe until I cry or vent angrily to my site-mate, or hide away and rashly swear off anything Senegalese.
But eventually I calm down, I forgive myself, I move on –and graciously, so does my community. They know that I am just learning, and so while at times they are quick to chastise me, they are also quick to forgive.
But these instances have reminded me of other times where mistakes have weighed me down, lingered with me. And I remember the shame that I hid away with my imperfections. Time after time, I was told my mistakes would have a lasting effect on my future, where if I did not act perfectly, it could ruin my entire life.
Our society hides mistakes. I grew up making sure that no matter what, my record was clean and perfect, that any official paper said exactly what any future educator/employer/benefactor would want to see.
Have good attendance.
Keep your grades up.
Don’t get caught doing anything incriminating.
So I made sure to get to school on time. I had extracurriculars that would make me look committed and interesting. I passed all my tests and worked to never fall behind.
But I stopped learning at some point. I was on a factory belt for success but I never defined what that meant to myself. Instead of being creative and courageous in my education, I began to settle for passing.
Now when I look back, I remember cramming for my AP World History test, but I hardly remember the topic. I scored a 5, but to know anything about the history of the country I am living in, I had to Google search Senegal. I took the highest level English classes available, but somehow I forgot how much I love to read and write until I had the time to do so on my own accord.
If you look at my record, you will see that my grades started dropping after 10th or 11th grade, you will think, “She lost her spark.” In a way I did, because passing was what I was striving so hard for, passing was all I did. I forgot that behind the grade point average, there were actual lessons to be learned, information to be had. It wasn’t enough for me. I was bored with the system.
The more I think about this, the more I have started to regret. Regret how I passedhigh school. Regret that I spent four years of my life so dedicated to my future and success, that I stopped living or really learning, in order to get to college, to get a job, to fit perfectly into the cookie cutter life that lays ahead for me.
Victor Wooten said in his TED talk, Music as a Language,”We don’t refuse to communicate with infants who are learning to talk, because they don’t speak perfectly yet, do we? What kind of world would this be if that were the case? Is there no room for development anymore?”
And so much like Wooten’s example, my family keeps talking to me, even though my Wolof is flawed and imperfect. My community keeps accepting me, even though I make mistakes on a regular basis.
I have realized something even bigger, that my regret is a symptom of this very problem. I made a mistake by being so afraid to make mistakes in high school that I became complacent. But that doesn’t have to stop me from breaking out now. I get the chance to take a lesson from my Senegalese family and move out of this cycle. I can’t let regret or shame stop me from being the kind of person who inspires me. I have the power to look back on my life and see who I have been, acknowledge my mistakes, and let them guide me. I have the power to change.
I have the freedom to choose my own path, and to stop worrying about my mistakes. Maybe taking a bridge year was a mistake, but I have already learned from it. I still don’t know if I want to go to college or start a business or go to another country on my own. My future is not defined in any way beyond the fact that it will be full of mistakes; I am rash and young, excited and nervous, and I have the track history to prove it.