School, escapism, perfectionism

Growing up, the first day of school was always so exciting. I always had a new outfit. Often a new backpack or lunch box. I had friends at school. I got along well with most of my teachers, so that was never a worry for me. I wasn’t a wiggly kid and had no trouble sitting still in my seat. I was a quiet kid, so I didn’t get in trouble for talking.

Of course, those circumstances aren’t true for all kids. Both of the schools where I teach are uniform schools, so best case scenario is some new uniform components and maybe new shoes. Not everyone has friends at school, and not everyone gets along with their teachers. Lots of kids are wiggly (and kids should be—I don’t think it was inherently good that I wasn’t) and aren’t given ample opportunity not to be.

What I have in common with many of them is that school is an escape. Some kids get consistency of people, of schedule, of rules at school (but not at home). Some get praise at school (but not at home; this was me). Some get food at school (but not at home).

At school, I was the perfect student. At home, I was a scapegoat.

We talked recently in a training about how perfectionism is, for some people, a means of dealing with trauma. Relentless control. Paralyzing fear of failure. And, because school is constructed the way it is, the perfectionism is often praised. Seen as the ideal.

I was the perfect student. Dealing with trauma.

It took decades before I learned that perfectionism was a coping mechanism and shed some of it. (Sometimes it’s useful, and in high-stakes pursuits, like surgery, building medical devices, constructing airplanes and space shuttles, and so on, we should definitely keep perfectionism on hand in large quantity. Choosing perfection versus psychologically needing perfection. They’re different.)

I can make a slide presentation and choose the colors, style, font that are good enough instead of poring over the options for hours.

I can draw flashcards for my students and not need to redo the ones that aren’t to spec.

Letting go of some perfectionism has given me time and reduced stress.

I wonder, if a teacher knew that about me (or knew it about psychology and thus suspected it about me), would my path have been different? Would I have been able to learn how to be OK with mistakes in a place where being the ideal was my lifeblood?

I don’t know. But I’m glad I figured it out eventually anyway.

We’ve been in school less than a week and I’ve already told all of my classes at least once that we’re going to make mistakes here, and it’s OK, it’s expected, it will be often, and we need to be OK with making mistakes ourselves and with other people making mistakes.

Hopefully, someone who needs to hear that a little louder will take it to heart … even if it’s only in my classroom.

Leave a Comment