When I was in kindergarten, one of our craft projects was to make a penguin out of construction paper. It was pretty simple: black body, white belly, orange beak, orange feet. But the special twist was that the penguin’s wings were attached with metal brads, so they could twist and flap.
Our teacher introduced us to the brads and showed us how to peel the metal tabs back to secure them in place. There was a boy in my class named Brad and I thought how unfortunate it was that he was named after this weird little piece of metal. Each kid grabbed two metal brads and sat at the work tables with construction paper spread out in front of us.
I sat down at my table with three other kids and all my supplies laid out before me. The construction paper, shapes to trace and cut out, paste, safety scissors, and two brads. I quickly became absorbed in the project, cutting clean lines and making sure I had all the pieces adjusted just right. I prided myself at being very good with scissors. After I had cut out all my shapes, I looked up for a moment and realized that all the other kids at my table were almost done. Oh no! I was behind! We were supposed to be wrapping up and cleaning off our tables.
I turned back to my penguin and started gluing as fast as I could. Finally, I put the last wing on my penguin and looked at my handiwork. My teacher hovered over my shoulder. “Oh, you were supposed to use the brads to attach the wings.”
My throat tightened as I stared at the two brads still sitting on the table among scraps of paper. In my gluing frenzy, I had glued the wings on. Oh no, oh no, oh no… I immediately wanted to fix it, to tenderly peel off the wings and let the glue try and attach them again with the brads. But there was no time. We were cleaning up. My penguin’s wings would just have to dry in place, remaining immobile. I looked up to see other kids happily flapping their penguins’ wings, and I felt ashamed.
My teacher wasn’t upset with me, but I had already started berating myself for not completing the project correctly. How could I have forgotten? The brads were what this whole project was about and I forgot them. Not only had I spent more time than anyone on the project, I didn’t even do it correctly. I felt like I had let my teacher down, let myself down, and even, in some impossible way, let my penguin down. I had done it wrong.
As an adult looking back on that scene, I’m saddened that I was so hard on myself. I was in kindergarten. Was I going to flunk for not attaching a paper penguin’s wings properly? Of course not. I’m not even sure kindergartners get grades. Where was all that emotion coming from? Why do I still remember it, some 23 years later?
That incident reinforced some burgeoning fears in my five-year-old self. Even at that early age, I felt that if I didn’t do things perfectly, it meant that I was a bad person. I’m still trying to figure out where that comes from. But what’s perhaps more damaging is I also learned if I mess up, I won’t get a chance to fix it. This has lead me to live my life as though this is my one shot. I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to get things right, or catastrophe will ensue. As an adult, I need to let go of the fears I developed in my childhood of being a bad person and never being able to make up for my mistakes.
The reality is that the quality of one paper penguin doesn’t mean anything about whether I’m a good or bad person. And just like as a kid I didn’t have enough perspective to realize it, as an adult I need to remember that I still have a very limited perspective. Retrospectively, my problems may seem bigger now than at five years old. But they feel as big to me today as the penguin did for the little girl with scissors and glue.
The next time I feel stressed because I think I need to make everything perfect in my life, I need to remember the paper penguin. I need to stop and think about what I am trying to prove with my perfection and try to gain some perspective. Because in the end, what does it matter if my wings don’t flap?