When I was a little kid, every question had to have an answer. When my dad asked me to solve a math problem or why I was crying after just being yelled at, “I don’t know,” was never acceptable. It was the easy way out. To my parents, knowing what to say meant that we were thinking, that we were using our brains to find solutions, and were on the path to success. For them, one an immigrant to Canada and the other a first-generation Canadian, whose lives had often been full of uncertainties and questions, having the answers would help ensure that our futures would be better.
My dad grew up in Saint Joseph, a small hilltop town in Trinidad. The second eldest of five kids, his parents were incredibly strict when it came to schooling. Being top five in their classes was a must and spankings were the norm if they were found playing without having done their homework. When he was 17, he moved to Toronto with his three siblings and mother, where they lived in government housing. Working part-time to put himself through school, my dad graduated from York University with a major in economics and a minor in accounting. Setting the highest standards for himself helped my dad become the successful and revered man he is today.
But he was intense. I used to be so intimidated by him, I’d run to bed when I’d hear him come home from work, even if it was only 7 p.m., if I didn’t have a news article to talk to him about (we had to prepare one to discuss every day). And I was too afraid to tell him that our lengthy regular study sessions were starting to make me feel sick.
My mom grew up in the Greater Toronto Area to immigrant Jamaican parents who prioritized family over everything else. She was the good cop of my parents — until you rolled your eyes. Although she was less intense than my dad, she was equally insistent that, to become successful adults, my three siblings and I needed a solid foundation that included, among many other things, an education. And so my childhood in Cambridge, a small city an hour outside of Toronto, where we were one of a handful of Black families, was spent working towards a singular goal: Finish high school with straight As, attend the best university, be the best in all of our classes, and then, in life.
The questions, and the quizzing, and the non-stop prep started when I was in third grade. The most intense sessions happened each August. My parents agreed that, in order for us to excel, we needed to get a head start on the school year and escape the summer brain fog. Friends coming to the door to play would be turned away. Bike rides past my crush’s house and neighborhood games of manhunt would have to wait until I read for at least an hour. My mom created a syllabus that included math, English, art, and electives. She once even had us write our own eulogies. She wasn’t trying to be morbid. She wanted us to think about who we were and who we wanted to be.
But lessons weren’t taught solely in the “classroom.” If I was slouching at dinner, my mom would run her finger up my spine so I’d sit up straight. My dad would come up to me and pinch the bridge of my nose, without saying a word. It was a reminder that there was always time and opportunity to work on myself.
All of my parents’ tutoring, while well-intentioned and meant to prepare us for whatever the world might throw at us, had the opposite effect on me. I couldn’t relax; I felt that I always had to be on and ready. It started to break me down, crippling the confidence they thought it was building. My parents never wanted us to be limited; to feel inferior or stuck. But in trying to create these “perfect” students of life, they did limit us. I found myself becoming paralyzed — the fear of getting anything wrong overpowered me. If you look at school pictures of me as a kid, you can tell I didn’t know whether I should be smiling or not. I sometimes still feel that way.
When I went away to school to study fashion communications at Ryerson University in Toronto, I finally felt like myself for the first time. Instead of being cautious about what to say or how to reply, I used my own voice and had my own opinion. One of the first times I came home for a family gathering, I shocked my parents by chatting easily to my cousins, aunts, uncles, and family friends whose questions and stares I usually tried to avoid.
But, like most of us, I’m a work in progress. I’ve been seeing a therapist for six months, and I’ve learned that my need to be perfect in every aspect of my life is one of the many self-sacrificing behaviors I have to work through. My therapist tells me I hold a lot of tension in my mouth, that I massage my jaw a lot when we’re talking, that I smile when I tell her something that upsets me, even more so when I start to cry. “You present well,” she says. Presenting is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. But I want to stop. I want to show a true reflection of what and how I’m feeling.
As part of this growth, I tried doing stand-up comedy last year, something I’d always dreamed of. I had memorized and memorized my set, but nothing prepared me for the sheer terror I felt walking on stage. The bright lights blinded me, the clinking cocktail glasses deafened me, and the people chatting amongst themselves threw me for a spin. I froze. I didn’t know what was happening or how to speak. I looked over at my brother and saw him mouth, “SAY ANYTHING!” I could have sworn I heard someone say, “OH MY GOD.”
But then, this time, for the first time, not having the answer and not knowing what to say gave me the confidence to continue, to say anything, and be okay with it not being perfect. So I did, I found my footing, I found my words, and by the end of my set, I found myself wanting more. I knew leaving that bar, that I was a different person than the one who walked in there that night. And I’m ready to be heard.