At thirteen, I was into Carly Simon, Charlie’s Angels, and Minute Rice with butter and salt. I didn’t have a world-view or my own nonprofit, but my teachers liked me and I didn’t lie that much to my parents. By fifteen, I had fallen into a groove—and not a good one.
Sophomore year started okay. I had landed a four-dollar-an-hour gig at Villanova Pizza, giving me access to free calzones and a college freshman named Matt who was deadly cute but very short, a weakness I thought gave me, and my brand-new boobs that I caught him looking at more than once, a shot. I went to work in painstakingly chosen outfits—stonewashed single-pleat jeans, an alligator shirt, my transparent Swatch, and Tretorns.
I talked about anything I could think of that would make me seem older: concerts I was planning to see, hanging out with my brother at Washington and Lee. Before I could close the deal, Stubby, the manager, called me into the crummy back office. After observing me for five shifts, he said, he had no choice but to fire me. Apparently, I didn’t take my work seriously, as I had proved by showing up late, taking excessive smoke breaks, and asking phone-ins to wait while I finished another jokey exchange with Matt. Oh my God, I’m a loser, I thought, an estimation that I suspect was shared by my brothers, neither of whom had ever been fired, and my mother, though she wouldn’t have phrased it in those terms.
But then there was Greenie—who laughed. “It’s not funny, I’m a loser.”
“No, you’re not. You’ll figure it out. You’ve got what it takes, kid.” What could he possibly be seeing in me?
Not one month later, after I’d been cut from the field hockey team and mounted a failed campaign for student government, I went shoplifting at Sears, wandering from department to department, snatching goodies, until an undercover security guy grabbed my elbow. Back in the office, the officer unpacked eighteen items totaling $56 from my backpack: candy, fake jewelry, control-top pantyhose for my mother’s upcoming birthday.
Later that spring, I found myself in a weeklong in-school suspension for being spaghetti-leg drunk at the sophomore semi-formal. I did my time next to kids who had vandalized lockers and given teachers the finger to their faces. I was one of them now, Winona Ryder crossed with Lindsay Lohan. I wanted to be someone better—class secretary and captain of the lacrosse team—not Rejected Candidate, Failed Athlete, Unemployed Pizza Girl, Petty Thief.
During this bang-up year, my mother aged a decade while Greenie, ever faithful, just kept shrugging. He’d come up to my room after work, his tie loose around his neck, a can of Miller Lite in his hand. Sitting on my canopy bed, surrounded by pink-and-white gingham wallpaper laughably incongruous with the derelict who lived there, he’d ask about my latest transgression. I’d blather about my failures, my regrets, my sinking fortunes.
“This is all part of growing up. You’re all right, Lovey.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re good enough,” he’d say, patting my knee. “Trust me.”
Back at school, passing student government meetings and listening to announcements about upcoming field hockey games, You’re good enough were the only words I had to combat my deep intuition, to say nothing of the mounting evidence, that I was defective.
In college, shortly after I was called in front of the Panhellenic Council for throwing a sorority happy hour that involved shots for all, even for the official who’d been sent by National to monitor our fledgling chapter, I was fired again, this time from my job as a cashier in the dining hall. A nice man who had worked on campus for years said I was his first-ever “termination,” but what choice did he have after learning that I was giving away Snickers bars to fraternity presidents, soccer players, and our school’s most celebrated exchange student, a lanky, doe-eyed Italian named Matteo who was so mozzafiato I was tempted to throw my undies in there too. In the fall of senior year, I topped off my college career with a DUI that required I spend the night in jail with a hooker named Oz and, in the morning, hand over my driver’s license for six months.
After college, I missed more milestones and made new messes. Twenty-seven pounds overweight, I drank coffee all day and smoked half a pack of cigarettes every night. By thirty, when most of my friends had celebrated their first anniversary and several had become homeowners, I was single and $6,000 in debt. I had yet to take self-care seriously. A mole I ignored turned into an invasive melanoma. But Greenie, blind to the flaws of his beloveds and, I learned, a bit of a late bloomer himself, dismissed my plunging trend line. “I’m telling you, Lovey, you’re gonna get there.” Where? When? I wondered.
Finally, ten years later, after I’d set up a decent life as a functional forty-year-old, after I had become something closer to the person he always thought I would be, I asked Greenie why he had been so sure I’d sort it out. “You know, Lovey, you were never down for long. You’d get cut from field hockey and try out for cheerleading. And then that didn’t work and you did chorus or the diving team. You don’t need to get it right every time, you know what I mean? A couple wins here and there is plenty.”
That’s how it works: someone important believes in us, loudly and with conviction and against all substantiation, and over time, we begin to believe, too—not in our shot at perfection, mind you, but in the good enough version of us that they have reflected. The mentors and rabbis, the grannies on the bema, are certain about things we can’t yet believe: that listening is huge, that there’s might in the act of committing yourself to a cause, that trying again is both all we can do and our great enabling power. They see clearly that we weren’t wrong; our aim was. They know that we are good enough, as we are, with not much more than our hopeful, honorable intent to keep at it. They tell us, over and over, until we can hear it.
This is an excerpt from Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say.
Kelly Corrigan is New York Times best-selling author of The Middle Place, Lift, and Glitter and Glue. Her most recent book is Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say .
Kelly is also the creative director of The Nantucket Project and lives with her husband and two daughters in Oakland, California. Photo credit: Mellie T. Williams