birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Empty Hands & a Red Face

I have a co-worker-turned-close-friend who insists I have a nasty case of imposter syndrome. I feel embarrassed when he says it, like “Who me? No, no, I don’t have imposter syndrome. I really am terrible at my job.” Besides, I’d feel like kind of a poseur claiming I have such a thing, like it’s the hip thing that the cool kids say about themselves in some sort of show of false modesty and I’ll never, ever be a cool kid nor will I ever have to pretend to be modest because...of course I’m modest, why wouldn’t I be? I not that special or anything.

See? It goes deep with me. So deep I can’t find the bottom of it. Do I really feel like I don’t know what I’m doing—or do I tell myself that I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing so that I don’t feel bad about not being as good as I probably should be? Honestly, I can’t tell.

It goes deep and it’s been there a long time. I have a vivid memory of my first imposter experience. I was in first grade and I arrived at school a little late—as usual—and realized I was supposed to bring in a project for some sort of year-end ultra-deluxe “Show & Tell” session. Others had brought in popsicle-stick log cabins or models of the state Capitol or dioramas of George Washington swinging his ax at the cherry tree, but I had only empty hands and a red face to show.

It was first grade. I have a feeling that these days, if a first-grader forgets to do her project the teacher says, “Hey no biggie, just bring it in tomorrow if you think of it, okay, Olivia?” but I’m sure my teacher, Mrs. Herbert (pronounced A-bear) would not have said no biggie because she despised me.

Maybe you don’t believe she despised me—why would a teacher hate a 6-year-old?—but I knew she did. She went out of her way to humiliate me. When we were learning to skip, she noticed I couldn’t do it, so she pulled me out of the line of kids to have me try it in front of everybody. They all laughed at my lack of coordination. She hated my hair, which was long, often uncombed, and probably a little ratty, so she would pull it into an unflattering ponytail on the top of my head—except it was on the front, like a unicorn’s horn—so the kids laughed at that, too. She pinned mean notes to my shirt for my mother (COMB YOUR DAUGHTER’S HAIR NEXT TIME!) and she gave me F’s in coloring.

F’s in coloring. Can you freaking believe that? It’s true.

So, there’s some context for my dilemma of showing up project-less on UltraDeluxe Show and Tell Day, and I’m pretty sure I felt like I was going to throw up when I realized that I was about to go for yet another spin in Mrs. Herbert’s House of Humiliation.

And then I spotted a paper bag. An empty one. To throw up in? No, better than that:
“I’ll make a puppet!” I thought. I grabbed the paper bag, grabbed a couple of crayons, walked back to the coat room, and drew a clown face on the bottom of the bag and inserted my hand so that I could make the crease of it move like a mouth.

I hightailed it back to the classroom and arrived just as my name was called. With no rehearsal and no idea of what I might say, I walked—as cool as an Otter Pop—to the front of the the room, pulled a desk in front of me, crouched behind it, lifted my puppet, and began the show.

I don’t remember much of what I said. I only remember the laughter. Sweet, joyful, genuine laughter. And they weren’t laughing in a mean way this time; they were laughing in a good way. It was my first-ever puppet show, and I was killing it. It was as though I’d stepped out of temporal reality and into eternal bliss.

Mrs. Herbert had to call time on my show; we needed to move on, she said. I stood up, bowed to the applauding, cheering crowd, and gave her a look I myself didn’t comprehend because it was something I’d never felt before.


Hometown Blues