Okay Carina

In Mrs. Reynard’s 2nd grade class at Hill Creek School in 1996, there was a girl named Carina Vickery.

Carina had long brown hair that fell symmetrically to the middle of her back, and perfect bangs that were always trimmed on time. She was just a little taller than I was, stood just a little straighter, and she held her notebook at her chest instead of carrying a backpack…which I remember thinking looked oddly sophisticated for a 2nd-grader.

(My pink plastic backpack straps would suddenly feel tight and suffocating when I saw her — I would swing the bag off one shoulder and try to hold it like a purse, or drop it at my feet like luggage in an effort to distance myself from it in her presence. That tacky, bubblegum monstrosity.)

My mom, who was a schoolteacher, had had Carina in a previous year – and introduced us in line on the first day of school. She hugged Carina, and told her mother in not-so-hushed tones that she was her favorite student she’d ever had. She nudged me to say hello.

I kept my eyes on my Minnie Mouse tennis shoes, awkwardly toeing the ground as Carina stood in bright-eyed anticipation. “Hi.”

“Hi!” she chirped with a jovial confidence well beyond her years. Her voice was like the peel of a bell. “We’re going to be great friends.”

We were close, I guess. Our desks were next to each other, we sat in the same shade at recess, and I went to her house a few times after school. (She shared a fence with the campus, you see, and went home for lunches. Her life was like that.)

I remember she and her mom also shared the same birthday, and her mom always said that Carina was the best birthday present she’d ever gotten. Her life was like that, too.
For all accounts and purposes, we were the friends she’d predicted we’d be.

The following year, my mom would get remarried and move across town – and I’d start a new life in a different district. Truthfully, I wouldn’t remember Carina at all if it weren’t for a specific scoring mechanism embedded in my identity from age 7.

In Mrs. Reynard’s 2nd grade class, assignments were graded on a four-tiered rubric: “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” or “Needs Improvement.” We would get our week’s work back in a white envelope with our name at the top – and one of the four boxes would be checked in Mrs. Reynard’s handwriting.

I ran into an existential quandary with this scoring system.

…Which is to say that I became intimately familiar with the word “Good.” 

If I put every single iota of effort I owned into an assignment, it was “Good.” If I shrugged it off and gave it no thought whatsoever, it was “Good.” If I tried to emulate Carina’s work to the very last loop in her lowercase-A, anticipation would grow in me like a gas-filled balloon…

…until I saw Mrs. Reynard’s markered X next to the box labeled “G-O-O-D.”

There’s nothing wrong with good. It’s better than “Fair,” which is when parents would start to worry. Certainly better than “Needs Improvement,” which any schoolteacher knows is a recipe for being held back. 

Good is just that: by definition, good. My mom, who admittedly shoved me toward greatness, didn’t complain about “Good.” Who knows? Other students might have even killed for a “Good.” I get it, okay? I shouldn’t be bringing it up.

…but do I even NEED to tell you what Carina got?

Excellence showered down upon Carina like confetti at a parade. She exuded those “Excellent” markers at every turn, with every wave of her perfectly manicured hair. She actually even got annoyed with her “Excellent”s, annoyed with me asking at the end of the week. Because “Excellent” was beneath Carina’s concern; behind her.

I don’t have a logical way of wrapping up this post. I’m not going to share some grand philosophy on reward mechanisms among elementary school kids, nor do I have some kind of gratifying ending where Carina found her Achilles’ heal. I moved away, we grew apart, life went on.

But I still think about Carina – or more specifically, of being “Good” – about once a month. And if there’s any version of that for you, if you’re struggling to break through to excellence no matter how hard you try… know that I think “Good” is GREAT. It’s marvelous, spectacular, and exemplary – and you are enough.

…And If it turns out that Carina is out there somewhere collecting “Good” performance reviews from her job at McDonalds, I guess that’d be fine too.