A sly paean to the less-than-perfect human condition.
Patti and the Crocodile Contest
Patti wanted everything she did to be perfect. One Sunday morning, Daddy was teaching her how to make pancakes. She loved cooking them, but when she saw how they looked she started to cry.
“What’s the matter?” Daddy asked. He sounded worried, as if he thought Patti had hurt herself.
“They — they’re all crooked,” Patti sobbed. “They’re not perfect, like the ones you make!”
“Ah,” said Daddy, “that’s just because I’ve had so much practice. Anyway, yours are really okay, and I’m sure they’re delicious, Patti. Taste one and see.”
So Patti took a bite of one of her pancakes—first she dipped it in some syrup on a plate—and it tasted all right. But she still thought they looked awful. Not perfect like Daddy’s.
Another day, Mummy was watching Patti make her bed. It was hard to do, because whenever she pulled the sheets and blankets to smooth them out on one side, the other side got ruined. Patti was really frustrated about this. Finally, she couldn’t stand it any longer.
“I can’t do it! It’s just not perfect!” she yelled.
“Now Patti, calm down,” Mummy said. “Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect. What’s important is that you tried your best. It’s okay.”
But Patti knew Mummy just wanted to make her feel better. She was still annoyed about the wrinkled bed covers.
When Patti played with her friends, she had the same problem. Her friend Amanda once tried to teach her how to play badminton. Patti discovered that Amanda was great at badminton because she played it a lot with her older sister.
But Patti knew she herself was not great. She kept missing the birdie, swiping her racquet at the empty air, where she was sure the birdie was going to be. Now she felt really stupid! Patti threw her racquet down on the grass and turned to leave, disgusted with herself.
“This is terrible! I’m no good!” Patti cried.
“But Patti! You’re just learning! When I first started, I played just like you. It’s okay,” Amanda said.
But for Patti, being “okay” didn’t count. She wanted so much to be perfect.
One night Patti had a strange dream. It was just like a fairy tale, and it went like this:
Once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a wise young Princess. One day, the Princess called all the people together, and she stood upon the High Hill to make an important announcement. Her father, the King, was seated by her side.
The trumpets blared. “Hear ye, hear ye!” cried the Royal Assistant. “The Princess will speak! All rise for the Princess!”
The Princess said: “I have something special to tell you today. My father is very old, too old for the hard work of being your King. Now I am ready to succeed him. But I wish to choose a husband to share this difficult task.
“So,” she continued, “what I propose to all of you is this: we shall have a great Contest. Only the young men among you who are strong, clever, and good may enter. This is what you must do. You must swim across the Crocodile River which divides our land. He who is strong enough and wise enough to do this shall be the winner. He shall receive castles and royal riches. If he is truly worthy, I will marry him, and we will rule the land as your Queen and King.
The people cheered in agreement with the Princess’s plan. Soon, three hopeful young men came forth one by one to the foot of the High Hill, to tell the Princess of their wish to enter the Contest. Then the citizens, soldiers, contestants, Princess and King gathered at the shore of the Crocodile River.
Now the Crocodile River was well-named, for it fairly teemed with the ugly green creatures whose sharp teeth glinted in the sunlight. But this did not daunt the courage of the eager young contestants, as they prepared themselves for their treacherous swim. Even now, two of them could be heard bragging that they would win the Contest easily.
At the sound of the trumpet blast, the first contestant plunged into the water and began his task. He swam and he swam, and so cleverly did he evade his crocodile pursuers that he made it, exhausted but triumphant, to the other side.
The Princess and the King and all the people had been watching and waiting on the pier.
“Well, number one,” said the Princess to the dripping young man before her, “and how did you do?”
“Oh, I was fantastic!” exulted the youth. “I was so brave and quick… I swam so perfectly that those beasts could never catch m—” ZING! His boasting words were chopped down the middle, for a hidden trapdoor under his feet suddenly opened, and down he zipped into the water below, and disappeared.
“Next!” shouted the Princess, with just a hint of anger in her voice. And the trumpet blasted for a second time as contestant number two tried his luck. He swam and he swam, and he too was nimble and managed to avoid the hungry crocodiles.
“So, number two,” inquired the Princess, “how did you do?”
“Oh,” cried the contestant, “I was fantastic! I was so marvelous and strong! I was much too perfect a swimmer for those croc—” ZANG! His words were cut off in an instant, as the trapdoor opened and down he went with a loud splash, no more to be seen.
“Next!” cried the infuriated Princess. For the third time the trumpet blared, signalling the start of the last contestant’s effort. Into the river dove the youth. He swam and he swam as fast as he could. Alas, this was not quite fast enough, and he ended his swim with a little toe missing.
“And how did you do, number three?” asked the Princess of this brave swimmer.
Even the rushing waters of the river seemed to become silent: great was the hush that fell over the multitude, who were waiting for the answer from the tired number three.
“Well,” began the young man, quietly confident in spite of some pain, “I was — I was — okay. I did — all right, you know? I guess I did all right.”
The Princess’s face beamed with the widest smile you could imagine, as she took the hand of the brave yet humble number three and raised it high in the air in victory. And the crowd cheered, the trumpets blared in unison and rainbow colours filled the sky as plumed hats and ribbons were tossed.
The young man received the gifts that the Princess had promised: the castles and the jewels. And to his great joy, the Princess eventually chose to marry him. The old King died soon afterward, and the new King and Queen ruled the land in a manner that was firm and kind and wise.
The people in the land never forgot the lesson from the day of the Crocodile Contest. They taught it to their children, and their children taught it to their children. “You don’t have to be perfect,” they would say. It’s perfectly okay to be just — OKAY!”
When morning came, Patti awoke, feeling a warm glow around her. She felt so good, she wanted to hug herself, so she did!
Later, in school, her teacher gave the class an assignment in Art. Mrs. Stevens said they had to draw their bedroom, just from memory.
Patti tried to draw her room exactly the way she remembered. When she thought that she was finished, she peered at her drawing, scrunching up her eyes to help it look real. But it didn’t look real at all. Now she was starting to feel upset with herself.
“Well Patti,” said Mrs. Stevens, looking down over her shoulder, “looks like you’re having some trouble. What do you think?”
“Oh, I know it’s t—” Patti began; she was going to say “terrible”. But all of a sudden, a picture came into her mind of the Crocodile Contest, from her dream the night before. She said, slowly, “Mrs. Stevens, I — I can’t help it, you know? I haven’t had much practice at drawing my room. And…I tried my best. And…I’m just learning. So I think it’s…okay.”
Her teacher smiled warmly at Patti, and nodded. “Yes, Patti,” said Mrs. Stevens, “I have to agree with you. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay to be just — OKAY.