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!