My heart sank in front of the hall display. This was the morning the sixth-grade teachers would show off the best notebooks. I didn’t see mine.
Maybe I had missed it at the first look. My eyes moving more slowly this time–left to right, down, left to right, down, left to right–I checked again. Then I zoned in on a particularly scrawny one. It couldn’t possibly contain as much Maryland history as mine. Why hadn’t my notebook been selected? Why wasn’t it good enough?
Wasted were the long nights I had sat alone and straddle-legged on the bare, hard floor cutting and pasting from a stack of Sunday Sun Magazine issues while the rest of the family slept. As my mind and body gave out on that last night, my insides silently screamed for my mother to come into the living room and make me go to bed. I couldn’t stop the project by myself. I didn’t know where enough ended. Finally, the assignment deadline notified me no more would be expected.
Dejected, I walked into my classroom at the end of the hall. As soon as I slumped down in my desk chair, Mr. Viti was squatting beside me. “Judy,” he softly said, “yesterday the other teachers and I tried every way we knew how to put your notebook up, but it wouldn’t stay. It was too heavy. I want you to know, though, you had the best notebook of all. We could see you put a lot of work in it.”
My intention had not been to make the notebook so big it “outdid itself.” As always, I strove to do my best without understanding what that looked like. I kept pushing, pushing, pushing. One more magazine, one more article, one more picture would make the notebook better. Perfect. But where was the point of perfection? Where was the finish line? I was on my own to figure it out, and I couldn’t.
My father, it seemed, could. He had internalized the perfection standard so well that when his expectation wasn’t met by everyone in his world, he took a nosedive into the bottle.
Try as I might during my growing-up years, I felt nothing I did met my father’s approval; for I never heard him say a satisfying “good.” Deprived of that, getting high marks in school became my substitute source of praise.
Then, somewhere in his sober senior years, my father changed. While he was fixing something or other one day, he shocked me with “that’s good enough.” In that moment I understood his “good enough” did not mean he had done a mediocre job. His “good enough” meant he had met a realistic expectation of himself. Also in that astonishing moment, it was as if my father had cut a cord, releasing me to judge my own efforts as good enough.
My father had learned to recognize and accept the adequate stopping point. Much like a person who understands the exclamation mark.
The exclamation mark (!) punctuates strong feeling. Some people, apparently striving to push the point that they are really, really, really enthusiastic about the meaning of their word or sentence, will attach two or three exclamation marks–or four or five–or more. Theoretically, they could carry the emotional symbol on to infinity. So how do they determine the cut-off point?
There is no standardized chart delineating how much emotional value a specific number of exclamation marks denotes. The initiator and the recipient are left to their own cognitive and/or emotional devices for the degree of happiness or alarm to feel. Pity the neurotic who counts the number of exclamation marks a teacher places behind “nice work” on an assignment and pits it against a different total after the same comment on his peer’s product!
Have you ever seen more than one period at the close of a sentence to convey it is really, really, really finished? Why is more expected of the exclamation mark than its original intent? Why isn’t its stopping point recognized? When we get real, we will accept that one exclamation mark is perfect. It is good enough!