In elementary school, taking tests involved a very specific procedure: the creation of test fortresses. We would open folders and place them around our test papers like walls to render it impossible for wandering eyes to see our answers. (Here are some pictures.) I think sometimes we even added a “roof” to these fortresses so that tall kids couldn’t use their height to their advantage and look over the boundaries. This kinesthetic task was supplemented with the more aural approach: throughout the entire test, our teachers would constantly remind us to keep our eyes on our own papers.
This was obviously done for a good reason – little kids need to learn that cheating isn’t okay. If you just copy what someone else wrote, you're stealing her idea and her work, and possibly getting credit for something that you didn't earn, so it hurts both of you. (Or, more embarrassingly, you might copy the wrong answer from someone else and do worse than if you had just done it yourself.) I guess teachers figure that this lesson has taken hold by the time you get to middle school, or at least enough so that they don’t make you build folder walls anymore. I know I learned the importance of keeping my eyes on my own paper when it came to school and games. (In fact, my unhealthy OCD tendencies about plagiarism maybe indicate that I learned that lesson a little too well. )
But sometimes I wonder if this lesson has really taken hold when “my own paper” refers to my own life. I have a problem with just focusing on living my own life as I think I should -- I always want to look at everyone else’s life around me (helloooo, facebook) to compare and to see if I’m getting it “right.” The problem is, unlike with elementary school tests, there is no one right answer. But when we think there is and look at the person’s life next to us and decide that’s what we’re “supposed” to do, we hurt ourselves because we haven’t done the work to determine what’s right for us.
As an example, when I finished grad school, got married, and moved from Minnesota to New York, both my husband and I just assumed that I should find a full-time job. That’s what you’re “supposed” to do when you don’t have kids and you’re just starting out. So I did, and I was stressed out of my mind until I finally left. By then I was very burned-out and very discouraged. Looking back, I really wish that I had been brave enough to look at my own life and realize that starting my first full-time job probably wasn’t the best choice for me at that point. I mean, I had just gotten married to a man who I’d been in a long-distance relationship with and moved across the country to a place that I barely knew, both of which are among the biggest and most stressful changes in life. Given that and my own tendencies toward depression and anxiety, maybe, just maybe, it would have been better to slow down and ease my way in to my completely new life.
I’ve since learned that for me, it’s much better if I work part-time. And even though it’s not what most people at my place in life (that I know, anyway) choose to do and it’s not where I thought I’d be, it’s right for me. I’ve worked out the problems on my own test and that’s my answer. Sometimes I get afraid of what other people think, but you know what? They should be keeping their eyes on their own paper, too.
And maybe I should still be building those folder fortresses after all, except for now, I’ll build them to guard myself from thoughts that say that my answers are wrong. I might need to occasionally use them to block myself from facebook when I know that I’m vulnerable to comparison. But most of all, I should keep myself busy figuring out my own life, and maybe one day I won’t need those folders anymore.