[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.
Elspeth, from the Class of 1977, went by Elizabeth back then, was the first student I met there, and was clock-stopping memorable. She was a bright, quirky girl who was five steps ahead of everyone else. When I sat with her in auditoriums during speech tournaments, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise because she bubbled over with ideas. Curious, talented, and enormously capable, she was better than what a high school, even a good one, could offer her. All she needed from me was patience and an encouraging smile.
When I was seven, my parents told me we were moving to Belgium where they spoke French. They explained it was another language. At seven, this worried me a great deal and I thought about it a lot. I wouldn’t understand what children in Belgium were saying and they wouldn’t understand me. As I thought, it occurred to me that inside their heads, these children I had never met would have to translate this foreign language into English in order to be able to process it. I knew this fundamental truth, because in my own head, I heard only English when I thought. This gave me great comfort.
It was pretty profound thinking for a child. It was also profoundly wrong in a way I didn’t understand until later.
I am respectful of that little girl, who often bewildered by a larger world, had her Barbie stolen under a bridge by a little Mexican girl. When she went to the home of this other little girl to take it back and saw how that fierce angry small person lived, and in what poverty, she ran home without the doll and punished herself.
Those fairy tales we tell ourselves and our awakenings come thick and fast as we grow up. They are especially frequent in high school as year over year we take a new place in the hierarchy, and we are exposed to a ritual of aging that won’t slow down for any single student. It seems to me it finds us at our most vulnerable and alone, while surrounded by hordes of others at the same phase of their lives. I loved high school and hated my many awkwardnesses. I raised my hand too often. I spoke too loudly. I didn’t have long sleek hair. I wanted to be kissed. I felt out of place most of the time. I was both more widely read than many and more sheltered than most. I was so afraid as I navigated at the periphery of cliques and groups and teams. I knew that I had to meet expectations and was profoundly aware that I didn’t have the tools. I got shin splints running track. I was too awkward to play field hockey. I could not sing on key. I brought home a two foot stack of books at night, but rarely studied. I longed to express myself, but waited until the last minute to author papers. I longed to be as funny or bright as my comrades, but tended towards the competent but not transcendent, always a half beat behind those with the most visible talents. My interior monologue was not even as articulate as the carefully constructed narrative about Belgian children understanding French. It was full of earnest promises to do better and be more deserving this semester or next year. If life was a puzzle, I was trying to figure it out.
It was exhausting. But it was magic, too. I entered speech tournaments. I helmed the yearbook, where I was able to put my half formed editorial theories to the test. I wrote for the Hallway. I hung out in the teacher’s lounge. I was forgiven for the small trespass of wearing green toe socks and running around without shoes. I was embraced by comfy library chairs as I read paperbacks I had not been assigned. I experienced profound loss when my father died, and was buoyed up by a cadre of teachers whose quiet kindness still astounds me.
I recognize the origins of the person I am today, and can see the thread thru time that brought me where I am now, a grandmother who talks too much in work meetings, still doesn’t have sleek hair, who doesn’t much care for rules and won’t wear makeup, but who has largely lost her fear. I am grateful that I was allowed the time and space to experience failures from which I could recover, to develop resilience and to learn that we awaken to new truths as life unfolds. I make my living thinking deeply about how things fit together, and persevering against long odds to convey that vision to others. Most of the time, I believe those insights are less flawed than the conclusions of that seven year old who didn’t yet speak French, or the last minute papers cranked out to meet a deadline. But even when they are not, I know that it is okay to be wrong, to learn and to come to new understandings.
I never did learn how to speak French without translating it back into English in my head. Maybe I’ll work on that next year.
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