If I’ve learned anything from grading thousands of high school SAT essays – other than everyone read The Great Gatsby this year – it’s that life is all about your weaknesses and how you deal with them. There are very few 17-year-olds that are innately good spur-of-the-moment essay writers and yet the forces that be have decreed that if you want to get into a good college then you’d better be able to crank out something both quasi-meaningful and semi-literate in under 30 minutes. This conundrum forces students to confront one of their weaknesses and deal with it in a high pressure situation.
Those students who are prepared and/or just talented – about 25% by my rough estimation – usually sail through with few problems other than blandness (seriously, I have the most boring job in the world.) It’s the rest of the kids who make me alternate between wanting to kill the next texting-at-the-table teen I see in the restaurant and wanting to hug every sad sack in excessive eyeliner and a Hot Topic hoodie. The students unprepared for the exam or perhaps caught up in a clench of testing anxiety usually employ one of several tactics: overconfidence, bluffing, gibberish or just plain giving up. (Side note: I had one student, once, who drew me a wonderfully illustrated – yet wordless – cartoon interpretation of the prompt. Sadly we don’t grade for creativity. I still wonder what happened to that kid.) Obviously the first three irritate me greatly but it’s the last one that breaks my heart. There’s usually at least one essay in every batch that is nothing but some eraser marks and tear stains.
Write something! Write anything!! I want to scream at them. Even if it’s nothing but a tangential recap of last night’s American Idol, you’ll still get some points. But two x-ed out sentences and a damp spot? Nada. You have to at least try.
It makes me think of all the times in my life that I’ve left nothing but proverbial eraser dribble and tears. I’ll be honest: I’m a wuss. I don’t have a high pain tolerance or risk tolerance or gore tolerance or any other tolerance. (Back when I was teaching, one of my classes figured out that they could actually get me to run out of the room with my hands over my ears by recounting the plot line to any of The Saw movies. My street cred never quite recovered from that one.) I often joke that if I’d been born a Serf or a Pioneer or a woman in any other age before feminine hygeine products were invented, I probably would have died before passing on my genes thus ending the Charlotte lineage of crazy before it could even get going.
There is an upside to my wussitude, however. Having so many weaknesses makes me confront them on a regular basis. And this – while painful and often embarrassing – generally makes for a lot of good learning opportunites. Because, here’s the thing, our society tends to focus on individual strengths; encouraging people to hone their skills, focus on their assets and trumpet their achievements but the real growth comes not from doing what you already do well but from trying what you suck at enough times that you get better. There is little interest for me in reading about people who born good at what they do (um, hi, Lance Armstrong). I’d much rather hear about those who struggle and fight and earn every inch of what they’ve got. And if I’m being really honest, those are the things I like best about myself.
I take for granted my speed-reading ability because frankly I’ve always been good at that. I’ve never had to struggle to learn to read. But on the other hand, for years I was painfully, gut-wrenchingly, awkward-as-Daria shy. It’s taken me a lot of work and effort (and, yes, reading) to overcome what I had once seen as an unchangeable personality trait, an accomplishment that holds far more value for me. Another weakness that I’m currently working on overcoming is my obsession with and hatred of my body, in particular my weight. I know you guys get tired of hearing it. I get tired of writing it (and thinking it and crying over it and wasting time on it.) I’m not over it yet. But I’m not going to quit confronting it until I’ve conquered it. (Jellybean weakness duly noted. It’s on the list too. Somewhere. Bottom-ish.)
This is the problem I have with most fitness stories. It’s all about the “Before” (cue frowny face and big lumpy t-shirt) and the “After!” (bring on the white grin, 3/4 turn and bikini in heels!). So very little is said about the struggle in the middle. It’s not that I don’t ever want to hear about what people do right – we all definitely need more positivity – but is it wrong to want to hear the messy middle too?
Thanks to advancements in medicine and eugenics laws, a lot of us weak folk are surviving. But life is about so much more than just surviving it. To thrive you have to learn from your weaknesses, whether they be physical, mental or spiritual. All of which means that at least my life will never be boring. What about you? Have you ever come face to face with yourself and not liked what you saw? How did you overcome it?
For a truly inspiring example of conquering weakness, check out this guy – a Down’s Syndrome kid with cancer who not only overcame his own hardships but managed to lift everyone else around him as well, even in his death. There is value in fallibility.