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Here’s to Being Average

January 28, 2011

At the end of 5th grade, the elementary school I attended had a nice little ritual known as ‘The Senior Sendoff.’   Each 5th grader was allowed to say one phrase that they liked or embodied them (famous quotes were the norm, or for the adventurous, a shout out to being big bad sixth graders next year) and then walk/dance/scooter down an aisle, surrounded by the younger grades clapping for them.  Some graduates shot silly string into the crowd, others threw candy.  Some 5th graders dressed fancy for the occasion, others made fun of it and wore backwards baseball caps and gap-toothed grins.

I don’t remember what I said for my phrase before cartwheeling down the aisle.  It wasn’t particularly memorable, not even to me, or my family, who can’t remember it either.  I was ten; what deepness can one expect at that age?  I don’t remember even having interesting thoughts when I graduated from college over a decade later.  More of an ‘Oh God, Oh dear,” sort of panicked litany, really.

I do, however, remember what Jonas said at our 5th grade send off.  He stood there, in the spotlight for the first and probably last time in his life, staring out at a sea of people.  His mother waved at him encouragingly next to my mom; they were friends, even if Jonas and I never were close.

And Jonas said,  “Here’s to being average.”

And then he walked down the aisle.  Kids cheered for him the way they cheered for everyone else, people looked to the next graduating senior, the moment was unremarked upon.   At the time, I did not think much of it either, besides to wrinkle my nose a little.  Why would he say that as his send off?  Why wouldn’t he say something bigger and more interesting sounding?

I wonder if Jonas even knew how profound he was being.

See, I went to one of the wealthiest, whitest elementary schools in one of the wealthiest, whitest counties in Maryland.  It was a public school, sure, but it had its own private planetarium for God’s sake.  It was like living in Lake Wobegon: all the women were strong, all the men were good-looking and all the children were certainly above average.  Being ‘average’ was being in the 99th percentile in math and reading tests, it was reading Lord of the Rings in fourth grade and Huckleberry Finn in 5th.  ‘Average’ students received all ‘A’s, or maybe one ‘B’.   A ‘C’ meant failure, tutoring and a sense of academic doom.  Everyone started taking a foreign language once a week before school in kindergarten, and it was expected that you had multiple extracurricular obligations every week.

It was the type of environment where the question wasn’t “Are you going to college?”  It was “Where are you going to college?”  The answer was that you were shooting for one of the Ivy’s.

We were not a community that celebrated mediocrity in any form.

Enter Jonas.  He truly was average.  He received ‘C’s.  He liked car statistics and watching Nickelodeon.  He’d play football with clumsy enthusiasm, he had 2.7 friends, a golden retriever and a little sister who was way more gifted than he was.  He didn’t get why he always felt stupid, and he refused to talk about it.  By 5th grade though, he had accepted it and was at peace with being not as sharp as those around him.

He was honestly okay with being average.

I didn’t become okay with not being the best at everything until… am I truly okay with not being the best at everything even now?  I think life is very much a process of reconciling with the truth that no matter who you are, you will be limited in some capacity.  And I feel a mixture of sadness and awe at the fact that Jonas grasped that so quickly.

Being in that environment pushed me to excel, and, honestly, I thrived in it in many ways.  I test well, I am intellectually nimble, I have read more literature now than many people read in their entire lifetimes.  But I also used to define my sense of self worth solely on my academic performance. Which meant, in high school, when I started to do poorly in math, I freaked out on an out of proportional scale.  I began to think I was a worthless human being.  In senior year of high school, when college rejections letters began to mount, I retreated to the couch, and would spend entire weekend days curled in the fetal position, tharn, and depressed.   It took years of self-love and struggle to begin to disassociate my worth as a human being with a GPA change.  I began to try to identify myself as an artist, worth based on creativity and creations, stories I told, books and plays I wrote, canvases I painted.  I tried to identify worth based more on relationships, feeling proud of friends I helped, brothers I protected, strangers I be-friended, lovers I comforted.  And now I believe my sense of identity is more healthy in its distribution.

In many, many ways, I am completely average.  I still dislike that about myself.   I continue to struggle, at age 22, with the basic self-affirmation that a ten-year old boy was strong enough to announce to his whole school.

So, here’s to being average.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June permalink
    January 28, 2011 5:24 PM

    I want to address my response to what it’s like being on the other side of the Lake Wobegone scenerio: that of the parent struggling against the tide of prejudice against those of us with children that were “different” in a mainstream educational and social system.

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