Janet Sheridan: The pursuit of perfection
November 12, 2015
I used to read Shel Silverstein's poetry to my students because it made them giggle. One of his poems described the persnickety Mary Hume who spent her life finding unforgiveable flaws in her birthday parties, boyfriends and pupils. My students' chuckles changed to laughter when I read the following verse:
• “Almost perfect… but not quite.
Those were the words of ol’ Miss Hume
Teaching in the seventh grade,
Grading papers in the gloom
Late at night up in her room.
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They never cross their t’s just right–
Almost perfect… but not quite.”
And hilarity reigned when I reached the last verse:
• "Ninety-eight the day she died
Complainin’ ’bout the spotless floor.
People shook their heads and sighed,
'Guess that she’ll like heaven more.'
Up went her soul on feathered wings,
Out the door, up out of sight.
Another voice from heaven came —
"'Almost perfect… but not quite.'”
An English teacher, I tried not to take their merriment personally.
My students didn't know I had once been a warped, wannabe Miss Hume: I didn't care whether or not others were perfect but thought I should be so. At the same time, doing the work required to achieve perfection didn't enter my mind.
Fortunately, the Nifty Nine 4-H Club helped my mother correct my faulty reasoning with the first project I undertook: a simple bookshelf made from pre-cut forms and dowels. I whipped the shelf out in no time then returned to bothering my siblings, shirking my chores, reading about the Bobbsey Twins and waiting for the fair.
The judges noticed and rewarded my slipshod ways.
I couldn't believe I hadn't won Best in Class — let along Grand Champion — and shared my dismay with any sibling I could corner. Their sympathy, sparse to begin with, quickly turned to scorn as I moped around the house, muttering about know-nothing judges. Finally Mom, tired of my bellyaching, asked if I thought I'd done my best. When I assured her I had, her reply baffled me: "Maybe you should think about what doing your best means, Janet. When I said you needed to sand your bookcase more before you stained it, you said you thought it was good enough. They don't give awards for good enough."
I remember thinking, "She doesn't forget a word I say; I'll never get away with anything," before becoming tearfully indignant and storming from the room. But the next day, when I examined my bookshelf, I knew she was right. Its mistreated wood looked scabbed and felt like baked-on oatmeal.
The next year, my club baked, and I vowed to do my best. I practiced making cornmeal muffins until the chickens ran squawking in alarm when I threw them my failures. The day before the fair, I baked batch after batch of muffins until I had six perfect specimens. Arranged on a blue plate, they looked splendid: nicely domed, the bottoms a delicate crusty brown, the tops so radiantly yellow they looked like the summer sun.
During the judging, I watched as a stout lady with startling red-henna hair broke one of my muffins in half. Her eyes, already enlarged by bifocals, audibly popped; she gasped; I felt faint. The muffin's moist interior was riddled with tiny tunnels: the indisputable, damning sign of an over-mixed muffin.
I thought my cheerful muffins on their blue plate contrasted nicely with their red ribbon. This time, I didn't weep, whine, or protest, because I knew I'd done my best. At home, Mom smiled at me like I was a grand champion, then Dad and I ate the leftover muffins — and declared each and every one perfectly delicious.
At last I understood: perfection is hard won, and less-than-perfect can still have merit.
Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.