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Notta and the Annual Physical
January 7, 2019
Notta and the Annual Physical
Our Early Bird appeared in the doorway to my office with a half-hopeful, half-fearful expression. As usual, she was appeared clad in black from her dyed hair to her sneakers. Her eyes were rimmed with red, which I interpreted as either lack of sleep (again) or a dust-up with her mother (again). I invited her in. “Need some coffee or a tissue?” I asked.
“No, thanks, I had an energy drink for breakfast.”
A groan came from the other end of the office where Notta had her arms full of the next unit of Civics lessons. “Tell me you had something solid,” she said.
“Not yet,” Early Bird said. “I’ll get a donut on break.”
I shot Notta a warning glance – “She’s over 18 and it’s not our business” - so she limited herself to a less-than-quiet tsk. “So what can we do for you?”
“My mom wants to know how I’m doing. I told her you guys didn’t give out report cards, and she wanted to know why.”
“That’s not what we do,” I said. “You have a goal of getting your high school equivalency and we don’t do grades in between. We’re not like a high school that has a set amount of time for students to meet a set standard of learning and skills. We focus more on your learning in your own time.”
“Yeah, I know that. But she wants to know how much longer I need to be in class,” Early Bird said. “She’s pretty anxious for me to get done and get a better job. I think she wants me to move out.”
“Well, that’s not uncommon for most parents,” I said. “We all want our kids to do well enough to live their own lives.” I pulled up the Early Bird’s test records. “We could do a progress test today if you want and see where you are.”
“Will that tell you how much longer I have to come to class?”
“In a way,” I said. “You have to remember how far you’ve come already: you’ve improved over six grade levels in five months.”
“Yeah, well, when you start at second grade levels in math and reading, that’s not so much. It’s only going to get harder and I have to get to eleventh grade level before I can even start taking the practice tests, don’t I?”
“You could take one now,” Notta said. “But you risk getting frustrated from not knowing all they want you to know.”
“I could get frustrated on a progress test, too.”
I thought it better to laugh a little. “You’re right. You could also find you’re even further ahead. It’s up to you. This whole program and what you get out of it is up to you.”
“Whatever. “ She turned to leave. “I mean, why do we have to have all these tests and standards and s—t, I mean stuff? Why is everything like a report card and you get judged over absolutely everything? Who made up this stuff anyway?”
“Someone, probably a parent, who had good intentions,” I said.
“And we all know what gets paved with those,” Notta said. I was grateful she’d waited to offer that comment after the Early Bird had left for the classroom. “She’s got a point, you know.”
I heard the screech of the electric pencil sharpener start, then stop, then start, then stop. “Not on her pencil, apparently.”
“Ha-ha. No, I mean there’s a lot out there that makes you feel like you get a report card on breathing right. Heaven forbid you want to inhale through both nostrils if the standard is only the left one.”
“That observation covers a lot of territory,” I said. “Social media, job applications, friendships – “
“Expletive deleted annual physicals.”
The aha! moment. “You going to see Dr. Taffy-Pull?”
She made a disgusted noise. “Yes. The insurance wants his sign-off by the end of the month.”
“Start of the year is the best time to get it over with, isn’t it?”
“Not my favorite way to start the year.”
“And this relates to reports cards how?”
“Don’t ask me why, but I’ve always felt like going to the doctor was another report card, even when I was young, with my mom in the examining room with me. If everything was good, I got an A. If I fell short in the height category or was a little pudgy, that flirted with a D or F. And my parents wanted As, only As. Same thing with the dentists; I never had a cavity until I was an adult. A “No cavities” report was another A. Anything less, even the hint of a cavity, and my grade sank like the Titanic.”
“That’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid,” I said.
She shrugged. “Probably a lot more on them, as if they weren’t raising us right should we not be perfectly healthy with strong teeth and good eyes.” She laughed softly. “Even when I was first married, if I told my mom I was going to the dentist, she wanted a report of no cavities.”
“But you’re all grown up now,” I said. “You know better.”
“Do I? A body gets used to doing the usual dance with these physicals, expecting all the time to get the same answer: you’re fine, you’re healthy, nothing needs doing here. Then you turn fifty and suddenly, it’s all going to Hell in a hand cart if you don’t get this test and that test, lose that fat, and God and the AMA only know what else.” She opened her arms at hip level. “Look at me. Do I look twenty or so pounds thinner than last fall?”
I never know how to answer that kind of question. Politeness forbade any honest answer – she didn’t look thinner – but Notta forbade any hedging. “No, I suppose not.”
“So, I’m going get the tsk! tsk! From the nurse who weighs me, no matter what my heart rate or blood pressure say. No matter that I keep busier now than I ever did in my forties; maybe even my thirties. So I get an F. And I get another lecture from the doctor with his face in his computer screen about dividing my dinner plate into quarters and filling two-quarters with veggies, one with meat and the other with whole grains. All because the numbers don’t meet the standards that some bozo with good intentions set up. So I know exactly how our Early Bird feels.”
I considered this for a few moments. “But are you happy?”
She gave me a long look. “What do you mean?”
“Do you like your life? Do you like yourself? I can’t imagine you defending yourself so well against Dr. Taffy-Pull and his statistics, if you didn’t.”
“That may be sheer stubbornness,” Notta said, “but, okay, I think I am happy. I like what we do here. I have a good life at home. And yes, I think I like myself. I think I’m all right.”
“I do, too.” I gathered my pile of materials for class. “You know, the odds are we will never meet all the standards laid down for us by others. Some make sense, as in what will keep us healthy, living as long as we wish to and still able to bite a raw apple and chew it. Some I suppose are necessary: for example, employers have work that needs to be done for their business to continue. They have to decide which person can do a job, or learn to do the job, for as long as the work is needed. Maybe they look for a person who can grow in the job and grow the business as well (I’m a teacher; these practicalities are all theoretical to me). Colleges and trade schools have limited resources, too, so they have to go with the candidates that look the likeliest to finish, to succeed.
“Now I can’t say I ever met all of my parents’ expectations. In fact, I’m certain I fell short in many ways. I failed Accounting in college, did I ever tell you?”
“No. You? Fail?” Notta’s sarcasm could lose some weight, too.
“Retook it and passed, but I tore myself apart mentally because I failed and I didn’t know how to deal with failing.”
“But you learned.”
I nodded. “We all have to, sometimes. I think that’s every bit as important as learning to succeed. In grades, in jobs, in annual physicals, sometimes you fail. People important to you will be disappointed. So it goes. What I wish I could get our cherubs to see is that, at some point, that concern over others’ opinions has to go by the wayside. Some standards are useful. But the rest? The character judgments, the ‘report cards’ people give with their eyes and their tones, that’s all rubbish.”
“Their rubbish,” Notta added. “ The people doing the judging, I mean.” She sighed. “Maybe I’ll try telling old Taffy-Pull a joke.”
“I’d avoid the one about the doctor and the feisty old lady.”