Clifford the Dog, Caps and Gowns

December 8, 2011
Getting off the bus, I searched frantically for a Clifford the big red dog puppet, the signal that I had found Mrs. Popiel and her first grade class. But as I took that first of many steps on my pivotal, capricious “real school” journey, I experienced the first of many bewilderments that are a K through 12 education; perched upon the fist of every first-grade teacher was the same big, red, dog—Clifford.

Once I had finally found my class, things got no less confusing. Why was Collin, a friend of mine, the eponym of the school—“Collins?” Why did Mr. Glass care how fast I could run a mile? Why did we have to learn cursive? I did develop—grade by grade, lesson by lesson—a more complex question: How could I be successful?

Answer: some people are talented, and others are not. In the beginning, the complex question had a simple answer. This answer was a fatalistic truth. This “truth” was false. However, I thought at the time that it was true, and that I had landed among the subordinate “not talented.” My view of myself was pounded into my skull from school’s initiation by being the last to finish his assignments (although they were things like coloring and copying words onto paper) and, therefore, the last to receive the prize of the day: cookies, extra recess, stickers, you name it.

All this changed, however, within a moment of serendipity. It came during a propitious time for change: third grade, the year of my switchover to Knapp Forest, the “big kid” school. I had at this point begun to think of myself as at least averagely talented—I couldn’t be extremely successful, but maybe I could have a moment here and there. On this particular day, Mrs. Dixon handed out our homework, a worksheet about commas. A few minutes later, a girl in our class came over to me and requested my help on a problem. My help? Although surprised, I agreed, and surprisingly, I knew the answer. “The commas go here and here, to stop the sentence”, I stated in a proud solecism. “Thanks.” And with that, my self-perception had changed for the better, permanently.

The future holds many opportunities for others to define my success: applying to college, finding a job, and, ultimately, raising a family. And I’ll admit, as my high school career terminates, it would be nice to graduate with tangential appellations such as “cum laude”, “AP scholar”, or “NHS member.” But these terms don’t define success; it is defined on one’s own terms. Was my greatest success my flexed-arm hang? My math times-tables? The amount of pictures of my face in the yearbook? My greatest success in school has been my escape from the definition of myself that was converging on me.

I know who I am now. I will define my own successes and failures, whether it’s the college I attend or the job I have or the money I make or the people I affect. Some of them will be good and some of them will be bad, but all of them will be mine. Yes, I was the last kid to finish that assignment, but I was also the kid who finished that assignment. I cannot chase success, nor do I need to; all I need to do is see it. I just need to find the right accomplishment, and realize that it should have been my goal all along. I just need to step off the bus, and find the right Clifford.

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