Well, it’s done. I did my speech at the kids’ NHS ceremony. Here’s the gist of it:
THANK YOU for asking me to be here. It’s really an honor. Congratulations to all of you.
It hasn’t been easy to plan what I could possibly say to you that you haven’t already heard. I don’t think I need to tell you much about the value of great leadership, or the importance of a strong academic life. It would seem you already know that. So, I have prepared a dramatic reading, analysis, and interpretive dance of Acts 4 and 5 of Julius Caesar.
I will do what I do then, which is give advice to a captive audience of students who seem to stay the same age forever, as I somehow grow older. I’ll also tell you a few of the lessons I’ve learned, thanks to many of you who I have been lucky enough to have in class. I see many of you who I will remember pretty vividly for a long time to come… This year’s seniors were the first group of students I worked with when I came to Bradley, and some of you I had two or even three times in class. For me, you are a special group.
Among you special little things are the achievers, the curve busters, the quickest of the quick, the critical thinkers… you now have this great achievement and are part of a community of people all over who have received this special honor. BUT. With love for you and best wishes for your future, I have to say that maybe all of this… comes with a price. Being a success is hard. (That’s pretty profound, right?) You get tired, stressed, overextended, overcommitted, with little time to just be, to cultivate your creativity, or to grow your friendships. I want to tell you a story about me that I hope will help give you something to think about as you move ahead.
I have had few real struggles in my life, thank God. One of my biggest, though, has been fairly recently, when I realized I had a problem. It happened around a certain birthday, when I had one of those “milestones” – a number with a zero at the end, the kind where I got a few of those ugly birthday cards with the disgusting numbers on the front. ANYway, my problem probably started a long time ago, and I didn’t even know I had it until one day… BAM! There it was. At first, I was in denial. And, truthfully, it probably helped me through some difficult times. But there comes a point when what seems like a good thing can, in fact, be harmful, and even a little scary. So if you can keep a secret…I’ll tell you all something I have never talked about publicly before – which, by talking to you about it, I guess, that’s a step to getting better. OK. Here goes.
My name is Nicole and I’m a perfectionist.
OK. I will QUALIFY that, since my students know that’s my favorite word and pastime, to qualify arguments, because everything is an argument. I’m not a perfectionist in ALL things. Not with my parenting, or my closet, or my dishwasher, for instance… oh, the dishwasher. I am almost convinced it is the ender of marriages or at least top 3. Anyone who is anyone knows that the food on the plates HELPS THE SOAP DO IT’s JOB.
Let me tell you a story. My own NHS induction ceremony in 1999 – yeah, that’s right – is a perfect example of this problem. I was a senior, and our small induction class of 15 or so were asked to stand at the start of the ceremony in front of the crowd, kind of like here on the stage. The speaker opened the ceremony by reading a teacher’s words about a student, which I imagine were teacher-y… As she spoke, I stood there with the rest but was stuck in my own head, worrying about my clothes, hoping my hair was OK, not like I had laid down and rubbed my head on the floor again, I was trying not to fidget too much – so obsessed with how others might be viewing me, that I didn’t hear the speaker’s words. Until she said my name. I must have looked shocked. Apparently those words were from some teacher and they were about me. But I never heard them. I have no idea to this day who said them, or what they were. For all we know I could be an astronaut right now, if I had only heard those words…
OK, not really, because I do not understand numbers, and I am pretty sure that astronauts do.
Anyway. I mentioned to you that my perfectionism was a bit problematic. Here was the problem, to summarize: I put pressure on myself to be perfect, to do everything and to be the best, at all of it. But that’s not reasonable, and no one else expected perfection from me – not my parents, not my husband, and not my children. And obviously not any of you, because you have put up with me so far. I just imagined that they did, which you might imagine can cause some weird emotions.
So here’s what I learned, something I wish someone had told me for free: it isn’t reasonable to expect greatness of yourself at everything. It’s not a kind or loving thing to do to yourself, to think that you’re somehow less or broken because you’re not a genius in every subject. Yes, as students today, you have some tough challenges. But none of those challenges is impossible if you learn to honor yourself (get it? HONOR? National HONOR Society?!) Do you think that people with integrity, character and success, people like Ellen DeGeneres, Jack White, and Bill Gates, are driven and dedicated? Of course. But are they the best at everything, every subject, every aspect of their lives? No. It’s just not really a possibility. A trendy cliche piece of advice I hear a lot these days is “find and follow your passion.” But this is pretty genius. And how often do you hear someone say that their passion is “everything?” Never.
As an AP teacher, I know a perfectionist when I see one. I can spot you pretty quick, you with your giant backpacks, your half-crazed sleepy faces, and am usually confirmed, thanks to those work days when you’re in one of those heated debates about some theory/math problem (those ones when you’re supposed to be working on my paper), the ones where it looks like I’m working at my desk but I’m really listening to every word you’re saying? (Oh, that sounded a little more creepy when I said it out loud!) In the past few years, I’ve noticed more and more of you perfectionist types popping up in my classes. And while I admire your drive, your dedication to school, I also feel a little sad by what can sometimes look like is a joyless, exhausting struggle through the school day.
So what is my point, my honorable little pets? My point is to keep doing what you’re doing, but to remember what is most important in all things: honoring yourself. When I need a doctor or a lawyer, a librarian or an astronaut or a short order cook to do my bidding, I want to hire the one whose passion is in what they do each day; who better to fix me, save me, teach me, fly me or feed me, than someone who is driven not by the external – the parents, the boyfriend, the media – but the internal, by their own desire to do what they love? This, my darlings, is what I think any great and honorable person would and should do. Start honoring yourself by defining what success is to you, and by finding ways to channel all that pressure, especially the kind you put on yourself. Take a few minutes on the drive home and think about what you really want out of life.
Perfectionists tend to be people-pleasers, so for me, when I stopped wondering what others wanted for me, I changed. I became happier because I was doing the things in life that brought me joy and a sense of satisfaction. And that led me to be more successful. The more I allowed others to see me as a real, imperfect person, the better I felt, and the better I did.
I will end, then, with a thank you. The people we grow to be is so much the result of who we meet along the way. For me, that is you. A bunch of teenagers (and by extension, their parents). You have helped me define my own success, and have pushed me to do more than I would have done on my own. Thanks.