What Was the Most Important Thing You Learned In School?

Real Simple readers reveal their most significant lessons (beyond the ABC’s).

Mind Lessons

In school, little things take on such large significance. Wear the wrong shirt and you're labeled a loser for life. Plant a wet one on your boyfriend, and once you break up, everybody whispers you're the worst kisser ever. But, as cliched as it is, life goes on. School taught me that if you move past your most embarrassing moments, everyone else eventually will, too.
Lindsey Guthrie
Edmond, Oklahoma

It's OK to admit that you can't do everything.
Arina Zonnenberg
Washington, D.C.


Practical Lessons

Whenever I asked my fourth-grade teacher how to spell a word, she would tell me to look it up in the dictionary. Not only do I still automatically look up a word when I'm stumped on how to spell it but I also pick up the dictionary just to learn new ones. 
Bella Frank 
Bethlehem, New Hampshire

I learned to "free-write" in college, which means spending 10 minutes writing whatever is in your head. Now I free-write whenever I feel overwhelmed. I can organize my thoughts or jot down a to-do list. If I declutter my brain, I am more productive.
Denise La Voire
Corona Del Mar, California

Learning how to read opened doors for me. Reading seems to be passive―it's quiet and still―but its impact is anything but. As a child, I read to escape. As an adult, I teach reading, in English-as-a-second-language classes.
Jenna Rindo
Pickett, Wisconsin

As a college-bound high school senior, I took a typing class. Two college degrees later, I can tell you that learning how to type was the most useful skill I picked up in school.
Claudia Pratt
San Francisco, California

How to write a letter. Each week throughout second grade, we would write a letter to a fellow student in our class. This taught me how to use words to express myself and showed me how much joy there is in receiving a letter from a friend.
Stacey Kawamoto
Kapolei, Hawaii

Once I learned how to do research, I always knew how to go about finding the information I needed.
S. Metz
Piscataway, New Jersey
 

Personal Lessons

Good people can make bad choices, whether about academics, social situations, or relationships. However, these decisions do not define who they are.
Kari Forde
Holmen, Wisconsin

I learned how to work in a team―how to recognize people's strengths and assign them roles accordingly. The result is a group that works harmoniously and efficiently.
Pilar M. Hernandez
Coral Gables, Florida

From a rather ugly fifth-grade experience, I learned that it doesn't matter what people think of you as long as you're happy with who you are. Also, I learned that if you kiss your boyfriend in front of your locker, you wind up in detention.
Jillian Stolgitis
Ashaway, Rhode Island

There are times when listening intently to a teacher is considerably more valuable than hurriedly writing down what she says. You walk away with a deeper understanding of the material.
Valerie Oliver
Tacoma, Washington

In sixth grade, I had to interview a representative from the Red Cross for a project. I was so shy that it took a week for me to drum up the nerve to call. When I finally did, the woman was so friendly and helpful. I realized what can happen if I set aside my shyness and reach out to someone.
Miette Wasson
Santa Rosa, California

I learned how to get along with a diverse group of people. As a Cuban American who went to an out-of-district high school, I had friends of many nationalities. This expanded my understanding of the world and how alike we all are.
Jacqueline Maria Viton
Myakka City, Florida

I learned how to think critically and ask questions.
Gwen George
Bastrop, Louisiana

Teachers are there to present material and guide you, but learning is entirely up to you. When you want to know about something, that's when you learn―not just because you're in class.
Anne Beneville
Upper Nyack, New York

Never second-guess yourself. Whether during a test or in life, your first instinct is usually the right one.
Alyssa Johnson
Olathe, Kansas

As a college sophomore, I realized how difficult my engineering major was and considered quitting. One of my professors suggested that I make sure I was switching to something and not away from something. I stuck with my major and learned that you shouldn't give up just because things get difficult.
Maureen Anderson
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

I had a math teacher whose favorite saying was "There is more than one way to skin a catfish." He understood that people should have the freedom to do things their own way and express their individuality.
Stacey Chobotar
Vancouver, British Columbia

I learned to stand up for myself. When a conference with a mean art teacher went nowhere, I went to the principal, and the art teacher apologized to me the next day. That was an incredible feeling as a 10-year-old.
Laura Stumpf
Dallas, Texas

I always had a problem learning math. When I went back to college in my late 20s, I had to take algebra. I expected to have a hard time, but I ended up earning one of the highest grades in the class. Past performance does not dictate future results.
Keli Honsberger
San Rafael, California

Friends would tell me their intrigues because I was always able to keep a secret. To this day, those girls are still my friends, and their secrets are still safe with me.
J. Martin-Jones
Sydney, Australia

I learned that it is not the grades that are important but, rather, it is the work ethic I developed while trying to get those grades.
Renee Pearson
Dublin, Ohio

If you make a commitment, keep it. It keeps me going when things get tough and has helped me grow into a responsible person.
Toby O'brien
Las Vegas, Nevada

A substitute teacher once said, "Don't get frustrated by things you can't control." He taught me not to let the little things get in the way of the bigger picture.
Kimberlee Hatch
San Diego, California

You need to go through any experience from beginning to end to truly understand it. Skipping part of a book, a class, or a task makes getting the whole message nearly impossible.
Kathryn Spradlin
Tallahassee, Florida

Organization is crucial. It is much easier to have an organized mind when studying and living in organized surroundings.
Nena L. Wilen
Belle Fourche, South Dakota

My high school speech and drama coach emphasized that we should pay attention outside ourselves. Not only did it teach me compassion but it also introduced me to the importance of service.
Kim H. Nguyen
San Francisco, California

Two tasks guarantee success in life: Work hard and show up on time.
Katherine Inman
Bellevue, Washington

I learned how I fit into the world. Elementary school was about fitting in socially. Junior high and high school were about fitting in intellectually. And college was about fitting in economically. Now I know how to make the world fit for me.
Jill Smith
Providence, Rhode Island

Be nice to everyone in school. That includes not just the students but also the teachers, the janitors, and the substitute teachers. You never know when you'll need their help.
Debbie Siegel
Boca Raton, Florida

As we struggled through long division in fourth grade, my teacher told us, "Practice makes permanent."
Jenna Smith
Harrisonburg, Virginia

Once I learned how to say no, I was able to hold back from overextending myself and accept that it's OK to admit that you can't do everything.
Arina Zonnenberg
Washington, D.C.


Unexpected Lessons

Sit by someone at lunch who is not your best friend. You might make a new friend and learn new things. And you can trade some really cool food.
Cari Vonderhaar
Greenville, Illinois 

In all honesty, the most important thing I learned in college was my Social Security number. I use it all the time. Also, beer and ice cream don't mix.
Spike Lynn
Sunrise, Florida

Don't eat paste!
Sarah Checketts
Halifax, Nova Scotia