Who am I not to be?

desperadotattoo.blogspot.comI walked nervously down the “big kids'” hallway, wearing my plaid skirt and navy sweater, clutching my math book, a pencil, and a folder to my chest.

It was my first day in the “advanced math class” with the seventh grade teacher, Mr. Biegun. I was only in fourth grade, but he was taking a small group of us to do some accelerated work. I had no idea what to expect. Most of the middle school teachers at my tiny Catholic school were strict, with sharp voices. They seemed bigger, taller, and definitely scarier than the primary teachers.

Within minutes my fears had vanished, my pounding heart quieted. I could tell that this place was special. In Mr. B’s room, it was good to be smart. No one would shrug and point me to a corner in the back of the room to read by myself. No kid would tease me while he beamed at my correct answers or my enthusiasm for logic puzzles.

In homeroom – for years, before and after this one – I would try to be as small and quiet as possible. I would raise my hand only if no one else knew the answer and only if I felt sorry for the teacher. And even then I would regret it because it was rarely worth the exasperated looks of my peers.

On the one hand, I wanted my teachers and friends to think I was smart. On the other hand, I didn’t want that to be all anyone knew (or cared) about me, and I definitely didn’t want to be automatically considered a gigantic nerd.

When I was a freshman at Yale, they asked us to fill out a survey and then published the results in the facebook (that’s right, we had a hard copy of it back then!). One of the questions was, “What do you say when people ask you where you go to college?” The answer I chose, along with a high percentage of others was, “Um…Yale?”

I promised myself then to stop doing that, but it takes sheer force of will, even 15 years later, to answer the question with confidence, without showing my anxiety over the questioner’s reaction. Because though the response is rarely mean, it is often distancing, as though the person is thinking, “Oh! Well, then,” and taking an emotional step back.

People act like they are complimenting me, but often it is backhanded. It starts like, “Well, I’m not as smart as you are, but…” They assume I have certain characteristics, like that I am Type A and inflexible just because I have high standards for myself. Or they apologize for spelling or grammar mistakes because they think that I must be constantly judging them. When really, if only they could peek inside my head, they would find that I am too busy judging myself.

So sometimes I decide to let certain aspects of my life story go untold in order to fit in better and make everyone else more comfortable.

Even now this is hard for me to put out here because I don’t know how many of you it will turn off. But twice in the past two weeks I have come across this quote, and I know it has to mean something:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” ~Marianne Williamson

I promised myself when I became a teacher that I would be different. I would be like Mr. Biegun. I would allow the bright kids to succeed without embarrassing them or ostracizing them from their peers. I would make it cool for all of my students to give smart answers or to excel on tests. I would challenge them with logic puzzles and math games and awesome books that others might think too hard for them.

Then I became a teacher, and at first I was just trying to stay afloat. It was hard enough to teach to the middle and spend any extra time on the strugglers. Most of the bright kids were like me: content to sit in a corner and read their books until the next lesson. They didn’t seem to get teased as much as I had been, so that was a start. I did better each year, but never really fulfilled my promise.

But now I finally have my moment. This year I have moved from being the center-stage homeroom teacher to having a very small supporting role as the gifted & talented teacher. I will only see my eight students for two hours a week, but I am determined that my classroom will be their safe space.

I want them to learn much earlier than I did that they are brilliant, talented, powerful. And that trying to hide it is a waste of their time. I also hope to teach them to look for brilliance and light everywhere, because it is all around us and often can’t be measured by the tests that brought them to my class.

I hope that if I stop “playing small,” it will give us all permission to shine.

I wrote this last week and accidentally published it early. It felt strange to pull it, as though I were violating the spirit of what I’d written. But I truly wanted it to be linked up to Pour Your Heart Out, because it was that hard for me to write. So here it is, back again!

16 Responses to Who am I not to be?
  1. mcolasante
    September 16, 2011 | 3:25 am

    This got me all choked up. I could just picture smart, beautiful you pausing before saying “Yale.” Yell it out, girl! This post is wonderful…don’t we all do that in some respect, instead of standing tall, shoulders back, and smiling wide in all our glory? Thanks for the reminder that hiding what’s special in us serves no purpose. Amen!

  2. pmlevitt
    September 21, 2011 | 6:16 am

    I love it! This is especially important for girls, as women learn to hide the “smart” to fit into what society expects from them (namely to be pretty and nice and in a ‘supporting’ rather than ‘leading’ role). Being proud of your gifts does not diminish other people and your gifts in particular will allow you to help many children along the way. Great post! I’ve always liked that quote:)

  3. MEL
    September 21, 2011 | 6:52 am

    A very good, thoughtful post. Never apologize for being smart, well-educated, or aware of the world outside your personal sphere of influence! (Even in this anti-intellectual culture). And kudos for nurturing the gifts of others like you! Best of luck.

  4. Missy | The Literal Mom
    September 21, 2011 | 7:08 am

    I LOVE this. For so many reasons. I almost need to take it offline and email you, rather than take up all of your comment space! I love it because I was a child like you. I love it because as an adult, Marianne’s quote speaks to my soul – my GOD it’s so true. I love it because I have children who are like I was and I want them to have a teacher like you or like you had back in Middle School.

    This is an amazing post and you did an excellent job. Thank you for writing it – because it really touched me.

  5. Laughwithusblog
    September 21, 2011 | 8:57 am

    This is so thought provoking! I’m sure that I have done this to people without realizing how it made them feel. Different but along the same lines I found in my teen years that if I dressed down and didn’t do my hair and make-up people accepted me much more easily. I also became great at telling everyone all my faults because then they liked me. Interesting no? 🙂

    • Jessica@Team Rasler
      September 21, 2011 | 10:44 pm

      That IS interesting. I’ve often found that it’s the opposite: doing my hair and makeup made people more likely to accept me. I am really trying to overcome that tendency to share my faults as well. It’s so easy to put people at ease by telling them what we think is wrong with us, but someone told me a few years ago that other people believe what we tell them about ourselves: they have no reason not to. I realized that I was giving people permission to think less of me than I deserved. On the other hand, those who do nothing but trumpet their own virtues annoy me. Great, thoughtful comment. Thanks!

  6. oneandonlyoka
    September 21, 2011 | 12:35 pm

    You should be able to brag about the college you went to, you worked hard to get there.

    I was not one of the brighter ones in school and I accept it. Somehow, my husband and I have manged to have some pretty bright children. I had to make the decision to keep them out of our schools gifted program there though.

    I did it strictly for social reasons. Quite opposite to what you experienced though. At our school, the gifted kids are a majority of our bullies. I decided I was not going to put them in a program where their peers would model that type of behavior.

    • Jessica@Team Rasler
      September 21, 2011 | 10:48 pm

      Wow, that makes me so incredibly sad to think of the gifted kids bullying the others. I can easily believe that you chose to keep your kids away from peers like that. It’s awfully tough as a parent to compete with the peer influence, so sometimes the best we can do is try to minimize it. I hope your school is working on correcting this problem.

      Meanwhile, kudos to you for making what was surely a tough decision!

  7. Shell
    September 21, 2011 | 1:58 pm

    I’m glad that you are able to help other students like you.

    I was a proud nerd growing up. I had started getting my G&T cert before I had my oldest. I do hope to go back to that one day.

    Stop “playing small” and just be your fabulous self!

  8. John Biegun
    September 21, 2011 | 6:35 pm

    Thank you, Jessica. One thing that has not changed in 26 years of teaching is the inspiration I gain from a student who walks into my room with wide eyes, an expectant smile, and an insatiable hunger to learn. I’m happy to know that the spark I saw in you that day is still burning brightly! May God continue to bless you and allow you to spread your light.

  9. Jessica D Torres
    September 21, 2011 | 9:17 pm

    I am trying to get my daughter into the gifted and talented program at her school and I hope that if she gets accepted she will get a teacher like you. I held back in school because I didn’t want to be made fun of for going to special classes. Looking back I wish I wouldn’t have done that.

  10. iseeyoulookingatme
    September 22, 2011 | 12:43 am

    Oh, Jessica, I’m so glad you had that safe place in Mr. Biegun’s class. Mine was my 6th grade journalism class.

    I love the quote. Thank you for reminding us to let our lights shine!

    And, I understand that this was hard to write. Thanks for doing it!!

  11. Blond Duck
    September 22, 2011 | 4:26 am

    I think you’re awesome.

    I went to a great school, so I was never really one of the “smart” kids. Like I knew I was smart, but I knew there were a lot of people smarter than me. But helped me was the art and writing teachers, people that gave me an outlet to be creative and believed in my talent. They made me feel proud of my work.

  12. Humanmama AJ Dilling
    September 22, 2011 | 6:07 pm

    Amazing! Awesome! I love it. I’m not as smart as you are, but I love your writing still. Just kidding–really, I love it. This was a great post–poured out there. I’m a big fan 🙂 Wish we lived closer!

  13. juliemoore
    September 22, 2011 | 7:36 pm

    I love that you are encouraging us to stop “playing small”. I don’t consider myself academically on top of things but I am tired of hiding how I feel about myself and playing myself down. Thanks

  14. Alison@Mama Wants This
    September 23, 2011 | 5:00 am

    Love that last line. Your students are lucky to have you!

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