“My child is on the honor roll at …”
When those bumper stickers first started popping up everywhere, I never made it to the end of them to see what notable institutions the young prodigies attended. I was too busy rolling my eyes in the dramatic fashion that girls spend their teen years perfecting.
I wasn’t too far out of those teen years when that particular bumper-sticker trend took off. It was just a few years after the “Baby on Board” window-sign craze, and the timing, I suspect, was not coincidental.
Childless and clueless, I thought the whole thing was absurd. Why waste valuable back-bumper space bragging about your kid when you could plaster that space with half-cocked political screeds? When you’re in your early 20s and Facebook hasn’t yet been invented, there’s no such thing as a back bumper with too many half-cocked political screeds.
My friends and I would snicker about it over happy-hour drinks and tell ourselves that we’d never be as self-absorbed as those ’80s-era yuppie parents. Then we’d spot a cute guy across the room and rush to the bathroom to check our hair and makeup.
Now that I’ve had a baby on board and am the mother of a potential honor roll student, I see things a bit differently. For one thing, I am tired of being the mother of a “potential” honor roll student, and I would now jump at the chance to display a bumper sticker that I once sneered at.
Remember those report cards of yesteryear, with space for the teacher to write in comments? The space where the teacher always wrote “Does Not Apply Self”? My son is the poster child for Does Not Apply Self.
This became painfully obvious at the end of first grade, when I found, stuffed deep inside his backpack, a math test in which he had decided to take the path of least resistance and write “0” — it’s one of the easiest numbers to write, after all — as the answer to every problem. His teacher kindly gave him credit for the two problems in which the correct answer actually was “0.”
That was over a year ago, and I’m happy to say things have changed dramatically on the academic front, thanks to a bit of … let’s just call it “persuasion” on my part. Self is now being applied on a regular basis.
I’ve thought about that math test several times in recent weeks, while I’m watching the Olympics. I’m always struck by the incredible amount of dedication, hard work and self-discipline that defines Olympic athletes’ lives for years on end. It’s hard to imagine any of the athletes taking the path of least resistance in any endeavor. And most of them are just kids, still in their teens — a time of life notorious for Not Applying Self.
What makes them do it? Why are they so driven to succeed, giving up family and friends to move hundreds or thousands of miles away for training, putting their bodies through such difficult and often dangerous training sessions, day after day, year after year? What do they have that the rest of us don’t?
Talent, of course. But that’s only the start. They also have the drive to be the absolute best at something, regardless of whether that something is admired or respected by the rest of the world. People who make it to the Olympic medals podium in obscure or often-ridiculed sports don’t get there by worrying about other people’s opinions.
So often, especially in the competitive culture of suburbia, we mistake activity for achievement. Being involved in civic groups and business networking and neighborhood organizations and church activities doesn’t necessarily make you an achiever, even if you’re a leader in those organizations. It just makes you busy.
Real achievement almost always requires a long-term focus on a single, narrowly defined goal. I’ve never had one of those, which is probably why I’m so fascinated by people who do. The desire to stand out from the crowd by excelling — rather than drawing attention the easy way by, say, covering yourself in tattoos or piercings — impresses me more and more as I get older.
I know people who spend their days spinning their wheels, frustrated that their lives seem to be going nowhere. It’s not for lack of resources; these are people from well-educated, stable and financially secure families — the “Baby on Board” and “My child is an honor student …” families. Clearly, the sense of direction and purpose that seems part of an Olympian’s DNA isn’t evenly distributed throughout the population.
As the Olympics end and a new school year begins, I can’t help looking at my son and his classmates and wondering which ones ultimately will be winners, and which ones will struggle. I’d like to think it all boils down to hard work and dedication, and that luck really isn’t part of the equation.
Luck is, after all, a fickle thing. It may put us in an upscale American suburb in an age of rapid advancement in all fields of human endeavor, but it’s not likely to do anything beyond that. The rest is up to us.
Sarah Smith Nessel, a 913 freelance columnist, writes The Bubble each week.