Never say ‘I can’t,’ failed attempts are acceptable

Dr. Joey Brown - Professor of English

Dr. Joey Brown – Professor of English

I am a child of the original do-it-yourselfer.

My mother spent 20 years as what we now call a stay-at-home mom. Her daily concerns included the care and feeding of four children, my father, various dogs, some horses and the Duncan brothers’ goat who visited often from down the road.

She was, as they said in the 60s, a homemaker.

In many ways my mother interpreted that title literally.

When my sisters’ room needed bookshelves, she built them. When the den needed new flooring, she installed it. When the apples ripened, she made jelly.

She sewed most of the clothes my family wore, mended the screen door, fixed plumbing and whatever else she had to do.

She was the model of initiative.

It’s possible my mother’s initiative was born partly from boredom.

Our house was miles out in the country, at the end of a long dirt road. We had three fuzzy television channels and a party-line telephone.

Trips to town were limited by my father’s need to have the car for work, but then my parents were as working class as working class gets. So, much of my mother’s inventiveness was born of necessity. She did many of the things she did because otherwise we’d have gone without.

But my mother also did lots of other remarkable things, none of which came from need.

One spring, using little more than food coloring, Elmer’s glue and some L’eggs eggs, my mother crafted molded-sugar Easter eggs for display. They were purple with white piping. On the small end of each oval she made an opening, which revealed intricate dioramas of flower-dotted mountainsides in the eggs. One contained a tiny rabbit, cut from paper and glued to a toothpick, hopping down a trail.

Every year when my mom took the eggs down, I asked to unpack them. They were beautiful, delicate, detailed and perfect. I stared through the openings at the bunny and the Royal Icing flowers. I ran my palms over the smooth surfaces, amazed how solid they felt. I was fascinated. But in truth, I was fascinated by those eggs, because I couldn’t believe my mother had made them.

My mother? My very practical, organized, if-it’s-not-a-matter-of-life-and-death-don’t-you-even-ask-me-to-buy-it-for-you mother?

She has tried to teach me to sew, to crochet, to make her famous bonbons. I’ve attempted countless other creative endeavors: candle making, paper making and photography.

Here and there I succeed, but mostly I’m dissatisfied with my results.

My mother has sometimes been dissatisfied with her results too, but doesn’t say so unless pressed. Those eggs? She said the seals didn’t align properly on one egg when she assembled the two halves, so she piped on extra icing to cover.

The toothpick bunny? He wobbled, she claimed, though I’d always thought that it was an intentional part of the “hopping” effect.

My mom figured those eggs out on her own, without instructions, by looking at a picture in a magazine. She learned a lot doing it, she told me.

To this day if my mother hears me begin a sentence with “I can’t . . .” she immediately responds with “Why can’t you?” It’s a question meant to make me consider responsibility and character. I’m supposed to try, that question says.

Her lessons aren’t about sewing and bonbons, but they are many: I should think and plan. I should make inroads on my own. I should be able to identify my strengths and weaknesses, where I got off by that fraction. I should focus less on the results, more on how I got there. I should learn something on the way.

A failed attempt, when accompanied by sincere effort, is acceptable. Not trying is not.

It’s that very idea, the importance of trying, that I wish I could better convey to my students. When my students say, “I can’t …” I do the same as my mother. I try asking how far they’ve gotten, what they know they’ve gotten right, where they think they got off track. I try to get them to tell me what they’ve learned so far.

I understand their questions. Failure is scary. But as my mom would have us all understand, not trying is scarier.