Even though I generally enjoyed playing baseball as a kid, I was very obviously terrible at it. I was aware of, and unphased by this until the leagues became competitive enough it stopped being fun for me. I talked at length about my lack of prowess in baseball in my book. What I didn’t talk about was golf, which I am equally bad at, but find more enjoyable because of the allowance (and encouragement) of drinking and gambling.
I played on my high school golf team. And by played, I mean that I would go to tournaments when the better players were sick or otherwise unable to make it. I didn’t want to do any of this, mind you. By the time I was a teen, I had decided that organized sports were not my bag.
My parents had quite a different idea about this, and made some pretty clear demands about my involvement in sports. They thought it would look good on my college applications, which I suppose it did, but I wasn’t trying to get into Harvard. I was applying to a few mid-level state schools that had no chance of rejecting me, and had big plans of coasting through the rest of high school with as little effort as possible. Mom and Dad didn’t see my point, so I found myself playing golf competitively.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I recently recalled a story about my golfing days that I don’t think I’ve ever shared with anyone. As with anything untold and self-deprecating, it somehow seems fit to share this publicly on the internet.
There was a big, weekend long tournament being held in Myrtle Beach, SC (affectionately known as and heretofore referred to as ‘The Dirty Myrtle’). Two of the better golfers were suspended, so I got to tag along. As is customary, you are grouped into people of similar ability when playing golf. The catch to this is that the worst golfers from the other schools were still worlds better than I was, so it was almost comical.
I showed up each morning, greeted my new friends, and proceeded to fail spectacularly. I didn’t care and the guys in my pairing were good company, so it was a pretty solid weekend.
At the end of each day, you turned in your score card to the officials who kept track of the leaders on a big PGA style board. The more competitive among us would gather around and watch the changes and keep an eye on the competition. On the third and final day of the tournament, I turned in my insanely bad card to one of the officiants who had taken my card the day prior.
He asked to speak with me and said something to the effect of ‘It takes a lot of courage to turn in a card like this. If it were me I would’ve just thrown these cards out. There is an award ceremony later today, we have something for you because you were honest enough to turn in your scores.’
Being the polite Southern boy I was, I thanked him for his kindness and said I would be there. I was lying, of course. I had exactly zero intention of being there. The better members of our team finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, so there was no real incentive to stick around for the awards ceremony. I kept this participation award business quiet and loaded my shit onto the bus to go home, because anyone who has been there will tell you – more than 72 hours in The Dirty Myrtle imparts an individual with a primal fear and need to flee lest you be sucked into its filth and villainy forever.
I don’t know why I never shared this story with anyone. Part of me would like to say that it is because it was an inconsequential event from an unimportant part of my life, but that can’t be completely true, since I’m writing about it something like 15 years later.
It wasn’t embarrassment over my abysmal performance. I knew I was bad at golf and embraced the hilarity of it.
Looking back, I suppose I was embarrassed, but not for myself. The reality is that I knew that award or whatever was bullshit invented to make me feel good. I was embarrassed that we live in a society that has the audacity to presume that I couldn’t possibly be bad at golf and still feel okay about myself.
We have coddled ourselves and our children to the point that this well-meaning gentlemen felt compelled to make up an award for me so I didn’t have to suffer the horrors of being bad at a thing I didn’t care that much about. My failure at golf didn’t matter to me, but it mattered to that guy because society told him that kids can’t have an adequate level of self-esteem if they fail.
Overall, it was a really nice gesture that this guy would try and cheer me up, but it would’ve actually meant something to me if he had simply acknowledged that I demonstrated integrity by turning in my astronomically high scores each day and left it at that. Instead it felt patronizing, like he pitied me, and that destroyed any positive intention that existed.
Kids are generally okay if they aren’t good at something. We project this idea that they need to be successful in order to have a healthy self-image onto children. Modeling this behavior continues to encourage a culture in which we need to excel (or at least be rewarded for something) in order to maintain our self-esteem. If adults stop this patronizing nonsense, not only will kids continue their lives without difficulty, they might actually find these activities more enjoyable.
If being a parent and working with children have taught me anything it’s this – kids are way smarter than we give them credit for. They can see right through our bullshit, even though they lack the social ability to criticize it. Let them exist and be okay knowing that they know they aren’t amazing at everything. The world will be better and everyone will be happier.