The Place Right Below Good

At the bottom of my fourth grade report card in a four-inch lined space left to describe a student’s strengths and weaknesses, my teacher wrote “conscientious” and “a voracious reader.” She ended with a platitude of how much a pleasure I was to have in class. Then in the margins, because she had run out of space, she added in neat teacher handwriting: “Math skills are marginally okay.”

I found the yellow copy of the carbonless paper years later while I was cleaning out my childhood room and held it in my hands for the longest time. Each year, a yellow form like this would ignite so much anxiety. I wondered where the white and pink copies went. Which one made it into my — gulp — permanent record? 

Why did I get just a “satisfactory” for classroom conduct? 

Of all the yellow forms I received, this was the only one I kept tucked away in a red binder with other certificates and degrees. I can’t remember what I did with the other yellow forms. Maybe in a fit of decluttering I shredded them and rolled naked in pile of judgey shreds. Maybe I burned them and felt a catharsis. But I kept this one because of its prescient words.

I am marginally okay. 

She was right about my math skills, which always paled in comparison to my love of finding the right word to describe a scene or paint an image. I obsessed over the words “marginally okay” and took them home with me to turn over and over in my mind.

“That consistent drive to get out of the area just below good has set me up for failure. The quest to be a perfect student, daughter, wife and mother has made me feel not good enough for a long time. I couldn’t see that that when I was nine or 35, but I see that now with clear eyes.” 

Marginally means “slightly or to only a limited extent.” Okay, as an adjective, means “satisfactory, but not exceptionally good.” 

They are two words that separate almost have the same meaning. They both connote the same sense of disappointment of falling short of a designated line of good. Being marginally okay means living in the area right below. 

Together, the words marginally okay are like a nod to the right below. A wry smirk and acknowledgement of the present space like a mall map with a star screaming, “You are here!”

For the most part, I inhabited that space for most of my life. In my graduating high school class of 150, I was ranked in the bottom of the top 10thpercentile. Good, right? Not exceptional, at least for me and my super achievement orientated peers. Then I became a marginal professional adult with aspirations for a Pulitzer but stuck in niche publication like a female Dilbert with middle management angst.

Nothing has made me feel more marginally okay than being a mom. It is a job that consistently makes me set the bar of achievement higher and higher for myself. In our house, we have limited screen time. We make efforts to be eco-friendly, emotionally empathetic, socially conscious and politically informed. On paper and in a highly curated social media space, we are exceptional. 

But at night, I lay in bed and think about all the things I didn’t cover during the day with the kids, the missed opportunities to connect with each member of the family, and the resolution to do it all tomorrow until I reach the point of combustion. 

Because deep down I am not okay with being just okay.

That consistent drive to get out of the area just below good has set me up for failure. The quest to be a perfect student, daughter, wife and mother has made me feel not good enough for a long time. I couldn’t see that that when I was nine or 35, but I see that now with clear eyes. 

So here in the space right below good, I am flipping the words on its head. I am taking away its power, which made me feel inadequate and frustrated. Being marginally okay is where I am. If you see me in the aisle of a supermarket and ask me how I am, I will say, “Marginally okay” because it is true.

I am not good. I feel like I am on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A lot of times it is overwhelming for me to be around both my kids for an extended amount of time. My son’s teachers say I should help him with reading and my daughter’s teachers encouraged me to have more playdates to help her open up socially, but sometimes I can’t.

I am a Marginally Okay Mom, who snapped at her four-year-old this morning, but then later found the time and emotional space to reflect and repair. I try to feed them organic food, but I ate a bag of Doritos standing up in the pantry. I am Marginally Okay writer trying to find her voice again. I read a book about Mother Teresa, but I walked on by when an elderly woman struggled with opening up a door. That makes me a Marginally Okay human being.

My math skills are still marginal, but that’s okay. That’s why man created cell phones with calculators. 

Thank you, fourth grade teacher, for your proficient description. 

I am here in the space below good. End stop. 

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