Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy!

By Oletta Branstiter

The title of this article is the motto of Ms. Frizzle, the main character in the Magic School Bus science adventure series by Joanna Cole.

The public intermediate school where I serve as a Librarian is now a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Academy campus. It’s so exciting to see fifth- and sixth-grade students encouraged to explore, experiment and examine results. Children are learning that blunders can often yield more valuable lessons than immediate successes.

This attitude also breeds creativity in faculty and staff. The risks we take today often result in unexpected rewards in the future. Our administration expects that mistakes will be made along the way. Even my students find the courage to respectfully correct me when I am wrong.

I am also blessed to have colleagues in my writing endeavors who encourage me to spread my literary wings, well aware that, occasionally, I will take a nosedive. Gratefully, I know that my peers and mentors will pick me up and dust me off and set me back up to try again.

In an effort to promote this ethos, I plan to end the school year with a special presentation to each class when they visit the Library for the last time before Summer Break. It will be a book talk based on a real-life adventure.

In 2011, every class in the elementary school where I was the campus Librarian watched videos recorded by the Vogel family as they attempted to cycle the 17,000-mile Pan-American highway. The then-10-year-old twin boys wanted to become the youngest people to accomplish this feat and earn their place in the Guinness World Book of Records. It took the Vogels two and half years to achieve their goal. After months of viewing their tavel videos in as close to real-time as possible, the whole school celebrated with them, via a Skype interview, after witnessing their arrival at Tierra del Fuego.

Soon after, we learned the heartbreaking news that the boys’ accomplishment would not be recognized by the Guinness organization. They had retired that challenge sometime during the Vogel’s trip, out of fear that children’s lives would be endangered in an effort to attain it. Oh, the agony of defeat!

The Vogels had made the costly mistake of failing to stay updated on current Guinness policies. The boys felt like colossal failures as if they had wasted two and half years of their young lives.

After allowing them to grieve, their mom, Nancy, reminded them of all the notes, photos and videos they had taken along their journey. She suggested that they write their own book to recognize their accomplishment. And, in the retelling of their adventure, the whole family realized that their reward was worth much more than their risk. They had survived bears and cold and heat and hunger and illness and exhaustion and countless setbacks. They had learned that, basically, people are good at heart, as they made many friendships along the way. They learned to rely on each other when no one else was around for miles. The boys, unschooled along the way, had learned survival skills and geography and math and language and science through real-life experiences. Would they have done it without the motivation of hoping to be recognized by the Guinness World Book of Records? Probably not. But, they admitted, they were sure glad they did it anyway!

Nancy Vogel gave a TED talk about their admittedly misguided adventure. She confessed to being terrified by the unknown before they set out. As a mother, she was most afraid of mistakes she would make along the way that might put her children in jeopardy. But, like Dory, admonishing Nemo’s dad in the cartoon movie Finding Nemo, Nancy knew that if “something happened” to her children, she wanted to be there to experience it with them. She wrote the grand opus of their Pan-American cycling adventure, titled Changing Gears: A Family Odyssey to the End of the World, in which she asks the reader the same question I ask my students after telling the Vogel story: “What would you dare to do if you weren’t afraid?”

Nancy was afraid- afraid of dangers, afraid of failure, afraid of making costly mistakes. But she and her family admitted that every risk was worth the many rewards that could never be denied to them.

So go ahead. Take risks. Make mistakes. They’re proof of a life lived with purpose.

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