My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.

But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.

I learnt a lot about mistakes when I was a literacy teacher.  Literacy teachers aren’t just role models in terms of reading and writing — they’re also responsible for modeling self-esteem.  In fact, back when I was a literacy teacher, I’d intentionally misspell a word on the board, then look at it sideways.  “Hmm, did I spell that right?” I’d muse.  “Tom, would you check the dictionary?”  Not only would Tom leap at that dictionary, but he’d also love telling me how to spell the word correctly.  I’d correct my spelling, publicly, without any shame, and the more I did this, the more the kids would check their own spellings and help one another other out, instead of bullying one another.  Peace and much learning ensued.

Mistakes are how we learn.  It’s the same with sex and gender.  And in a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to remember that.

I was musing about this when I read that sex columnist Dan Savage had been glitterbombed at the University of Oregon while he was giving a talk.  The glitterbombers, who called themselves the “Dan Savage Welcoming Committee,” announced that Savage was transphobic, a misogynist and a rape-apologist.  But Savage doesn’t dodge such accusations.   “I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues,” Savage recently said.  “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. Fifteen years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”

What I like about this is what it models for the rest of us:  We all slip up.  We all make mistakes.  What’s more important is that we try, learn, grow.

A friend of mine got upset recently when we were discussing the “gender binary” (the myth that there are just two genders and nothing in between).  We were talking about men’s and women’s restrooms, and whether, today, we needed them to be separate.  (My friend, incidentally, had always believed they should be separate).  I mentioned how hard it is to be a transgender male (for instance) in that situation.  Do you go into the women’s room, when you identify as male but are female in terms of biological sex?  Confusing, right?  Going to the restroom becomes a stressful experience.  People glare if you use the women’s because you are clearly male-identified, but you might have to wait for the stall if you go into the men’s.

In response, my friend felt terrible.  She hadn’t intended to leave anyone out.  But I reminded her that there was nothing to feel bad about.  When society teaches us untruths, it’s society’s fault.  And this is why we have to keep airing these issues and making mistakes, so we’re able to learn.

But while kids are attending sex education classes where the teacher is scared to speak, the students are afraid of being mocked, and the lessons themselves keeps to a careful script, how will they ever learn to ask the stupid question, receive a thoughtful answer, and change their minds?  They need to see adult role-models slipping up and owning it.  Not with condoms, consent and safe sex (those are basic building blocks) but with political correctness, sexual skills, and gender binaries galore.  They need to understand that making mistakes is how we grow.  Intellectually, they need to be adventurers, thirsty to explore, happy to learn.

So let’s go out there, adult people, and not blush terribly when we muddle up our pronouns, or say “fuck” when we didn’t plan to, or feel confused about the difference between water-based and gel-based lube.  Let’s get out there, and in it, and muck ourselves up.  Let’s ask the stupid question.

Because if we won’t grow, who will?

 

Most of us have holiday traditions that—good or bad—we take part in each year. My recent trip home reminded me that in my house, an important custom is the telling and retelling of family stories. The favorites—the ones that never seem to die—are those in which one of us has fucked up but good. We love reliving the times we made an awful mess of things.

In high school I had a friend that was a few years older than me who had come home from college over winter break. So I stopped by his mom’s house to say “hi” and catch up—it was the first time I met his family. They were decorating the house and putting ornaments on the tree—an important ritual that they had saved until my friend came home from school.

At some point, his mom very excitedly pulled out a box and proudly showed the rest of the family the brand new angel she bought for the top of the tree. It was this big, puffy white mass of satin and lace and gold garland trim and it was like her Christmas present to herself, she was so stoked about it.

The stoke levels registered much lower with her sons.

My friend, who had mastered the dramatic monologue, told his mom in no uncertain terms that the angel had no business on their Christmas tree. He held up this 1970s-era fiberglass star—flecked with rash-like patches of glitter remnants and specks of paint that could only serve as a sad reminder that it once had color. He then launched into an impassioned speech about how that star/abomination had been on their tree every Christmas for as long as he could remember.  He said, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree.”

His mom and that puffy angel never stood a chance. She tried to make a case at first, but you could see in her face that she knew she was fighting a losing battle. This sad, rusty old star symbolized the very meaning of Christmas and the angel would never even leave the box.

Until…

Triumphant, my friend tried to place the star on the top of the tree, which was just out of his reach. After watching him make a few attempts, I (FOR SOME FUCKING RIDICULOUS REASON THAT DECADES LATER I HAVE YET TO UNCOVER) offered to help.

I mean, sure — he was a foot taller than me and, oh yeah, I had ABSOLUTELY NO BUSINESS GETTING INVOLVED! But at the time it seemed perfectly natural to step in and take possession of what he had just very elegantly demonstrated to be an irreplaceable family heirloom.

I don’t think I held that star in my hands for more than four seconds. To say that I “broke” it would be a gross understatement—like saying Nicolas Cage “breaks” movies. I crushed it. I reduced it into a glittery pile of sentimental dust and assassinated the ENTIRE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS while my friend and his family watched in horror.

That star was Kennedy and my hand was a magic bullet and we all stood silently in the Dealey Plaza that was their living room for what seemed like an eternity. I held out the handful of shiny garbage pieces while my face turned red, wishing I could just disappear, or die, or install a flux capacitor in my Chevy Nova and relive the last minute of my life like it was Opposite Day.

There just wasn’t a “whoops” big enough to express my regret.

My friend very politely pretended that it was no big deal and that he hadn’t literally spoken the words, “It just wouldn’t be Christmas without this star on the tree” only moments before. I left his house faster than Nicolas Cage makes terrible decisions.

Every Christmas as I’m trimming my own tree, I think about that night and wonder if the Franco family’s Christmas traditions, which I assume feature a satiny, lacey, gold-garland-trimmed angel tree topper, include the telling and retelling of the story of the year Christmas was ruined when some interfering ditz came over and made an awful mess of things.

The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made have all stemmed from the fact that, at the time, I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing.

That and a lack of adequate sex education in high school.

Was just one class on how a bra strap works really so much to ask?