Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Perfectionism and the Educational System

So, where did all this perfectionism come from? Lots of places, I suppose. Trying to live up to my mother's example--extremely hard working and talented, without the advantages I've had. Living up to two smart big sisters. And bunches of other things.

But I trace it back to my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. M. Our school had two sessions of kindergarten, morning and afternoon. I went to the afternoon session. I was an awkward, chubby, tall five-year-old with a weak bladder. Mrs. M. noted on my report card that I was a "daydreamer" and "inattentive." Generally, though, I seemed to get along with others, and I remember playing one of the billy goats in Three Billy Goats Gruff.

But Mrs. M. also liked to mention the beautiful, wonderful, smart little girl in the morning session, Lisa. (Lisa is now a fabulous mother of two and attorney and marathoner, and absolutely none of this reflects on her in any way. Okay, maybe she was a snit for a brief time in seventh grade, but I was an oversensitive geek.) So, of course, I wanted to be just like Lisa.

I even remember once at show-and-tell trying to read aloud from my favorite book of the time, only to discover that I could not, in fact, read. This is one of the dangers of whole language learning: you think you're doing so beautifully, and it turns out that it mostly had to do with Dr. Seuss and your mom.

Anyway, I don't hold Mrs. M. responsible for my perfectionism, for that desire to keep trying and trying to keep up with some mythical perfect Other. But I think she exemplifies a certain strain in our education system, or at least one that had been around for a long time by 1968. My younger teachers tended to be more positive and creative, so I think that means things were already changing. But maybe there's something built into the system that generates that fear of failure? A system where we rank students rather than really responding to their ideas and accomplishments and talents.

A reminder, then, to myself and all the others like me: not only are we not perfect, we can never be perfect. There ain't no such thing as perfect. There ain't never gonna be any such thing as perfect. But there's here and now and what we're able to do with what we've got in front of us.

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