"Mommmm?" My heart stopped briefly when I answered a call from Geoff's phone late Sunday morning. It was Paige, and she was crying.
I was in Anchorage in the middle of a trial, working fourteen hour days with three other lawyers. I'd spent the past week eating three meals a day at my desk, living out of a suitcase, and pretending the world had stopped turning around me, which of course it hadn't.
"What's wrong, honey?" I asked, slightly panicked. My first thought was maybe there was some sort of emergency with Geoff, and she had his phone and didn't know who to call.
"I didn't get into EL," she sobbed. I was relieved no one was dead or in the emergency room, a little bit surprised, and--at first--disappointed by this news.
EL is the "Extended Learning" program in Paige's elementary school. As we talked through the first official rejection of her life, I realized three things: (1) I hadn't bothered to learn anything about what this program really was or what was required to "get into" it; (2) I had an inflated view of Paige's scholastic abilities and had blithely assumed she would never face an academic disappointment; and (3) I was glad about the first two things, because they presented me with a good opportunity for self-reflection.
As we spoke, I learned this was a third through fifth grade program that was hard for a third grader to test into. I also learned I had made zero effort to find out what any of it was about. I like to think I'm not one of those parents who simply assumes her kid is a genius. But I'm now forced to admit that I'd just figured Paige would coast right into this thing. Ultimately I was glad it didn't work out that way, and I was noting some interesting parallels to what I was experiencing at that very moment in my own life.
Disappointment, rejection, self-doubt, and a healthy slice of humble pie is good for kids (and adults) in my view. Too much of these things is no good, of course, but the right amount sends the necessary message that you have to work hard to achieve hard things. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and, if we're lucky, many opportunities in life to hone the former and work to overcome the latter.
Paige could re-test for the program in May, she told me, news confirmed by paperwork the school sent home. I told her I didn't care if she got into EL or not, and realized with a dawning sense of relief that it was true. I told her that if she wants to be in extended learning, she will have to do extended work. Like the extra math problems and other stuff her teachers send home without complaining and fighting about it. She said she would. We'll see.
I just read a study that says nagging your daughters is good for them, so I plan to stay on top of her about this to some degree (at least until the next study comes out saying nagging is bad). But I'm not doing it for her. I'll "set her up for success," as they say, by giving her the time and space she needs to do the work and reminding her to do it, with the expectation that she will. But I'm not going to helicopter over her and pressure her into achieving something she doesn't care enough about to work for herself. I think they call that "natural consequences," or in layman's terms, learning how to get your shit together?
Anyway, all of this prompted me to reflect on my own academic disappointments and professional challenges up to and including the very day of Paige's phone call.
I grew up thinking that scholastic and athletic achievement was the be-all and end-all of life, although of course I now know it's not. I didn't get into the law school I wanted to go to, and I'm not proud to admit it still bothers me fifteen years later. I went to a "worse" one. One far less prestigious than the schools the lawyers I was working with attended. I was feeling my own self esteem wobble precariously in the midst of trying to do good work and simultaneously prove to everyone around me that I was up to the task and could run with the big dogs. In many ways, it was exhausting and demoralizing.
Does any of it really matter, though? No. Of course it doesn't. It doesn't matter that a roll of blue exhibit stickers is missing from my briefcase any more than it matters that Paige failed to score in the 99th percentile on the Wegman-Durham-Jensen scale for standardized geometric comprehension or whatever the fuck it's called.
That was my takeaway from these twin blows to my self-esteem and that of my daughter. Is she a good person? Is she good to the people around her? Am I?
The answer to each of those questions is yes. And in the end, that's all that matters.