It was the first time I saw true disappointment in their eyes. My vision was hazy but I could still see it clearly. I could feel heartbeat in my eyes and in my knees, the tips of my fingers began to feel hot from coming into the warm car too quickly from the frigid street. I was drunk, I was a liar, I was 16.
I sat silently in the front seat of the car as my dad navigated the quickest route back to our house. The only thing that glowed were puddles of light cast by the sporadically spaced street lights. Everything else was black, almost dirty looking, like the sky had sprayed a layer of soot over everything. The five minute car ride felt like I had driven from my Bay Area home to Tahoe and back again by the time we pulled into the driveway. All I wanted to do was crawl under my covers and never come out; surprisingly my parents obliged my desire to disappear without me even saying it out loud. Both my parents told me they would deal with me in the morning; I cried the whole night. Too scared to leave my room, I didn’t even shower, I just let myself lie awake in my bed, skin and hair reeking of beer.
They ended up grounding me for two weeks, pure isolation and shame for two whole weeks. Worse though was the silence. The air almost felt solid in my house, stiff with tension. It’s odd to say that it took 16 years to truly disappoint them, but it really had.
My parents used to get TIME Magazine sent to our house, they had caved to my magazine selling fundraiser for school and picked one of the only good magazines from list I was peddling from neighbor to neighbor. I had read an article in TIME about birth order. The article stuck with me for years because I was the realization of the first child they described. The first born was responsible, eager to please, had three more IQ points on average than the child born after them and was usually taller and heavier at birth than later-born siblings. In contrast later-born siblings were more willing to take risks and unafraid of disruption. That was me, eager to please and responsible. It had become an expectation that I would always do the right thing, that I would always over achieve, that I would always set a good example. It being an expectation, I played into it. I killed myself to stay on honor roll, to balance three extra curricular activities, to have an impressive SAT score, and in the weeks leading up to my grounding I started to question what it was all for.
It began to feel like too much, the expectations and the pressure that came along with fulfilling them. Just once I wanted to do something selfish, something detrimental. I never intended to get caught though. Even though I was sick of the expectations, I still couldn’t shake them loose. I still wanted to be the image of the perfect, responsible child they had in their heads.
My grounding passed. I got very well acquainted with the cracks in my ceiling and I had probably painted my nails a different color every hour of my “prison sentence,” which, like most things, also passed. The tension passed as well. The frozen air thawed, the busy-ness of my parents’ lives eased in the erasing of their anger. I returned to my striving state. Reaching to fulfill expectations above and beyond.
Then I was so mad at myself for letting myself slip up. Looking back on that moment, I wouldn’t change the situation. Feeling like a disappointment was truly awful, there’s no denying it, but slipping up and coming out alive taught me that not being the person everyone expects you to be isn’t the end of the world. I am far from conquering my need to please and unburdening myself for taking the responsible route 99.9 percent of the time, but I am getting closer. There’s so much value in the achievements, but there can be equally as much in the screw ups.
Sydney Cohen is a Staff Writer for The Centennial Magazine. She enjoys lime flavored tortilla chips, the Jack Johnson Pandora station, and spending time in the woods. Her favorite pastime is being #basic with her #basic friends. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her on her instagram account @thesquidney —because she just looks better with a Valencia filter, or shoot her a tweet @sydnoosh #shamelessplug.
Photographs by Jennifer Wu.