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  • Writer's picturewendy s. russo

the long shadow of assumptions

When asked, most people who remember me from high school might tell you I got good grades, I participated in sports, and I never did anything to embarrass my parents. I was likable if not popular. For most of my adult life, I've looked back on my teen years and sighed over a long list of things I did sufficiently well, but not great. I was a good swimmer, a good student, a good get the idea.

In 1984, my dad was recovering from major brain surgery when he was unlawfully laid off from his job. The year that followed is irrelevant to the story I'm telling today, so I'll skip it. What is important is my dad moved us to Worland, Wyoming, in 1985. I had just finished 5th grade, and was transitioning into 6th with kids from three elementary schools. They all knew about 1/3 of the class on day one. I didn't know anyone for the second year in a row.

Gymnastics and swimming units aside, PE class does not rank high on favorite childhood memories. I never loved playing team sports, but some of these girls in my grade were great at them. They picked up the rules quick. They handled the equipment well. They coordinated on plays. I did my best to stay out of their way and tried not to mess up too badly. While I dreaded PE each day, a thought sunk into my bones. These girls had natural athletic talent, and I didn't. They were blessed with bodies built for sports and I was not. Whatever team I ended up on, I was a weak link.

teens playing volleyball.
My aunt said I was built for volleyball. I thought she was crazy. Photo by © Sergey Novikov

I tried though. I joined the volleyball team in 8th and 9th grade. I played and I...sucked. I felt like the girls hated me for bringing them down, so I walked down to the swimming pool in 10th grade and joined the swim team. There, if I performed poorly, the failure fell mostly on me. (There were always team scores, so yes...mostly.)

My belief that the other girls were stronger and faster than me were validated in swimming. I worked harder than everyone on my team. I outperformed them all in the pool day after day, week after week. Come Saturday, the same six girls would beat me to wall in whatever event we swam together. My best times were slower than theirs on their off days. I accepted it. They were just better.

girl swimming laps
Shaving time off a personal best is a hard thing to do. Photo © Jacob Lund

That was okay, though. I wasn't competing against them. The beauty of individual sports is your first opponent is yourself. I didn't have to beat the girl in the next lane to the wall. I just had to put a faster time than my best on the clock. That's how I defined a win.

I was 40-years-old, watching my son play baseball, when I realized some of the other girls had an advantage over me. Some of my classmates had played t-ball and softball. I had watched some of their games and assumed that they played because they were good. It didn't occur to me then that they were good because they played.

It seems a silly thing to miss. To be honest, I didn't give it much thought for twenty-years. And when it hit me, I wanted to kick myself for feeling like I couldn't compete with those girls, thinking I lacked ability when what I really lacked was wisdom.

I know better now. Thanks to Facebook, I'm friends with a few of those amazingly athletic girls, and today I know we were never all that different. They had insecurities then that have followed them like long shadows into their 40s, too.

When I peel back the insecurities of my youth, I can see only two things remaining to hold me back from anything I'd like to I choose to define success, and my fear of failure.

I'd love you hear from you. What assumptions from your teen years have followed you into adulthood? Please share what you learned from them in the comments below.

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Jul 11, 2019

Wendy, you were meant to be a writer, not an athlete. Although I admire your determination to try to fit in, you didn't give up...enjoyed your essay, keep writing! xo

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