by Wayne Scheer
We had invited my wife’s cousin, Rob, to our home for dinner, although neither of us knew him very well. Bonnie hadn’t seen him in years and our son, about five at the time, had never met him. Rob was in Atlanta for a marketing workshop, the kind where the salesmen are hooked up to intravenous adrenalin drips and come out of the meetings more hyper than a kid on a jelly donut high.
All through dinner, he lectured us about Winners and Losers and how there’s no I in Can Do. (It didn’t make sense to me either, but I had stopped listening long ago.) My son sat fascinated. I could see his brow wrinkle and his lips tighten with every definition of success offered by this strange man. Jason, it occurred to me, had never before seen an A-type personality, an Alpha-Male. On a leadership aggression scale, I score somewhere between a walnut and a daffodil.
Rob had probably decided that I, a teacher of English at a community college, was a lost cause, so he focused his attention on our poor son.
“Are you making all A’s in school? I always told my children anything less than an A is unacceptable. If you’re not the best, you’ve failed.”
“He’s in kindergarten, Rob,” Bonnie reminded him. “There are no grades.”
“No grades? How do you know if he’s succeeding? How does he know if he’s doing better than his classmates? That’s the trouble with American education. It’s not competitive enough. Now in Japan….” And he was off on another diatribe.
Somehow we got through dinner. I volunteered to do the dishes in order to escape the tornado-force winds coming from the dining room. But while loading the dishwasher, guilt got the best of me for leaving my son in the storm’s path. My wife, I knew, could take care of herself. Besides, this was her family.
I downed the wine in my glass as well as what was left in the bottle, and ventured back where I could see my son in the direct line of a funnel cloud of hot air. “Success results from effort. You give one hundred and ten percent to get one hundred and ten percent.”
Bonnie tried rescuing Jason by saying it was his bedtime. I suggested the cousins spend time together while I put our boy to bed. (My wife still hasn’t forgiven me for that. I may not score high as a leader, but I top out in passive/aggressive.)
In his bedroom, Jason stared at me, unsure what to make of his cousin. Or me.
I kissed him and told him he didn’t have to be the best. It was more important to be good. And that there was no shame in being the second or third best.
“How about the fourteenth best?”
“Fourteenth is good, too,” I said.
He wrapped his little arms around me and we laughed for the first time that evening.
published 30 August 2013