Cassie McClure

When the teacher set the test in front of me and I saw the grade, I pulled the paper close to me and felt the heat grow in my face. It was second grade, and it may have been a math test, but it could have been a spelling test.

The grade on the paper was my first C-plus.

I tore the paper up into little shreds and slunk over to the wastebasket to throw them in. I didn’t tell my parents about the test.

I remember how intensely I felt shame, that it burned me up completely that day enough to linger as an ember in my memories. I wondered if that experience had any small hand in dinging the growth of my confidence, or more, my ambitions.

I’ve always considered myself a little aimless, especially when watching my daughter, who is the age I was then, grow more ambitious.

But I realized that I might have been confusing ambition and competitiveness. A need to compete is something my daughter has in spades, but it’s not embedded in me. I may have had ambitions I didn’t recognize because I didn’t define ambition correctly.

I never felt a need to strive: to get the gold, to beat the fastest, to make the most money or to have the best clothes. The best way to sum it up was through a pint-sized epiphany in elementary school: a B, even a B-minus, was still always noted as “above average.”

If I could harness above-average easily, what was the point of going for more if you were happy?

Recently I sat in a ride-along with an interviewee that lasted hours. When we had asked and answered the pressing questions I needed, the questions about the mundane appeared like clockwork.

One comment about them being willing to travel to our neighboring big city for their kids’ games led to me asking them their favorite restaurant in that city. They replied after a beat, “You know, I don’t really like to stay longer than I have to. It’s too big; the traffic is too much. I’m happier in our town.”

I thought of them again as I went to that big city for a reading downtown, with its large buildings casting shadows against the sinking desert sun. For reference, the town I live in has exactly one building with 10 stories, and it towers around every other building in the area but is situated in a way that it provides no shade to pedestrian traffic. So even a cluster of just a few larger buildings is a novelty.

“I thought I’d live in a big city when I was younger,” I told my husband as we walked around downtown. “Something overwhelming that I’d grow into.”

My husband demurred. Would I have been happy just because it was the city, or was it a competitive notion of “that’s what successful people do”?

Walking along, we saw that the streets were dead. In part, they were dead because it was a Wednesday. But also, the streets were dead because people didn’t live in those buildings.

It wasn’t the buildings I wanted. It was the normal things done in a community that I thought I’d like.

Suppose you take away the mundane process of living out of the big city — things like seeing a neighbor flossing their teeth over a sink caught through the backlit window, needing to routinely schlep groceries through a crowd of tourists or listening to the banter of neighbors in front of a bodega.

With that gone, you take away the bustle of community. I strove for that bustle, and it’s something I already had in my above-average life.

If I could go back to 8-year-old me, I’d tell her that the measure of her worth was not wrapped up in just that test. Her strength was found in how she would always keep going, plugging along with her B’s and A’s.

I’d tell her that she’d grow skills that would leave room for ambitions to grow as long as she kept the sun shining on the ways her ambitions actually made her happy.

Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at, or follow her on Twitter: @TheCMcClure. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.