schooled by a six-year-old

When you finally begin to unpack, rearrange, and reorganize the luggage of life (literal and/or figurative), you are always bound to find treasures. They often make up for the hassle and hard work, as well as the more painful findings.

This round has been no exception.

While (finally) unpacking some boxes from my (last summer!) move, I came across this little gem from my girl’s first-grade journal:


After allowing the initial gushing and wave of nostalgia to wash over me, my daughter’s simple yet wise-beyond-her-years words made me stop and think.

We so often use the word quality when describing our lives and the items and moments those lives produce. We spout the terms quality assurance, quality control, and quality management in our work life; we try to have more quality time in our home life and relationships; we discuss quality of life when facing challenges such as illness, injury, work-life balance, and aging; we seek out the Quality Inn signs on road trips during the alphabet game to find that ever-elusive ‘Q’.

But do we ever really stop to think about the word in its simplest form and meaning?

Quality Inn Sign_full

For a six-year-old unaware of these coined phrases that often lose their meaning with overuse and under-implementation, the word quality simply comes down to the desire for an ideal approach to each and every endeavor — whether at school or at home, whether assigned or initiated — to 1) take one’s time (that is reasonably given as needed); 2) check one’s work (against clear expectations and guidelines); 3) concentrate fully (by being in the moment and reducing distractions and multitasking); and to — consequently — 4) be able to do one’s very best.

At the end of the day, don’t we all want to do our very best? Is this really too much to ask — to be given the tools (including time and training) needed to reach our full-quality potential?

For many workplaces — and sadly, many schools — it is.

In too many instances, we are on a “fast track” of results-oriented learning, teaching, producing, packaging.

Too often we allow others to dictate the definition of quality to us, and we forget that quality is not a job that is “as good as can be expected given the current constraints / workforce / budget / deadlines / contract / student ability / teacher ratio / structure / process / [fill-in-the-blank].”

We are persuaded to buy in to the emergency appearance of quality. Often, we feel we do not have a choice; we feel forced to forfeit pride in our work.

But then just as often we are wrongly called out as part of both the cause and consequence of this illusory “quality” that comes with an inevitable expiration date — and price.

Admittedly, quality is a subjective term and is often measured in tandem with (and tragically too often eclipsed by) its ‘Q’ partner: Quantity (which is, incidentally, not even remotely helpful in the alphabet game).

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject:

Quality — a distinguishing attribute; superiority in kind; degree of excellence; peculiar and essential character; an inherent feature.

Quality is inherently inherent. It distinguishes a person, a piece of work, a path.

When someone at work says, “It isn’t personal; it’s just business,” I have to take pause and wonder what that intrinsically means about that person, that workplace, that work.


If you agree with Norman Rockwell (as my father did and had this painting hanging in his office as an operations manager for thirty-five years), quality of work is personal; it defines the person.

Since Olivia was old enough to toddle around and forage for resources, she has invested countless hours working on projects until the outcome was “just right” by her — and only her — standards.

Be it a sprawling town constructed of cardboard, clay, paper, and plastic, complete with buildings, bridges, moats, roads, homes, schools, and stores; a poster board menagerie of sea otters adorned with calligraphy headlines, colorful borders, and hand-made drawings; or a Powerpoint presentation of sculpted grey clay cats set against a vibrant red backdrop; the message of each project was clear: Olivia would not be rushed and would not stop working until she achieved her own high-quality end goal.

Historically hurried by teachers, art and music tutors, fellow students, and friends to “work a little bit faster” — Olivia has found a way to push back and demand the time and space needed to complete her work to her own satisfaction.

I am proud of my rising eighth-grader for standing her ground in the name of quality. At times, my own frustration and desperation have threatened to take over — in my own work and in the guidance of my daughter’s — as the late nights and approaching deadlines loomed; but in the end, Olivia has always pulled it off, and on her own terms.

These four tenets of quality — captured by my first-grader (and forever-friend as noted below by another found treasure) — sing out to me now as I ponder my next job, relationship, project, path:

  • Take my time.
  • Check my work.
  • Concentrate.
  • Do my best.




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