Dancing mirrily

A few nights ago, we saw a stunning display of the Mirrie Dancers, otherwise known as the Northern Lights, or aurora borealis. ‘Mirrie’ is not the local dialect version of ‘merry’, but rather stems from the Norn word ‘mirr’, which means to shimmer, or to tingle. Norn was the language spoken in Orkney and Shetland after the coming of the Vikings, until it began to be gradually overtaken by the Scots language around the 14th and 15th centuries. 

It happened that we were returning home from the Scottish Community Drama Association division finals in Kirkwall, and so we were still up and about. Once we’re hunkered down for the evening in our south-facing house, built over a century ago to catch the sun’s warmth with its blind back to the cold north wind, we usually miss out on these night displays. 

And for the first time ever, I managed to get a photo with my mobile phone. Here it is: 

Mirrie Dancers, Deerness, Orkney. 23 March 2023

That photo would definitely be graded as a C in any art class. It doesn’t do justice to the astounding drama of the show, which covered the whole sky with shifting light, mostly white with occasional glimpses of red. My elderly phone camera’s automatic filters have just selected the small area of green light, which wasn’t even visible to the naked eye. Perhaps it’s a sign I need to get a new phone. 

I heard from a friend recently that her daughter’s primary school still gives gold stars for a page of correct work. This child always gets a gold star; for her the work is very easy. Imagine how traumatic it would be, if one day there wasn’t a gold star. She would feel such a failure, so – well, stupid. Which she really isn’t. 

I remember a teacher I knew, very strict and not well-liked, who devastated another bright child who was used to getting everything right, by making them rub out a whole page and re-write it; there were no mistakes, but they’d slightly misunderstood the instruction. The child was very upset and tried to avoid returning to school the next day. The teacher called the parents in to explain her intention; she said that it was important for those children to whom educational success came easily, to learn as early as possible that failure wasn’t the end of the world. Importantly, the teacher explained, failure wasn’t a signal to give up, but rather a sign that you were working at something difficult, that mistakes would be inevitable, and that you just had to try again and work out how to put them right. If children went through school succeeding at every challenge, sooner or later they would come up against their limits to natural, effort-free success, perhaps when they were at university or in their first job; that would be when they might fall apart and quit, just because they had never learnt how to overcome initial failure through renewed effort. 

Decades later, I read Carol Dweck’s book Self theories, where her research showed that if a person is praised for good results – “Top marks! You’re so smart!” – this will lead to them giving up the moment they hit a setback, as they can’t afford to be shown up and to lose their identity as a clever person. If on the other hand they are praised for their effort – “Well done! That was so hard and you kept trying! I see a real improvement!” – this makes for resilience in learning, and a determination to persist. 

Compared to other social media posters, my photo of the Mirrie Dancers may only have rated a C, but who knows – if I seek out advice from experts, and work at it, next time I may achieve B minus! No matter, I’m pleased with my effort, even if the results don’t match up to the stunning images I’ve seen on the internet. It feels important to recognise that I get a greater sense of achievement from having tried something new, than from getting world-beating results. My phone will do me a bit longer.

%d bloggers like this: