The Late Book

Photo: Tom Kerb

I recently had a meeting with my daughter's very lovely first grade teacher. She, lovely teacher, said to me toward the close of the meeting, "So, now that we've covered those items," and she hesitated a moment, "Now that we've covered those items, maybe we could talk about, um, maybe we could talk about—I've introduced a new policy of"—and right before I could offer a pre-emptive, "you have the most striking shade of green eyes," she said it: The Late Book.

Now. I'm as fond of punctuality as anyone. As a classroom instructor myself, I'm probably even especially enamored of it. And, of course, I really want my six-year-old to dwell in a world of approval and positivity. No demerits in her record book, thank you. But. The thing is. (And I know we all have to make choices in this life, and sometimes we just have to get our priorities straight, and really, if we all just left that five minutes earlier… And I agree with all that.) But, the thing is:

My family and I, we really are doing our best.

There. I've said it. I've said it, and darn it, I'm aghast at how so not-good-enough our best can be. After the age of 40, there's little dignity in a sneak-out past the principal's office.

Fortunately though, when I'm feeling especially inadequate, especially over-stretched by the demands of modern life, some higher power seems to take pity on me, and to remind me of a few words of graffiti I once read on a bathroom wall in a bohemian little cafe across the street from Columbia University. It was Ivy League graffiti, I guess, and I have reflected on its wisdom ever since. It said, "Pursue excellence, not perfection."

A few days ago, when my husband and I were planning the upcoming week's schedule of drop-offs, appointments, and commitments, we reached an impasse. It seemed that on two days of the coming week, neither of us would be able to get our children on time to their separate schools, on opposite sides of town, without being late to work ourselves. Frustrated, I looked him square in the eye, wanting to say, "Go Ahead, Make My Day." But instead I said, "I'll fail Tuesday; you fail Wednesday. Next week, we can switch the days around, and maybe no one will notice."

And that is how we have proceeded. Without really saying so out loud, we are no longer punishing ourselves to meet every expectation, or to be in several places at once. We are still, I think, managing to be good parents, decent citizens, and reliable co-workers. We haven't lost pride in any of our activities. But I am finally coming to respect excellence more than perfection. Excellence relates to quality, and perfection only to quantity. And I've never had a good head for numbers.

I teach college English. When I'm bantering with my undergraduate students about this idea of excellence vs. perfection, they say to me, "Oh, but if we were accountants, we would have to be perfect. Clients wouldn't tolerate mere excellence." Hmmm. I wonder. Mere excellence? If we were accountants, I bet our clients would want us to be nothing short of excellent. They would want us to ensure that their books could withstand scrutiny, that the tax collector was satisfied, that their employees were duly paid, and that their profits were their own. The digits in columns would need to ring true, of course. But perfect accountancy might just see our bill-for-service go up, while our squinty-eyed accountant guy poured over red lines and black ones, looking for a missing five cents.

"And ballerinas," I say to them. "Don't get me started on ballerinas. Surely ballerinas should be excellent, and definitely not perfect."

"Why? Why shouldn't ballerinas be perfect?"

"Well, to each her own," I say, "but if we want to see perfect ballet, we might as well program robots-in-tutus to twirl for us. Real ballerinas, syncrhonized as they are, plié with a pulse, not with a micro-chip. And have you ever heard Leonard Cohen sing Hallelujah live? It's never the same twice."

"Who?" they say to me.

Ah well, no one's perfect.

My little girl is late to school some days. She's happy to be there every day. Excellent.