CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was one of those phrases that stuck. It wasn't even aimed my direction, but hit anyway.
I was in grade school at the time. Third grade. Parent-teacher conferences. Privacy wasn't the requirement then that it is now, so my parents and I were only a few desks away as the teacher told this intelligent yet rambunctious boy that he wasn't living up to his potential.
All these years later, I still remember his name. Can still remember how his head dropped in shame, how he looked over at me to see if I'd heard. Looked pained when he saw that I had.
I thought so highly of him. He was quick. Smart. Funny. He raised his hand first and read ahead and knew tricks for memorizing multiplication tables. But our teacher thought that wasn't enough. Saw that he could do more. She could see his potential, and apparently he wasn't anywhere close.
Even though it wasn't her assessment of me, it attached itself anyway. I was determined to make certain no one ever said that about me.
It was said anyway. A lot.
Not by others. By me.
I could seldom live up to what I saw as my potential. When I slacked off, I knew it. When I didn't give it my all -- even if what I produced was impressive -- it still disappointed me because I could almost always see how I could've done it better. Making matters worse were those times I actually did hit my limit, when I pushed myself to the point of knowing there was no further to go.
An early for-instance: I ran track in high school, the second runner on a four-person mile relay team. The moment that baton would hit the palm of my hand, I lived up to my potential, pushing myself so hard that once I handed the stick off to the next runner, I'd wobble off into the grass and pass out (or darn near).
I loved it. Loved that I could push myself to that limit. It was intoxicating. Made me feel proud. It proved there was no physical way I could've done more.
When I was in my 20s, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, refinished antiques, made a variety of crafts, and taught myself how to write stories. At that same time, I was learning all I could about construction so I could design and build a house. Which I did. I never stopped. I was exhausted and stressed, but knew I was riding at the edge of my potential, so I was generally OK with myself.