I remember as a little girl, standing at the checkout in the grocery store and eyeing the simple print-outs with a fluttering heart. Those holiday coloring contests ignited in me a belief that anything was possible. I imagined that even though I’d never had the steadiest hand in class, I might submit the winning entry. Each time I’d glance over at the expanse of glass above the recycling center and imagine my finished piece being displayed with a bright colored “WINNER” badge. The Albertson’s staff would smile at me and clap me on the back, my mom and dad would smile and tousle the hair on the top of my head saying, “We knew you’d get it.”
So many Easters, Thanksgivings and Vanlentine’s Day entries bearing my name and age were submitted with bottomless hope. Weeks later I’d run to that wall while my mom waited in line and I’d scan for my entry. Eventually I would find it, hung askance and partially covered by another entry. My heart would sink and I would feel broken, wondering wistfully what the winner felt like. I’d memorize their name and imagine what their life was like. My defeat would always be completely erased by the next contest and my confidence that this time, this time it would be my name that would represent the best of the 5-7 year old age bracket.
As an adult I bristle when I see the contests, realizing that the winners are often decided by an arbitrary drawing, or by some other methodology. I am torn between wanting my girls to have the same willingness to believe that anything is possible and fearing that my own relative rudderlessness has been passed in the genes. I know on some level that there were kids who wanted to be artists when they were five. They were drawn to the artbox at times other than the contest season. They spent their afternoons hunched over paper, while I dug for clay and sought out fairies beneath dewy rhododendron leaves. It wasn’t that I wanted to circumvent hard work, it was just that there was nothing I knew in the depth of my soul I needed to do.
My oldest daughter now has a similar inclination toward awards that have nothing to do with her skills. Her school has something called the Spartan Spirit Award. The award is given to students who demonstrate kindness unprompted by teachers. I can say without embellishment that she has come home from school every day since Thanksgiving with a breathless, “Mom, tomorrow might be the day I get the Spartan Spirit Award.” She regales me with the random acts of kindness, cooperation and cooperation that she has demonstrated and punctuates it with a, “sooo, I’m not sure, but I think tomorrow will be the day when they call my name.” I’m ashamed to admit that in the parent teacher conference I let her teacher know how doggedly she pursues the award. The teacher just smiled.
My resolve is wavering because while I didn’t practice drawing and coloring in order to win an award, Briar does lay awake at night imagining things she can do to demonstrate her exceptional spartan spirit. I am humbled by how indomitable her faith that she’ll get picked is, but at the same time I am fiercely protective and realize that it’s very likely she will never be recognized for her efforts. I want to intervene, I want her to not learn this lesson. Her goodness and hope are the most precious shoots of potential and I want to preserve them with everything I have. But damnit, I want it to just happen. This isn’t a coloring contest, it is a measure of her character.
I just worry that if I leave it up to others she’ll look up at me one day and ask why she wasn’t good enough for the award.