In third grade, my schoolteacher told me that I was ugly, but that with any luck I’d look better when I grew up. When I tell that story now, people assume I am looking for sympathy, but in fact, even at the time, I appreciated her honesty. I knew I was a very weird-looking child and no number of sympathetic clucks from adults would have convinced me otherwise. What I wanted to hear were practical steps for improving my present appearance or barring that, at least hard-nosed realism coupled with hope for the future. And as an adult I am in fact much less weird-looking than I was as a child, so my teacher was right.
A culture of coddling is of little help to an eight-year-old who has to wait another eight years to grow into her nose, but this type of “oh no, I think you’re the pretty one!” back and forth would become only more of a fixture in junior high and high school, where “fishing,” as we called it, was the norm. “I look so fat today!” some slight preteen would moan, and it was the sworn duty of us all to insist that no, no, she was not at all fat, if anything we were the fat ones. And of course the prettier and bolder and more confident the fisherman, the more willing she was to throw that rod out there.
The problem with this expectation of “fishing” is that it makes it difficult to honestly discuss my many very real inadequacies. As soon as you say you are terrible at parallel parking or putting on eye shadow or cooking rice, someone wants to grab that bait, but seriously, I am not fishing. Nor would I ever. Because I am really, really terrible at fishing.
In fact, I am truly, uniquely bad at doing a host of things, including things that virtually everyone else I know can do readily. For example, I’m thirty-one years old and I don’t know how to ride a bike. I suppose technically I have managed at times to bike as far as a single city block, but slowly, unsteadily, and certainly neither calmly nor gracefully. I didn’t learn to swim until I was ten; I didn’t learn to drive until I was twenty-four, and in both cases it shows. At this rate, I had better live to be at least 120 if I ever want to be a normal, functioning person. I also can’t spit, whistle, or skip stones, making me something like the anti-Tom Sawyer. I am truly, colossally, show-stoppingly bad at sports of all kinds. The kind of bad that makes people want to pull out their iPhones and start uploading to Fail Blog. Schooled in the polite demurral, a friend may assure me that no, really, I certainly could learn to snowboard if I wanted to, but that person has likely never seen me hop madly off a ski lift face-first like a little broken sparrow on its last trip down to earth.
Nor are my failings limited to athletic ones. I am so bad at following the plots of movies that I will read plot summaries on IMDB while watching the film and still not understand what’s happening, even on repeat viewings. I can’t play chess, poker, or any card games. When someone begins to explain the rules of a card game to me, it’s like a part of my mind just turns off and all I hear is the dull, content-less drone of their voice. In college, no fewer than four people tried to teach me how to play bridge, but some people just cannot learn. My skills at estimation, of volume, duration, capacity, or extension, are bad enough to shake your belief in my fundamental neurological soundness. If there are two thousand jelly beans in that jar, I’m as likely to guess one hundred. Or a million. Or ten.
It is for this reason that I simply cannot imagine needing to be falsely modest. Who has time to make up additional failings? In fact, I am more than delighted to trumpet my humble accomplishments wherever I find them. I have very nice handwriting, I’m quite good at gluing broken ceramic objects back together, and I have an unmatched memory for song lyrics. Trust me: if I’m good at something, I’ll let you know. So when I tell you I can’t snowboard, there’s no need to shake your head and protest. I really can’t snowboard. Be like my third grade teacher and accept that I have some natural limitations and perhaps we can find a way to work around them. Considering watching “Inception” tonight? How about we just glue things together instead? Or, like my optimistic teacher, we can just hope that I grow out of it all, and I might, if I’m not killed falling off a ski lift first.