I was an achiever my entire school career. They put me in a “gifted” program my first year, and the rest of my academic experience more or less followed suit. I’ve since had cause to joke, What is a “gifted” six-year-old anyway? The one who doesn’t wipe boogers under the desk? Because at least from my perspective today, I was a pretty typical child. Unfortunately, I responded to being labeled “gifted” in ways not entirely beneficial to my well-being. If I had some degree of intelligence and perception, even at this early age I had a lot of fears and anxieties. I soothed these anxieties by being a “good girl” and getting good grades. I became increasingly reliant on praise, increasingly self-conscious (just another synonym for “self-absorbed”), and entrenched in risk-averse behaviors. If I didn’t know I could succeed, I wouldn’t try. When I didn’t get it perfect, I was embarrassed. Virtuous and kind in many ways, I was more concerned with myself than with helping others.
Still, up until a few years ago, I would have told you that I liked school. I got straight A’s, teachers seemed to like me, and I them (for the most part). I had plenty of friends – and later, girlfriends and boyfriends. This seemed to work out well enough until high school graduation.
I received a full merit scholarship to go to college. Moving away to the city, my worldview began to crumble. The large university I went to didn’t care much about me in any particular way. I could no longer receive a steady diet of public praise. It seemed like the joy we’re supposed to feel these young years, was not present in my peers. Many drank and drugged to cope. Students around me were anxious, overworked, and many seemed primarily interested in gaining a career so they could earn a lot of money. They often spoke condescendingly and harshly about those not in our socioeconomic strata. These were depressing realizations, considering our narrative was that we were “succeeding” and having a good time.
My first college course was Calculus something-or-other, and there were five hundred students in the lecture hall. Without a high ratio of teacher to student, without being able to be the “best” in the class and get noticed, my motivation abruptly collapsed. I remember going to that particular class far less than a dozen times in the quarter. The rest of my college was lackluster, hanging on by my fingertips and occasionally looking forward to a class after my own heart – the rare times I could take a non-math and non-science course (my major required rigorous coursework in science, chemistry, physics, et cetera).
I graduated with a 3-point-something in engineering, and within four years. Yes, this represents a lot of work and is certainly an accomplishment – especially considering the general ennui and unhappiness I lived with! But see, I simply didn’t know what else to do with my life, and I had to maintain the GPA and the field of study to keep my scholarship. Plain and simple.
I graduated in 1999. Thirteen years have passed since I entered the career field with halfhearted life-plans of working a nine to five in a well-paid position. At first I worked and excelled in the field. To my surprise I did enjoy engineering work – far more than school. But soon after we started our family I quit the field, leaving behind a substantial income and the unforgettable experience of being owned by a corporation. My partner and I had the desire to provide a different life for our children than we’d had, and we set out to try it.
This single-income life involved a lot of hard work, in fact more difficulty than I’d encountered in school, or in engineering. Busy raising babies – and that was a real education! – for some time I thought I would have resources for nothing else. But that was merely the labor-intensive, exhausting, and exhilarating years of parenting small children. Over time this day-in-day-out, twenty-four-seven commitment paid dividends in deeply examining what was important to me, and why. It also taught me, day by day, to be less self-focussed and to give without expectation of return (a wonderful and valuable lesson). It also taught me to enjoy my children, instead of look forward to the day we’d institutionalize them in school. And when I read my writings over the last eight years I’ve journaled, these changes within me are evident.
Life changed. Time flew by. Sooner than I’d have guessed, the boot camp of the early parenting years had softened. And in the ensuing years, besides raising the kids within our means and my partnership, I’ve re-invested my time and efforts in the genuine interests I’d had as a child (namely, writing, art, and sewing), and I’ve succeeded in these exploits. And – perhaps most dear to my heart – I learned the value in any earnest work well-done – yes, dishes, diapers, cooking and cleaning. Meditative, mindful, honest pursuits, as worthwhile as engineering, no better nor worse – honorable and satisfying.
Yes, probably my most dear “accomplishments” are those of the last ten years: learning from the experience of raising children. This is a revelation, especially considering where I came from. Children were loved in my family, but they were also decidedly placed as second-class citizens. Raising them, the day-to-day, was considered beneath a progressive, intelligent person’s prerogative. Kids were rather pedestrian affairs, noisy and messy and best managed and well-mannered.
I’m happy to tell you today that everything, simply everything in my worldview has changed, and for the better. My children and my experiences learning from them gave me my life back, little by little.
And it would be unfair not to mention the many adults and children who came before me, who voiced the passions and the daring I hadn’t found in my home- or school-life growing up. It is due to these mentors I was able to find my own place, take pride in my work (paid, unpaid, vocational and avocational), and my own contributions. Today I live a life hard-working and doing absolutely what I want to do. We are fed and clothed and we love one another well, and I want for nothing else. I don’t, to wit, come home at the end of the day and try to dissolve my stress and anger with a glass of ice and bourbon. I don’t, to wit, compare myself to the next door neighbors or pine for what they have and I don’t. I don’t, to wit, find my kids something to “manage”, mold, or create in my image.
Their dreams are theirs, under their own authorship.
And I am very grateful for all of this.
I was in my thirties when my life began to unfold and I grew brave enough to join the human race, joyful and free. But I see the bloom in my children even now. Perhaps my experiences can benefit my children. I hope so.
But for myself? Being entrusted with nurturing their dear lives afforded me the best education money can’t buy.