"And you can break yourself free
from your hereditary patterns, cultural codes, social beliefs;
and prove once and for all that the power within you
is greater than the power that's in the world."
Dr. Rev Michael Beckwith
It is probably no surprise that my report card became the standard I used to measure my worth. I didn't play sports and wasn't musically inclined. I hadn't yet learned to express myself with thread and fabric so my artistic talents were of the elementary school variety. I could draw my favorite landscape in my sleep - upside down V's for mountains, a big circle with alternating long and short lines for a sun, and mutli-colored tulips in a row.
On report card day the custom for my sisters and I was to lay the evidence of our periodic accomplishments (or lack thereof) on the kitchen counter. Piled next to Beefeater's gin, dry Vermouth and jar of Spanish olives the report cards mingled with the day's mail like offerings on an altar 'til the grand Pooba got home from work and began his evening relaxation rituals. First things first ... a kiss from mom and an ice-cold cocktail, then the news of the day.
I wouldn't say I waited with bated breath, but there was usually an air of anticipation on those long afternoons. There was a lot more riding on those grades than how much knowledge had been crammed into our heads. What was most important for me was Dad's nod of approval. Like a dog sitting at its master's feet, ball in it's mouth and tail wagging, I yearned for a pat on my head and a word of praise. What I usually received was a mixed bag of validation and teasing; my father's form of humor.
Have I mentioned I was rather sensitive? I didn't quite know how to take teasing. I still don't. When one hand gives a bone and the other takes it away, what was this dog to think? I always came back for more, yet at the same time wondered if my A's were good enough? If I good enough?
The almost silent partner in the grade card scenario was my mom. I don't remember ever seeing her look at the card. Yet somewhere between her afternoon chores and making dinner she must have perused each card and made her comparisons. I guess it's inevitable for parents to make comparisons when they have a houseful of kids. Although this is not a scientific observation, I suspect that over time the children probably grow into their perceived personas. The smart one, the athletic one, the funny one, the pretty one. The whiner, the achiever, the pleaser, the manipulator.
In my memory Mother never lavished praise my top notch report card. She was of New England Puritan stock who didn't really lavish anything unless it was melted butter on a steamed lobster. Instead, in a kind of back-door acknowledgement of my achievement she would say something like "your sister is the smart one, if she'd just apply herself." I don't think my mother's intention was to deliberately provoke sibling rivalry. And until this afternoon, it never dawned on me that her comparisons might have had a negative impact on my sister. All I knew was that this sister was smarter than I was and application was the name of the game.
Back in 1963 nobody, including me, knew that I needed things spelled out for me:
G-O-O-D J-O-B M-A-R-Y.
I wasn't good at interpreting adult humor or grabbing at the carrot dangled in front of me. I stayed confused.
Still time marched on and the school year progressed. I kept raising my hand, working hard and lapping up the Mrs. Carden's. When people called me "teacher's pet" I thought it was a good thing! At the end of the year my efforts were rewarded by being picked as the elementary school equivalent of valedictorian. I had to make a speech to the assembled body of students, teachers and parents. I wonder now how I ever walked on that stage without peeing my pants or throwing up or both. Maybe I still had enough bravado in me that made me actually think I could pull it off. What, pray tell, does a 12 year old have to say about life and learning?
Anyway, I did it and I didn't black out or have to be revived. I also won a "good citizenship" award which looked like a medal a soldier might earn on the battlefield - gold medal with an impression of George Washington's head, all tied together with a red, white and blue striped ribbon. My name was repeated several times during the commencement proceedings. It was my 15 minutes of fame and I was loving it.
I admit that I probably got a little puffed up (who wouldn't?). Puffed up never really went over well in our house. Being puffed up, even if it was deserved, put a target on your back and made you fair game for of the sharpest of tongues. After the ceremony as my father settled in for the night, cocktail in one hand, half-smoked Viceroy cigarette in the other, his comments about my achievements and performance were more in a teasing, put down vain than complimentary. They were not unkind, but not really kind either. The "Mary Reynolds" show drew more jeers than cheers.
And that my friends (drum roll please) is the point of this whole diatribe. For I think it was that night of teasing, when I'd been honored and acclaimed in public, but laughed at by the people who mattered most, that I made the connection that the reward of putting myself out there was not worth the cost. I didn't feel the pride I had earned; that was rightfully mine. I felt shame. I think that was the night I turned my thoughts and hopes and dreams inward and started to hide my own light.
To be continued ....
It's a sad little story but the ending isn't so bad. Stay tuned.
*Founder and spiritual director of the Agape International Spiritual Center, headquartered in Los Angeles.