From Rebel Heart Books, Jacksonville, OR
Not long ago, a fifteen-year old girl came into the store and stayed awhile. After picking out a few books, she shyly asked if I could set aside the books she had chosen while she tried to find her visiting family who was wandering around California Street going in and out of the shops. It was just the two of us in the store and she stayed long enough to tell me that she was anxious about going back to school in a few weeks, but not because of the pandemic.
She told me it was because of the weight of expectations upon her- for what grade point average she needs to achieve, classes she has to take, activities she must participate in. “If I don’t do these things then I feel like I won’t get into a good college and then I can’t have a good life.” She told me that no one put these expectations on her. That these pressures all came from her.
I looked at her and said, “I know you believe that. And it’s not true.”
When I went to high school over thirty years ago, I was considered a good student. I attended a good college. And I know without a shadow of a doubt that by today’s standards, I would be told that my chances of getting into that same college with those same high school credentials would be negligible. I don’t remember knowing or being concerned about other students’ GPAs, SATs, ACTs, PSATs or AP credits, or what awards they’d won in sports or the arts or any other arena. I didn’t compare college acceptances with other people or know anyone who did. There was no such thing as social media or cell phones. I had no image to curate, no constant barrage of pictures with which to compare my own emotional well-being to others’. When I went home from school for the day, I generally wasn’t aware of what others, with the exception of my best friend, were doing. While many books have been written about all of this, the one I keep in the store is Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, a true story about a smart, athletic, beautiful 19-year-old freshman at University of Pennsylvania who had a loving family and many friends. And in her second semester, she committed suicide.
I read that book a couple of years ago and still think of it often. I have 4 kids, 2 in college and 2 in high school, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about what messages I might be communicating to them, directly or indirectly, whether intentional or not, by my every word and action. I think about all the ways I or the world could be telling them that whoever they are, whatever they’ve done is not enough. I think about the unrelenting pressure they might have once felt or perhaps still feel to be great, because just being good, or just being at all, is nowhere near enough.
I have thought a lot about that girl since we talked, of all that’s ahead of her, and that she doesn’t yet know or no one has told her that achievement doesn’t mean purpose. That success, however it’s measured, isn’t necessarily linked with happiness. I think about what I want for my own children.
Not long ago, I asked my oldest son whether he was happy at college. He didn’t say anything for a long moment then said, “I’m content.” The word content comes from the Latin contentus, meaning satisfied. Meaning not wanting more or anything else. Meaning it’s enough.