Paper People Can’t Swim

If you’d asked me ten years ago whether I wanted to grow into a “normal” adult, I would have sneered. Or laughed. Or not done anything, because at that point in my life my appearance was a pretty solid means of communicating… stuff.


Stuff like, “Hey, Umpa Lumpas! Let’s start a Simple Plan cover band!”

Ellen Goodman, a renowned American journalist, characterized normalcy as “getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.” This now famous (thanks to the Pinterest “quotes superimposed on random photographs” trend) remark is exactly the type of fodder that fueled my 16-year-old “question authority” attitude. Ten years, two-and-a-half college degrees (long story) (not really) (teaching credentials are basically half degrees – that’s the whole story), 3,000 miles and a smidge of maturation later, I can make an educated assessment of Goodman’s cynicism. She was right – sort of.

I’m normal in pretty much every way that Goodman remarked upon. I wake up at 5 AM Monday through Friday. I get in my car and drive 60 miles, in traffic. California Bay Area traffic, which is the methamphetamine to every other region of this country’s recreational marijuana “traffic.” I pay $250 a month for that car, and the job to which I tediously commute barely covers that and all my other monthly debts.

That job, the one that just barely keeps my finances out of debt collectors’ radar, occupies me from 6:30 AM to 4:30 PM, Monday through Friday. Some days I have mandatory (unpaid) training  or mandatory (unpaid) student activity supervision after school. I teach meticulously planned hundred-minute lessons to groups of about 30 students, three times a day. Between classes, I help students to catch up on missed work, or maneuver challenging social or personal situations, or step back a few feet from the ledge on which most teenage lives teeter at one point or another.

Sometimes, I also take time pee or eat. Rarely does my day contain both luxuries. Basically, on paper, my job is terrible.

It’s for a good cause though, right? I mean, part of the pittance I collect at my exhausting, thankless job goes into a meager savings account, the “nest egg” that will grow into my boyfriend and my first home in a few years. I anticipate spending an average of 8.5 hours per day in that home, once it’s purchased, and at least 8 of those hours will be spent sleeping.

The sum of all things: per Goodman’s terms, I’m a pretty freaking normal adult. On paper, at least.

The reality of it is that I’m knocking it out of the park. I’m a successful first year teacher with a secure job in an excellent school district. I love every minute that I spend planning for, teaching, reteaching, unteaching, coaching, supporting, and grading the work of my students. I even love the moments when I have to tolerate meet with difficult parents.

 I’m in a healthy, happy relationship. I go to yoga and drink wine, but neither in excess. I own a dog. I write in a blog. I do what I can to decrease smog, and sometimes I even jog.

And I may or may not moonlight as a Dr. Seuss fan fiction author.

Although paper me lives a very normal existence, treading water, but afloat; neither making waves nor gliding noiselessly like a swan, real me is an Olympic swimmer. It was the fear of becoming the great person who I am today, not the fear of becoming a normal, “paper” person, that was so terrible to 16-year-old me.

Because, in spite of perceptions, happiness can flourish in what looks, on paper, to be monotony. Normalcy isn’t a death sentence; it’s the homeostasis necessary for growth to occur.

One thought on “Paper People Can’t Swim

  1. I’ve stayed up at night trying to figure out what normal is. I am abnormal in more ways than one, I know that, but that is normal for me. I think the main idea is not to compare your life to the lives of others, but to instead find normalcy within yourself.

    With that being said, I also think that the normal you described in the quote is as you put it “paper normalcy” but in reality there are soo many variants, one for each person on the earth, as shown by the distinction between your “paper” normalcy and your daily reality. Anyways, I enjoyed your perspective, and you have a new follower 🙂

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