I am the only student in my Kindergarten class who starts the year in September knowing how to read. I don’t think too much of it, but some adults, especially Mom, have told me I am so smart, and I am special. I love reading. I’m learning how to write, too, which is amazing—I love the words and I love watching the shapes appear out of my pencil. I’m having trouble drawing an E, but for the most part it seems silly. Why can’t I add as many horizontal lines as I want to fill in the space in a capital E? I think it looks cooler that way, but Mrs. Neils insists, so I learn to just draw three lines. I just love Kindergarten – I have new friends and dinosaur books and I feel special because different adults sometimes pull me out of class to let me read with them.
One day in December, I’m playing on the playground with Rayna. She is in the other Kindergarten class, so we only see each other at recess. While spinning around the tire swing she tells me that we won’t be at recess together anymore because she’s being moved to first grade. “Oh,” I say. I feel hurt but Rayna looks excited. Inside I also feel jealous and scared. Why her? Why not me? I already know how to read! Why didn’t I get promoted? What’s wrong with me? Am I stupid? I must be stupid if I didn’t also move up a grade. I must be stupid if I’m left to spend an entire year in Kindergarten. I want to ask my parents why I didn’t move classes but it seems like something I’m not supposed to ask about. I remind myself I like my friends and I love my teacher and the dinosaur books, so it seems okay to still be there. I decide to not talk about it.
We’re learning fact families in first grade. 3 and 2 and 5 are a fact family, Mrs. Sherman says, because 3 + 2 = 5 and 5 – 2 = 3 and 5 – 3 = 2. They are a family and they stick together. I’m listening and think it makes sense until I take my workbook home that night and try to do homework. The numbers jump all over the page. I see numbers and I see words and I can read the instructions but I don’t remember what to do. I sit at the dining room table, face flushed, embarrassed and frustrated and angry. I’m supposed to circle the fact families in certain groups of numbers but I don’t know what they are. I don’t know what to circle. I must be stupid if I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to admit I’m stupid and I don’t want to ask Mom or Dad for help because I don’t what them to know I’m actually stupid, not smart like Mom says I am all the time. I circle haphazardly. Some of the circles include the problem number, not the actual numbers in the problem, but I just want to get this over with. I hate pencils. I hate math. This is hard. I must be stupid.
In second grade, I find that a couple of my new classmates are also really smart kids. Brandon and Alicia were in different Kindergarten and first grade classes, and this is the first time we have the same teacher. They read all the same types of books as me, sometimes harder ones. Brandon and I join the same soccer team and Alicia and I have a lot of play dates where we adventure through our imagination with animals and swords and magical forests. Sometimes we write a lot of stories together, too. It’s so cool to have a friend that wants to write as much as I do. But in school, sometimes I feel scared and worried. What if Brandon and Alicia are smarter than me? What if I’m not the smartest? I’m not sure if we can all be smart. What happens then? What will Mom think if I’m no longer smart? What will happen then? I don’t know the answer and this scares me. I don’t tell anyone about this worry and I feel it fester inside my belly.
Long division arrives in fourth grade. Alicia, Brandon, and I are in the group that gets the really hard problems. Everything is step by step and it’s so hard to follow all the steps but it’s the only way I remember the multiplication tables and how to divide. We sit at a table together one afternoon and get a little silly. I put my head in my hands after laughing because laughing feels so good but it also doesn’t make long division any easier. Mrs. Farber walks by and asks, “Doesn’t it feel good when your brain hurts?” I stare at her. How does she know my brain hurts!? “It means you’re working hard and you’re learning! Keep it up.” My brain hurts about long division. But it does feel good. This is all confusing. Fourth grade is my favorite year at school.
Pre-Algebra brings its own slew of worries. I don’t understand the process. Adding and subtracting negative numbers? 7th grade was hard enough already. In my head I understand that if I have 7 apples and I add -3 apples it’s kind of like subtracting and 7-3 gives me four apples. So I skip the process and write the answers to the problems I know, but the harder ones I can’t do in my head and I don’t understand the step-by-step way we are supposed to do it. I must be stupid. Math is stupid. I get a quiz back. I have most of the answers right, but Mr. McGunner didn’t give me a grade. In big block letters across the top of the page, he writes “WHERE IS YOUR WORK?” I don’t know what to say. I want to crumple the paper and shove it in my bag. I think I’ve done something wrong. I think I’m in trouble and I feel scared. Mr. McGunner pulls me aside after class. “I need to see your work,” he tells me kindly. “I don’t care if you get the problems right or wrong, it’s about doing the steps and the process.” I stare at him. Of course it matters if I get the answer right or not. Isn’t that the whole point? I disagree, but I’m scared to get in trouble, so I try to do better and manage to only cry a little during the conversation.
In 9th grade, my kind-of–boyfriend volunteers me to do an Algebra 2 problem on the board in front of everyone. I make a mistake. When our teacher goes over the problem and corrects it, I start crying because I’m embarrassed, but I also start laughing to cover it up. For the next four years, whenever my kind-of-boyfriend brings this story up, I say that I was crying from laughing so hard, but it’s not true and everyone knows it. Making mistakes is okay, our teacher said, it’s not a big deal, it’s how we learn. But I don’t really believe that. I know I’m especially stupid when it comes to math. I make so many mistakes. Usually it’s when I skip steps and want to rush. I don’t want to slow down and work methodically; I insist on doing everything my way, by myself, and asking for help is such a sign of failure. Math is hard. I am stupid at math.
Junior year of college I find my perfectionist tendencies spiraling out of control. In a panic, I ask my favorite professor what kind of grade I may be getting in her Syntax class. She doesn’t grade our assignments throughout the year, just provides comments and feedback which leaves me anxious. It’s my favorite class and I feel desperate to know my grade, to know if I’m getting it right or not. This wise professor dances around the question: “You’ll get a grade that reflects your level of work,” she says. “But I won’t give you a grade you haven’t earned.”
I stare at her, blankfaced at this non-answer. She smiles slightly, and adds, “Maybe you’ve never had to work hard before.” No one has ever said this to me before. Something clicks. I raise my eyebrows. “Maybe not,” I respond. A part of me feels like this was a shaming criticism, but this professor is kind and she looks me in the eye. I feel seen. Throughout the semester she pushes me harder and harder. Work that may have earned high praise at the start of term is not passable as the months tick by. Analysis after analysis my brain feels like it’s on fire because it hurts so good. Mrs. Farber was right, working hard feels good. I let this professor push me and I push myself. I earn an A in Syntax and have never felt more proud of myself. The grade feels like a cherry on top—I already had the ice cream sundae.
Senior year I ask this professor to serve as my thesis advisor because I know I’ll do my best work with her. I do. I am so proud of myself when I graduate college because I feel like I earned that bachelor’s degree.
After college, I work in an urban public school. This is education of a different sort. There are no grades for tutoring and mentoring. The members of my team are all smart and talented in their own ways, but more than that, everyone is passionate and everyone works hard. Most people work much harder than I do. Sometimes I feel stupid in the face of all this. Sometimes I feel defeated, weak, and useless. I feel like a bad person sometimes.
But I also begin to work hard. To persevere. To stick with something. To struggle and know that just because something is hard, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I tell the middle schoolers I work with that struggling is a reality—the purpose of reading groups and math class is to teach us how to struggle successfully. How to stick with it. I tell them that when their brains hurt, it means we’re working hard and learning and it’s a good thing. I see Tyrone’s face light up after he solves really hard geometry problems and I see Aisha’s quiet pride when she sticks with a social studies reading assignment long enough to answer a comprehension question. I encourage my students and I encourage myself.
In staff professional development, we learn about Mindset and we read Carol Dweck’s book. I feel ashamed the first time I look at this information, because I realize that I grew up with a fixed mindset. I believed my talent and intelligence were static and I constantly needed to prove my smartness over and over and over again. I want all my students to have a growth mindset. I want myself to have a growth mindset: I want to believe that we all can learn and develop, that by working hard, committing, learning from mistakes, and willing to fall and get up again—we can always improve and grow.
I feel guilt that it took 22 years to be introduced to the idea that I didn’t have to constantly prove myself over and over and over again, and it’s taken several more years for me to begin to embody this. It’s a constant practice. It’s a reframe of my whole education. The guilt is not helpful and I try to let it go. I grew up how I grew up, I heard what I heard, and I took in what I took in.
It is difficult to imagine a time where I won’t ever be hard on myself, where my perfectionist tendencies don’t creep in at all. But it is easy to remember years past, and it is easy to recall the paradigm shifts over the last several years. It is less difficult to imagine a more hopeful future, a constant flux of mindset framing and reframing, and gentle encouragement.
To my little ones: I want to hug you and help you understand that struggling doesn’t mean stupid, that stupid is not a very nice word to call yourself or others. I can hear your frustration, your guilt, your worries and fears. They are all so real. Take a deep breath. I love you. It’s going to be okay. It may take a while, but I promise you- I love you no matter what.