Ada Fitzsimmons was one of a kind. She sported puffy peasant blouses, ankle length skirts and her long salt and pepper hair gathered into a low ponytail trailing down her back. Her booming voice could be heard bouncing off the walls of the second floor of the administration building at San Rafael High School as she swept along toward her classroom. She had a dry sense of humor and didn’t shy away from calling out kids who needed a kick in the pants. I was one of those.
My first experience with Mrs. Fitz (as we lovingly called her) was the first day of my first year of high school in 4th period World History class. Though I’m a huge history fan now, at fourteen years old, I was much more interested in talking to my friends and cutting up with them in class. But Miss Fitz pegged me. During one of our student-teacher conferences she told me something that I’ve never forgotten. “Marie, you’re an underachiever. You could do so much better than what you’re settling for.”
I did better in college when I was more interested in my studies and my social life took a back seat, but over the years, I’ve noticed that I tend to settle for less than my potential dictates. I’ve always been afraid of stepping out into something new unless someone challenges me or it’s required. If it were up to me, I would likely do nothing that puts me on the spot. Not to say that I haven’t stretched myself at all. I’ve taught the Bible to large groups. I was the assistant to three high level executives at one of the world’s largest financial institutions. But I was never quite comfortable where I knew I was being watched and possibly criticized. If I made an error, it left me feeling exposed and ashamed.
Origins of Underachieving
We often hear talk about the problem of feeling a need for approval and we’re given tips about how to stop being people-pleasers. I’ve realized is that I’m not as much a people-pleaser as I am a people-fearer. I don’t work for approval. I refrain for fear disapproval. I don’t want to be exposed as substandard. I’d rather just do nothing.
As I’ve explored this, I discovered that it comes from my childhood experience with my dad. I loved my dad. There were times that we had a lot of fun together. He loved a good joke and would try his stories and puns out on me. I was a ready audience and gave him the laughs he craved. But my dad also had a very tough side. At his memorial service, one of my older brothers eulogized him as a “scrapper”. That he was. He grew up in an Irish Catholic family in San Francisco and was a bit of a maverick. He was a hotheaded redhead who didn’t mind getting into a scrape or two. He was a part of the Greatest Generation who lived through the Great Depression and served during the hard years of World War II. He had a soft spot for babies and people in pain, but if you were neither of those, you were expected to stand and take what was coming to you when you did something he didn’t like.
Dad never hit us five siblings that I know of other the spankings we all received. Mostly, he’d get up in your face with his steely finger nearly touching your nose and back you up against the wall, demanding that you agree with him no matter what he was saying. If he wrongly accused you of something, it didn’t matter. You were supposed to fess up to it. If you didn’t, he only got angrier. You had no chance to explain and don’t even think about saying a word in your own defense. You were left helpless and powerless. He was the father and demanded capitulation.
It was the same for my mom. I have a very distinct memory from my early childhood where I can clearly see in my mind’s eye my dad backing her up against the kitchen counter with that steely finger in her face while spewing angry words at her like darts. I was sure he was going to hit her, and I tried to intervene, but he yelled at me to leave the room and mind my own business. I remember my mom was attempting to calm me down reassure me by telling me that she would be okay. I was terrified and wanted desperately to rescue her from the abuse, but I was powerless.
That memory still brings tears to my eyes. There were other incidents that I recall from my early years that taken all together, had a huge impact on my tendency toward underachieving. The disapproval I received from my dad made me fearful to step out. I was terrified of the possible negative repercussions like I got from him when I did something wrong.
Choosing to See the Good
I have fondness for the good parts of my dad, and I’ve forgiven him for the things he did that damaged me. He changed a lot as he got older and developed a closer relationship with God. He never apologized for his harsh treatment of me and I’m not sure he ever realized what a bully he had been even into my adulthood. I’m just coming to realize it myself. He never apologized to my mom, either, though at the end of his life he told her that he realized that she had done a better job at life than he had.
At his best, my dad was fun-loving, funny and happy-go-lucky, always whistling a tune or singing a song with his smooth Frank Sinatra voice. He cared about people who were struggling with spiritual problems and in retirement spent countless hours alongside my mom counseling anyone who asked for it. I have no doubt that he would have quickly laid down his life for me and each person in our family. I’d like to say that he loved us the best he could and maybe that is true, but I can’t help thinking that if he put more effort into his relationships, he could have done much better. I guess my dad was an underachiever, too.
The Master Plan
I know that God takes every piece of our lives – all the experiences from all the years and puts them together to form a breathtaking masterpiece which will be revealed in time. When we marvel at a beautiful tapestry, we would never be able to tell that the back looks like a mess. The strings going every direction and the knots we see there are like the struggles of our lives. If we offer them up to him, God uses every one of them in his way to create the beauty of the masterpiece you see from the front. In Romans 8:28, Paul writes “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
This year I’ve planned to achieve something I left unfinished years ago. I’m returning to school to finish my degree in Bible and Theology and I intend to give it 100%. I think Mrs. Fitz would be proud.