On What to Be

When I was four, I wanted to be a garbage man. Maybe it was the jumpsuits. Maybe it was the image of those big rusty trucks rolling down the streets of my childhood neighborhood. Or maybe it was the weathered-looking men hanging onto the back of the trucks, looking casual and confident at the same time.

After my fifth birthday, as my world and my ideas grew, so did my dreams: I decided I wanted to be a UPS truck driver. Again, the uniforms excited me. Again, the big truck struck me as official and important. Our family was spread across the country, so on my birthday and the weeks before the holidays, the brown truck lumbered up our driveway, filled to overflowing (I was sure) with presents.

In the first grade, the heyday of my UPS fantasies, I spent half my day in the Gifted and Talented class. There were maybe ten of us, and at 5 years of age, I was the youngest. We had bunnies, fish, and a ferret named Violet. Mrs. Mothersbaugh—my sweet, wonderful teacher—had a quiet voice and a ready smile. I loved the animals and my teacher. And I loved the other kids in my class.

But very quickly, the way I viewed myself and my place in the world changed. I was in this special class. I was a smart kid, meant to do smart-kid things. I knew I had been tested, and I knew that the results were a big deal because my mom wouldn’t tell me my score. The most I managed to get out of her was that my IQ was higher than my dad’s, a piece of trivia I clung to like a tiny life preserver: my dad could do anything, and I was smarter than he was.

On the bulletin board behind my teacher’s desk, 12 ducks cut out of laminated construction paper were pinned to the bulletin board. Each duck had a name written across the middle with black permanent marker. When an assignment was late or missing, our teacher would write the transgression down on a post-it note and stick it to the corresponding duck.

Most kids in my class had one or two post-it notes on their ducks. My duck, however, was always completely covered in notes. You couldn’t see my name in the middle; you couldn’t even tell it was a duck. I was hopelessly behind.

At the end of every week, Mrs. Mothersbaugh would pat me on the shoulder and hand me a list of missing assignments. I promised that I would go home, sit down, and sort them all out. At home, I would think about my full backpack and my duck buried under all those notes and feel sick.

At 5, I was possessed by my first tiny taste of fatalism: I would never get it all done. Even as I was working on my old assignments, new assignments kept coming. I knew I would miss those deadlines too. My duck would never be clean.

Within weeks of joining the Gifted and Talented class, I developed a new ritual: every morning, as soon as I woke up, I would run to the bathroom and throw up. I was physically sick before school every single morning. My mom tried to bargain with me, offering me the sugary foods she knew I liked so I would at least eat something. I tried, but I just couldn’t make myself eat. I was often doubled over with hunger cramps in the cafeteria by lunchtime. I remember several times when a janitor noticed me and snuck me to the front of the lunch line.

As the year went on, my anxiety worsened. I developed fears of being kidnapped, of dinosaurs coming back to life, and of huge hands waiting to descend from the sky and squish me. I dealt with these scary things as pragmatically as a 5-year-old could. To thwart kidnappers, my mom and I bought thicker blinds for my bedroom window. Sometimes I slept with my shoes on, in case I woke up in the middle of the night and heard my windows rattling from approaching dinosaur steps. In braver moments at the playground, I would look up at the blue sky while my mind taunted me with images of a giant hand and think, “I don’t even care.” I didn’t mean it.

Despite my stress level, I continued in my school’s Gifted and Talented program until the middle of the third grade. Finally, my mom pulled me out of the program. My teachers, my school counsellor, and the principal all told her what a disservice she was doing to me. They made it seem like she was opting out of a life-saving surgery, reducing the odds of my success as a person, clipping the wings of my academic future.

It didn’t feel like settling to me: it felt like relief. I had time to play after school. The weight of having to live up to my “smart kid” diagnosis had been lifted off my shoulders.

Still, even without the pressure of being “gifted and talented,” I never found my footing, academically. Quiet, shy, insecure, and failing almost every class, I left high school halfway through my junior year. I didn’t go to college. I’ve had a full-time job since I was 17, starting with bookstores and graduating to doctors’ offices, where I am now. I’m good at my job; I’m appreciated; and sometimes I even enjoy it. I have two kids, and I try my hardest to give them solid, happy, and supported lives.

I’m not a surgeon, a scientist, a CEO, or a Nobel Prize winner. What I want out of life is to live simply, honestly, and humbly. My ambitions are to show my children that they are loved and to make the world around me a little better, a little more beautiful, and a little more peaceful. In my heart, I feel like this is a worthy way to spend my time in this world. But there will always be a small piece of me that finds fault with my aversion to ambition—a little voice that tells me I am wasting what I have been given, that what I am is not enough.

If I had my pick of professions, I think I’d still rather be a garbage man than a professor. Twenty-eight years later, I’m still trying to forgive myself for that.