When I was a kid I used to put immense pressure on myself. I spent all of my time fixating on doing things perfectly, whether it was a school assignment, a storyline of Barbie’s next adventure, or a drawing, if I couldn’t do it perfectly, then there was no point in doing it at all.
I can recall many times erasing and carefully rewriting my name again on my homework until it pleased me. After a while, if I couldn’t get it perfect, I’d slap my wrists until my hands would shake. “Now there’s no way I could get it perfect.”
Also as a kid, I was fortunate to have a mom who was pretty fashion conscious. She worked at a kid’s clothing store for most of my childhood because of this, having perfectly coordinated outfits became a core part of my personality. But there were times when I’d forget my matching earrings or I’d wear the wrong socks. Upon realizing this I’d be so enraged with myself. In my mind, the only option I had was to self-sabotage. I’d frizz my hair into a bird’s nest or purposely spill food on my shirt and call it all an accident.
As if it hadn’t been so already, I took my perfectionism to a ruthless new level.
June was approaching. Elementary school was almost over. I was dreading the summer because I felt I hadn’t proved my worthiness of intermediate school. So naturally, I was ecstatic when the perfect opportunity arose: a Vocabulary Bee. Instead of spelling words, the whole 5th grade would be defining them. We had been studying Words of the Day all year and I always aced the quizzes.
I accepted the challenge and spent hours each day studying until the big day came.
When it came I was determined to win. The entire fifth grade was being forced to participate, but I was only worried about the smart kids that actually cared.
To get in the spirit, we were asked to dress up as one of the words. I wore a bright yellow skirt overtop white leggings with a matching shirt that glistened, “happy.” I was Optimistic. My friend, who said it was lame to dress up, pointed at other girls and said I was unoriginal. I didn’t care. I snarled, “Well, I’m the cutest Optimist.” And so the Bee began.
As words fell from our mouths,
so did the losers,
The last round hit me head on, all of the sudden there were only five of us left. We went in alphabetical order so I was the last up.
My ponytail bounced up and down behind me as I cat-walked my way to the chalkboard. By now, I only had one competitor left. It was Advantageous Boy vs. The Cutest Optimist.
When Mrs. Flimsy announced, “Noun. A passionate expression of grief or sorrow,” I didn’t even bother reading through the word bank and scribbled, “Melancholy.”
My ponytail whipped the chalkboard as I turned around to face the teachers again.
Mr. Studious paused, “I’m sorry, Vail, the word was ‘lament.'” His crinkly eyes gently lifted into a somber smile as if to apologize for what I had done.
I was livid. I threw myself out of the room and sobbed the rest of the day.
When I walked in my bedroom, I ripped off my optimism.
I threw myself on the kitchen floor to cry at my mom’s feet. My mom pleaded with me to get up. She said she was proud of me and that I should be excited to have come in second place and I worked so hard and yes I was smart and couldn’t I please try to believe her. I told her I couldn’t but I think somewhere inside my ten-year-old heart, I knew it was a lie.
That last week or so of school was torture. I spent those days mopping and when I could, crying. It was all I could think about. Loser, loser, loser.
But no amount of crying could take me back in time. It was over.
On the last day, I said goodbye to my second home of the last six years. When I asked former teachers and my classmates to sign my yearbook and gave me hugs and remembered my kindergarten self.
Though I would never admit it, this last day, I realized that I had proven myself and more than that, I flourished! I was optimistic about intermediate school.
I was going to wake up the morning and the earth would still be there to hold me. It would be summer. I’d have all the time in the world to go swimming, play Barbies, be with friends, sister, and cousin. And when September came, I’d go back to school and try to learn to how to lose. Maybe I’d even try to learn how to be imperfect.
Optimistic but still learning,