Playful, elegant, and not above the judicious use of the word “shit."

I wish I knew then what I know now

While having dinner at my mother’s house on Saturday night I got to catch up with my sister’s two oldest children. Her oldest, Mariah, is almost 15 and sometimes I think she was sent to the wrong person because in every way she should be my kid. We have the same build, the same mop of hair on our heads, and the same tendency to mumble our words so that we always sound like we have a wad of chewing tobacco the size of a grapefruit tucked in our lower lip.

Mariah also takes her schoolwork way too seriously much like I did when I was her age, and I often want to pull her aside and tell her that it’s okay to relax. But I know that even if I did she wouldn’t be able to understand it or accept it. My physics teacher in 11th grade once yanked me out of class to give me a lecture on the fact that because I had made a 98 instead of a perfect 100 on a test I was still an okay person, and I didn’t believe her. I was so obsessed with perfection in my schoolwork that anything less was an indication that I would end up homeless or in prison, or worst of all a person who grocery shops in her bare feet.

The joke was on me, wasn’t it? Because even though I graduated at the top of my class I still ended up becoming a person who carried around a sockless baby in public. I know in my heart that I became that type of person because of that one time I made an A minus on a trigonometry test.

My other niece, Meredith, is 13 and is completely opposite from Mariah and me. She’s going to be much shorter than Mariah and has always been refreshingly carefree. She’s also been confident in her decisions since the day she was born and as a result doesn’t care if she brings home a C in math class because hell if that is going to stop her from conquering the world. Where Mariah is the one hoping that she’s doing enough to make it to Heaven, Meredith is the one wondering if when she gets there any of the angels are going to be cute.

Throughout dinner on Saturday Mariah had a look of panic on her face, a panic I recognized in my bones, and it turns out that later this week she has a geography test that is going to require her to draw the entire world from memory and name every country. I know that between now and that test she’s going to spend every minute worrying about it. Meredith, on the other hand, was having a hard time coming up with a fifth item on a sheet of paper that had the word GOALS written in very round letters across the top. I told her I’d help her but that I needed to see the other items to get an idea of what she was looking for, and this is what she showed me:

1. Learn backhandspring
2. Exercise
3. Earn some money
4. Learn how to do hard stretches

It still amazes me that such different people were born into the same family, and even though my automatic response was to want to say something sarcastic, like, you know, some people could accomplish three and four at the same time, I just smiled and said, “I think your list is perfect as it is.”

  • Oh, Heather – it sounds like we could have been twins in high school. I obsessed over every grade – if I missed something on a test, the self-deprecation was soon to follow. I was also Valedictorian (amazing how few chances in life you have a forum in which to say that!) – and thought I shouldn’t fail at anything.

    Then I went to college, and found boys, booze and so much more. I failed classes for not even showing up. But I made up for it later – it bothered me terribly that I graduated with a 2.5 from college, that I had to go BACK and get my Master’s, just to erase that blemish. I graduated with a 4.0, villified.

    As for my daughter? She could care less if she “misses a couple” on her tests, making me grit my teeth in horror. Doesn’t she understand? I have had the worst time not obsessing over her schoolwork, not pushing her to be perfect – b/c I know she is much more well-adjusted and happy than I was at that age. She has loads of social activities, sports, art, music, and a great personality. I wonder if it will be hard for you if Leta doesn’t have the determination we had – will you be able to sit back, and let her be “her?” I will warn you, it was tough for me – and I’ve mellowed some with age. But I know my daughter is better off, not being saddled with such an anal retentive personality.

    BTW, had to make that last photo of the Congressman my background – too cute!

  • Wow. I have a list of goals and now I totally want to add ‘learn back handspring’ to that list. I’m still a big kid at 27 years old…

  • I, too, am constantly amazed that my 5-year-old daughter is exactly like me and then nothing like me at all. It took me a long time to realize that she is herself and not me. But I guess that’s the beauty of family.

  • I share your amazement regarding how two (or more) people could be born into the same family and raised by the same parents, and yet turn out so differently.

    In my family, the outcome is not all that surprising. My husband’s family is another story. He’s the youngest of three boys, and he is BY FAR the overachiever of the bunch. The oldest has never really gotten on the right track (but he’s a hell of a nice guy). The middle one has been ALL over the map (and I used to think he was great, but for the life of me I cannot understand him now). But Kyle has always been on the straight and narrow, more or less. Smart, witty, athletic, outgoing, and driven to succeed, but not so driven that he can’t remember to have a good time along the way.

    What really boggles my mind about how differently these guys turned out is that they are all so different from their parents, especially Kyle. I can’t wrap my brain around that.

  • I was very much a perfectionist in high school. I remember my biology teacher told my dad that I had gone up to his desk and said “I only got a 92%, how can I improve for next time?” and he didn’t know what to say because no one had ever asked him that before.

    Unfortunately, in college I swung the complete opposite way and partied more than I studied.

    I took a travel and tourism course five years ago and we never had to draw an entire world map, though we would have to know all the countries in a specific continent for exams. My sympathies to Mariah, that’s going to be rough.

  • Draw the whole world? They still make kids do that? I don’t see that it matters anyway. They should just have them draw a map of the world and then label everything America to save us from having to do it 10 years down the line.

  • lyssann

    This would totally go against your neice’s perfectionist grain, but she should learn the countries from the anamaniacs song of the countries of the world. “united states, canada, mexico, panama, haiti, jamaca, peru…”…clearly the problem I would have with this test is spelling. The other problem with this song might be that half the countries in some parts of the world may have changed their name.

  • kidsmom

    My daughter is the anal/self-important/perfectionist in the house (just like her mother). My son gets by on charm, wit, brain and humor (just like the mailman?). I tell daughter to be nice to son, because at some point in her life, she WILL need to borrow money from him.

    Signed,
    Their Mother

  • my twin brother and i are a lot like meredith and mariah, in that we’re complete opposites. i’m the one that obsessed over grades, was always responsible, etc. he’s the one that barely passed in school and was always causing trouble. i swear, i was switched at birth.

  • Kathleen

    I have two sisters and two brothers, and we were all born within 8 years. We are all so different it’s frightening. When we all get together people look at us all and wonder how it is we came from the same genetic pool. between the five of us we cover almost every view, orientation, and approach on life… the one thing we had in common was poor grades. If any of us had ever gotten an A minus in Trig or science my parents would have known we were cheating.
    Your neices are lucky to have you to go to if they ever have “start-of-life” crises. Doesn’t everyone have one of these?

  • I am so different from my little sister, she is laid back and just flows with life. I am her stressed out opposite. I am now a mom to two very different girls. My oldest is a perfectionist and my youngest just likes to put in a good effort. It makes me wonder why in my family, the younger sister is more laid back and the older sister is so stressed. My mom’s older sister is a maniac, and my mom lives in a happy clutter. Are we inadvertantly putting more pressure on our first born daughters and warping them for life?

  • gillyblack

    Genes are great aren’t they ?

    My sister is 12 years younger than me and she is officially my half-sister as we only share a dad. We never lived together even bar for a few weeks when she was 17 and I was 29 … for reasons which are boring – this was 13 years ago.

    We are great friends.

    She was telling me last week about how she was advising a friend about something and I laughed and said to her how she was advising her friend in EXACTLY the same way as I do … and ain’t that a thang!

    A few days later she was telling a mutual friend what I had said and the friend said incredulously:

    EMMA! Don’t you know that you are a clone of Gillian? But don’t worry cos we all love her.

  • The wisdom of Aunt Dooce. I hope that one day they will both tell you how you enhanced both of their lives.

  • You are such a great Aunt. I would have been teasing my neice about her list just to be fun. But, no you encouraged her to keep going with her goals and that is great! As for your other neice, I hope she does well on her Geography. I only wish I had been as intense about my schoolwork, somehow I didn’t care enough. They are fortunate to have such a great Aunt!

  • Sorcha

    I survived a childhood of overachievement and being labelled a brainbox and always seeking perfection, and I survived it because when I was 18 I discovered boys who smelled nice.

    In the new photo on your About this Site page, you look a lot like Kiera Knightley. I hope you don’t mind the comment, I mean it as a compliment.

  • I would most surely be pacing the room if I had a test where I had to draw and label the entire world. I mean, really, do they expect such knowledge to be useful in “The Real World,” beyond the drunk conversation starter/bet winning opportunity? “Hey guys, while you were doing that keg stand I just drew a map of the globe, from memory. Bet you $50 bucks and that beer in your hand that you can’t label every country, and I can.” Ok, on second thought, that girl better get to studying.

  • Villarica

    I can tell how relaxed you have now become by the fact that you have allowed the “Categories” and “Search This Site” fields to become so misaligned.

  • My sister is a Mariah and I was a for sure Meridith!

    My little sister was and is a girl genius and nothing aside from perfection will do. I would love to make funny of these sort of people being the opposite sort myself but I can’t. See that perfection has actually worked for her. She started University 2 years ealrier then a normal person and finished 3 years earlier then a normal person. She was offered jobs with major companies but when they saw her age they said ‘ nope way to young’. If that had been me I would likely have stuck 2 fingers up at them all and worked at Macdonalds ha ha !! Not Alex she only went and landed a job with NATO in Brussels.

    ( yes I occasionally have jealous sister syndrome … very rarely though )

    Me on the other hand …… yeah I just did not care . Not in a bad way just did not care plain and simple. My dad used to say my life was like one big ‘ soap’ he was pretty much right to be fair.

    I am still the Meridith of the family even though I moved from home in Canada to the UK my ‘ Meridith’ life followed me. Wouldn’t have it any other way to be honest and I am sure that Alex would never have it any other way she loves her life as a ‘ Mariah’

  • she has to DRAW the map too?! good god…give me a hardstretch any day.

  • MJ

    Hi there. I would like to ask you a couple questions for a dooce story that I am working on for my school paper, the Daily Sundial. I hope to hear from you soon. My deadline is Friday so please contact me before Friday if possible. E-mail me your number and when it is best to call you. Thanks so much for your cooperation. I look forward to hearing from you.
    MJ

  • spilthetea

    A recent conversation between me and my husband since I entered the world of dooce thirteen days ago:

    Husband: I don’t need dinner at home tonight. I’m going out with customers.

    Me: YEAH! I don’t have to cook so now I can read dooce!

    Husband: You don’t need to lose any weight. You’re perfect the way you are.

    Me: HAHAHAHAHAHA! I love you.

    To get back to the main subject…I can draw a pretty accurate map of the western United States. I also know where Canada and Mexico are located. Wonder how many points are given for that much information?

  • Sounds like the stereotypical 2 sister scenario. I am the oldest, and my sister the younger. We sound like your nieces when we were that age. Everyone who knows us calls us polar opposites.
    Environment, my foot. All are created UNIQUE!

  • missy

    Holy smokes, Batman! She’s 15 and she’s supposed to be able to draw every single country in the world?

    I graduated in the top 9 percent of my state, I’m at university doing “International Studies”, and there’s no way in hell I’d be able to do that.

    What sin did this poor child commit to be landed with such a horrible test? Is this really what high schools are doing to children these days? Honestly, no wonder the youth suicide rate is rising!

  • sassy7cassy

    haha missy, I’m an IS major also. I’m at Ohio State.

    Anyways, YEAH, I would NEVER be able to draw the whole world and name the countries from memory. The 54 countries in Africa were enough to memorize, and I didn’t have to draw a damn thing.

    She either goes to a REALLY GOOD school that likes to challenge students (or drive students to suicide), or a REALLY CRAPPY one with teachers who don’t realize how many countries are in the world. Geez.

  • Talon

    Nakee baby feet are in danger of me eating them.

    No matter where they are…I just can’t help myself.

    Thus ends my terrible confession.

    My soul is now purged.

    I feel clean!! Take me now Jesus!! Oh wait…that’s right, you’re gay and committed to John. My bad!!

    Too much ice cream. Definatly TOO much ice cream for Talon today.

    >.>

  • I would have been a Meredith, if Meridith liked to smoke a lot of pot and spend at least half of the school year skipping it. Ah, how I miss not going to school.
    I grew up to have a usually fully clothed baby, and I failed math consistantly (I mean several times, in a row). Actually, maybe not, when you consider the hat thing, which is much like the sock thing, but worse, since I do it all the time.

    My god! My baby will never make it into Harvard! What have I done?? (wail, moan, sob loudly) Someone call CPS, I’m a terrible mother.

    Aunts are great though, and easier to talk to. Boot for her and you’ll have her in the palm of your hand. Because we all know intoxicating your relatives shows your coolness factor.

    I’m kidding.

    I think.

  • DesertJade

    Kids always have a way of figuring it out in the long run. I was just like Mariah, always getting As, kicking my ass if I ever got anything less. I was a very good student, and could have done anything, but I decided to go to art school. I worked as a designer for a few years, got better and better and then what? I quit my “real job” to go work at a zoo. Go figure! What did I learn? It is ok to change your mind, and the most important thing is finding out what really makes you happy. I’m sure that both of these girls will find it someday, no matter where their paths lead them.