Chasing Perfection

She was brilliant. Her grasp of language astounded me. Her sentence structures were complex, diverse, and dazzling. The way she could shape a paragraph was glorious. Yet, she struggled mightily in Creative Writing the first two months. She knew she could nail the formal writing in her sleep, but the fear of stumbling when stepping into the freer realm of creativity froze her. Why? Perfectionism. It was her champion and her enemy simultaneously, helping her master research and analysis papers but sending her scrambling away from short stories and poetry.

That student came to mind today as I stood waiting for a new day of training. Nacho had been magnificent thus far. The route we had worked several times--offering numerous complex surfaces, turns, distractions, crossings, and contexts--had proven to be a great place from which we built our confidence. I knew we could nail that route. Today, we were looking at a different trainer, a different route, and indoor work down the aisles of a store. A surge of fear rushed through me, clogging my throat and triggering mental explosions of imagined dyer outcomes. I did not want to fail.

How can we harness the positive aspects of perfection while also not being consumed by the awfulness of fearing what will happen when we meet with imperfection? The media features images of beautiful models with perfect hair, skin, and shape; my teenaged girls see that and quake as they look in the mirror. The chatter in education is all about performance on high-stakes testing; my special education students and English-language learner's hear the chatter and quake as the test day approaches. Perfection in such circumstances is unreachable and oppressive.

Yet, we cannot contend that striving for perfection is wholly negative. The gymnast training for the Olympics knows the value of eliminating even the smallest balance check in her beam routine. The scientist pursuing a cure for cancer knows the absolute necessity of precision: "sort of accurate" is not an option. That gymnast and that scientist know when "perfect" is mandated and, hopefully, when "perfect" is not a desirable outcome. I'd like to think that the gymnast giggles when she colors outside the lines and the scientist grins when he burns a batch of dark chocolate brownies.

There is a time and place for the pursuit of perfection. We must embrace it and not be mastered by it. We must help our students and ourselves find the balance that will yield achievement and acceptance simultaneously.

So, how did my student do in Creative Writing? Very well. By the end of the semester, she let herself write poems without capitalization, use fragments in descriptive sequences, and overuse conjunctions to increase syllabic rhythm. How did Nacho and I do on the walk? It was perfect, complete with a ton of great, a bit of good, and a dash of "we'll get it right next time." I am satisfied.