I am reading Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness, and I am struck by how she was paralyzed by, even at a young age, being perfect. It’s so heartbreaking to read: her fear of failure, of being judged, of being anything less than great is so palpable. It’s hard to read because it is hard to know that just one person went through this, but the truth is that hundreds of thousands of girls go through this every day in their quest for effortless perfection.
What is effortless perfection? It’s a term that Duke University students used to describe the way they felt they needed to come across to their peers– as if they were beautiful, smart, capable, funny, etc all with very little effort. I look good? Oh, I just rolled out of bed and threw on the first thing I saw. These good looks, shiny locks, naturally flushed skin just happen. I did not spend hours perfecting the tossled wave look, I swear. What do you get if you master effortless perfection? Some would say the admiration of others. I worry, though, that it might be limitless anxiety and fear or even worse.
Last week, I was emailing with a new friend about how we don’t really need to be so perfect. If I never admitted to having insecurities to my students or friends, if I acted like self-acceptance was just the easiest thing in the world to achieve and embrace, then what I become is unrelatable in that untruth. And being unrelatable isn’t good for anyone and, for every one of us, leaves us incapable of doing what we’re meant to do in the world. It is our relatability, our own imperfections, our realness that unite us. Perfection is, after all, just an illusion, a torturing, self-deprecating (ironically) farce. It is the messy stuff, the lessons we learn, the scars that show our character.
I once dated a man who traced the outermost limits of a huge scar I had on my knee– a scar that I had obtained after tumbling down 20 wooden apartment stairs and landing knee first on the concrete below (I was racing to take a friend to the airport at the crack of dawn and had his Christmas gift in my hand. I held the gift up to keep it from crashing into the concrete which meant that something else had to)- and said, “scars show character.” He won me in that moment, affirming what I had always believed: it is the difficult things that make you rich, give your life personality and flavor in ways that the easy things cannot evoke. Years later, I remember that lesson best from him. Don’t hide your scars. Use them to reveal your character.
I am more than ten years removed from teaching high school and, yet, there are two lessons that I am still particularly proud of delivering and neither of them had anything to do with the subject matters I taught. Once, in the midst of a United States history class, a student asked me an in-depth question whose answer I did not know. I could have beat around the bush, I could have played it off, but, instead, I just chose to be myself.
“I have no idea, Charnita (I still remember who asked the question. And the question had something to do about banking history- definitely not my forte). The cool thing about being a history teacher is that I know a little about a whole lot, but I don’t know everything about anything. But what if we make this deal. If you do the research and find the answer to your question and present it to the class, I’ll give you extra credit.”
The next class, she came in with the answer– she had sought it out from a VP at Bank of America (this was before you could find most answers on the internet). I was so proud of her tenacity that I called her mom to tell her the whole story- the part where I, the teacher, didn’t know the answer and where her daughter found it.
The other lesson I am particularly proud of happened that same school year but with a different class. As a group of students was preparing to give a presentation, one of the students, a football player and wrestler, did a push-up against the desk that I had in the front of the classroom.
“Alright, strong guy,” I teased. “We all know you have muscles. Now show us what you have for brains.”
One of my students swivel-headed towards me.
“Moli, that’s not like you to make fun of one of us.” And, boy, did he have me there. In my classroom, the big nos were saying shut up, stupid, or acting in a way that made someone else feel like his or her voice didn’t matter. “We are together for 90 minutes each class,” I had told them in the beginning. ”That means we’re family. We are all each other’s cheerleaders. We are all each other’s champions. We take care of each other. We look out for each other. We protect each other. That doesn’t mean we can’t have fun. We just can’t have unkind fun that is at someone else’s expense.”
My own words rang in my ears while Nathan (yep, remember his name, too) confronted me.
“You are absolutely right, Nathan. That wasn’t okay for me to say. I’m sorry, Sean. And I am sorry to all of you. I promised that all of you would be safe in my classroom and that has to start with me. Sean, I hope you’ll forgive me. And I hope the rest of you know that I am sorry and embarrassed and that will not happen again.”
So there you have it. Two of the best lessons I think I delivered as a high school teacher, and they were both rooted in my imperfections. I think of those lessons often as I parent Happy, as I strive to be the mother I am meant to be- one who isn’t perfect but who is honest, one who tries hard and learns fast, one who is true to her word and her heart, one who shows him that the way isn’t always smooth nor does it have to be perfect, but it does need to be true. To him. To humanity. To hope.
Today, I am reminding myself to embrace my imperfections because just like that jagged terrain on my knee, they reveal my character. I hope you’ll join me on this journey of being true to our whole selves, scars and all, so that we don’t reinforce to our friends and family or raise a generation of kids who believe that it is in being perfect, in hiding their imperfections, that they will be most valued.
* originally posted in May 2011