In third grade, my teacher recommended I be tested for the school’s Gifted Program. I had begged my parents not to make me different, to not give people a reason to expect things of me–things I wasn’t sure I could deliver. They ignored me, so I took matters into my own hands.
How many in a dozen, Stephanie?
How would you solve this equation, Stephanie?
With a calculator.
Yep. Sure did throw the whole test. Today as a parent, I would be livid if my kids were embarrassed by their intelligence. I wish I could go back to 1989 and kick my own ass.
Shortly after pretending to be a moron, I got really good at gymnastics. I placed first in every event at a big meet despite accidentally bending my knee during a back walkover. After the meet, my competitor and her mother parted the sea of kind faces that had gathered to congratulate me and said only: “Nice back walkover.” I understood that to mean: “We’ll be watching you, waiting for another mistake.” More people expecting more things of me? Nope. I quickly decided gymnastics wasn’t for me, and although my parents didn’t understand how fizzling passion could coincide with such a milestone, they let me trade my leotard for a glove and cleats.
It was his first game under the lights. If he asked once, he asked 30 times that afternoon if the game would be canceled because of the rain. He was so excited! At least I initially interpreted his questioning as excitement…
Those who know my current disdain and self-prescribed disability with numbers will be shocked to learn I was once a kick ass math tutor.
That is, until the year I had the teacher who was notorious for embarrassing her students. Picture the in-crowd picking on you, and now picture their ringleader as the adult you were supposed to trust. Intimidating stuff. One day as I stretched during a test, my teacher saw an opportunity; she pierced the silent room with a screeching, “Is that really necessary?!” Unbeknownst to me, a half an inch of my belly had been exposed mid-stretch, and thanks to her calling attention to it, all eyes turned from test papers to me. Leftover gymnast abs be damned, my face burned hot with insecurities and something else: hatred. I grew to hate that teacher and that class. My days as a tutor were over; I was so busy keeping my guard up that I could barely keep my own Algebra grade up, let alone other students’.
As the game began, family members and I scanned the field for him. He wasn’t there. Instead of taking his position, he was walking toward me, slumped over in a dramatic gesture. His stomach hurt, he was going to throw up. Between several uneventful trips to the bathroom and Mother’s Intuition kicking in, I tried explaining the brain-belly connection and how when we’re nervous or scared, our brains can trick our bellies into feeling sick. I tried tough love (you’re letting your team down); I tried inspiration (you’ve got this! you’re a great player!). I pulled out all my tricks, but none of them mattered. His mind was made up: he was not playing in that game.
Softball was going well. I wasn’t the best, but I was good. I had a strong arm and usually one of the highest batting averages. When a summer league coach chose me for the All-star team, he followed up with, “You’re a good player, you just need to believe in yourself.” I didn’t admit it wasn’t a matter of confidence; it was a matter of wanting to fly under the radar, fewer expectations under there. Since that is not how die hard athletes roll, I feigned heart break over big losses and kept suggestions for post-game ice cream to myself. I played well up through high school, until intensifying competition revealed me.
There is no ice cream in varsity ball.
Eventually, Coach saw my insides; she knew I wasn’t made of the stuff of real athletes. When she told me I’d have to earn what had been my starting position as catcher, I was all indignant, like, “So I have to try? No thanks,” and I quit the team my senior year.
Without realizing it, I had become a quitter, a quitter who was afraid to fail. A quitter who couldn’t handle the self-imposed pressure of perfection. Not until today, as a 35-year-old mother of three, did I understand the far reaching impact of that pressure.
On the way home, my 7-year-old son burst into tears. It had been difficult to see the ball under the lights, it was raining, there were mud puddles on the field. He didn’t have the words to name it, but I knew he was feeling it: that self-imposed pressure of perfection. Circumstances weren’t what he had hoped, expectations were high, so he quit before had a chance to fail.
Never even trying
Refusing to work to our full potential
Fearing what’s outside our comfort zone
Allowing a handful of naysayers to direct our path
I’ve been so busy agonizing over my son’s inability to handle pressure and manage his emotions that I hadn’t noticed he is me. The very traits I see and fear in my child are quite simply extensions of my own. I didn’t know what to do about them as a kid, and I’m not so sure I know what to do about them as a Mother.
And that’s a huge gut-punch.