Sunday, August 17, 2014

Nothing to Prove

My first grade teacher was horrible.  I mean, I'm sure she had her good qualities, but I could tell, even at the age of six, that teaching wasn't one of them.  I also need to acknowledge that the poor woman had to deal with awkward, advanced-reader/writer me.  I know I wasn't the easiest first grader to deal with, either.

I made good grades, but she would always cut me down in conduct.  I got a poor grade in conduct on my first semester report card, which made my parents very upset with me, but to this day I don't think I deserved it.  I'm not saying I was always perfect, but I think most issues rose out of her misunderstandings, rather than my misbehavior or disobedience.  Basically, I wasn't really all that challenged in her class.  That wasn't her fault, really, but it gave rise to a lot of problems.  I'd skip ahead in writing or reading assignments, sometimes going too fast for my own good.  She seemed to think it was arrogance on my part, and maybe some of it was.  I think most of it was just that I had already been reading simple books at the age of three or four.  I was already very interested in writing my own stories when I was in kindergarten.  My parents were teachers and encouraged that.  She thought I was doing things to show her up or irritate her, when I was just doing what came naturally to me.  I loved learning.

I remember one time in particular, when things really got completely out of hand.  The class was taking turns reading out loud.  Now, reading has always come VERY easily to me, but speaking and reading aloud has NEVER come easily.  And the book we were reading was a little bit ridiculous and below my reading level.  I remember seeing the words very vividly on the page.  I'm a visual learner, and always have been, so those simple words have been ingrained on my brain forever.

"Pots and pans and pans and pots."

That's what I was supposed to read.  And I knew that's what it said.  But when it came time for me to read out loud, I got nervous.  My words got jumbled and I stuttered out, "Pans and pots and pots and pans."

My teacher immediately made a huge deal about how I read it wrong and that I needed to read it again correctly.  Well, I got extremely nervous and embarrassed and overwhelmed then, and I started crying.  I tend to still do that when I get nervous and embarrassed and overwhelmed--ain't anxiety great?  But my teacher was either oblivious to my emotional state, or she thought I was faking--or she just didn't care.  She demanded that I read it again, but I was so distraught that I couldn't even speak, let alone read out loud.  I tried.  All that came out was a few soft-spoken, jumbled sounds.

It was time for recess, and I figured I was saved by the bell, but no.  My teacher said, "You are going to stay in here with me while everyone else goes to recess.  You can't go to recess until you read this correctly, as it's written."

And even as a six year old, I knew that my teacher was making a huge deal out of something extremely unimportant.  She knew I could read those words.  She knew that it didn't matter if I got them backwards, because she knew I was probably the best reader in the class at that point.  I have no idea why she wanted to do a Mexican stand-off over something as simple as that, but apparently she was ready to fight me to the death over it.  She had something to prove.

And I'm not sure how long I sat in there with her, in the dark room (she had turned the lights off as part of my punishment--to make me feel more isolated while the other kids were out playing).  She kept telling me I had to read the words correctly, or I'd have to sit by myself for the rest of the day.  And I just kept crying, but by that point, my embarrassed, anxious tears had turned to frustrated, angry tears.

She was going to make me conform.  She was going to make me say things exactly as they were written.  And I didn't see the point.  I didn't see why it was so important to her that I do things so precisely, especially when we both knew I understood the concepts.  And even at that young age, I was incredibly stubborn.  If she was going to have a stand-off, I was going to have a stand-off.  I had something to prove, too.

I wasn't sure how long this thing went on, but it felt like an eternity.  I'll never forget how alone and misunderstood little six year old me felt as I sat in the darkness, exchanging stubborn glares with a grown woman.

She started fussing at me again.  I started crying again.  And then, out of nowhere, like a knight in shining armor, my daddy appeared in the classroom door.  The relief was tangible, like a cool breeze.  My daddy knew, somehow he knew, that I needed to be rescued.

He asked my teacher why I was all alone with her in the classroom while the rest of the class was outside.  She immediately became very sheepish, then very smug as she came up with a good cover story.  She informed my dad that I was refusing to read the words correctly.  My dad picked up the book and gently said, "She can read this.  Ruth, what does this say?"

Everything that had been impossibly difficult for me before was suddenly very easy, now that my daddy was there.  I told him, quietly, but with certainty, "It says, 'Pots and pans and pans and pots.'"

My dad looked at my teacher, still unsure of what the problem was.  My teacher just said, "There, now, Ruth, was that so hard?"

I nodded through my tears, smiling, but not for her sake.  It was because I'd been able to do something my daddy asked me to do, and the ordeal was finally over.  So I took his hand and we left.

Turns out, my dad was supposed to pick me up early that day because my family was leaving town early for a vacation.  I had forgotten, and so had my teacher.  He caught both of us off guard.

I know I cried some more and talked to my dad about what had happened during the "Great Pots and Pans Reading Standoff of 1986," but I don't remember what either of us said.  I don't remember if my parents really said anything to me about it, or if they just talked between themselves.  But I do know that when my next report card came, and I got an even LOWER conduct grade, my parents weren't upset--at least not with me.  I remember being terrified about getting that bad grade, but they didn't punish me or fuss at me or anything.  And when I was older, I asked my parents about my first grade teacher.  I learned that they had taken my side.  They agreed with me that my first grade teacher was far too hard on me, knew that I was advanced for my age, and that she probably did have a lot of issues with insecurity.

Don't we all.

I write all that not to berate a teacher I had almost three decades ago.  I'm not perfect either, and I'm sure in my time in childcare that I've caused a few kids to feel embarrassed and angry.  I know I have trouble picking my battles sometimes, too.  We all need grace, especially when dealing with children!

But I'll never forget how I felt when I was in such a dark, oppressive place, when there was no justice, when I was pressured to be something, to do something that didn't make sense to me, when everything was just WRONG--my daddy rescued me.  My daddy gave me strength when the world just brought me anxiety.  When I took his hand, everything was right and good again.

Because my teacher made me think that I had something to prove.  But my wonderful daddy already knew what I was capable of.

And I'm not naturally assertive, and I'm not naturally aggressive, and I'm not naturally full of gumption--at least not how the world sees it.  Sometimes it feels as though the world sets up some kind of stand-off against me.  It wants me to conform.  It wants me to be like it.  It wants me to do things the way it things I'm supposed to, or it's going to abandon me to darkness and isolation with the other soft-spoken, introverted, anxious people who don't matter.

Sometimes I am tempted to believe that I have something to prove.

I have to be good enough, strong enough, smart enough, pretty enough, loud enough, cool enough, talented enough.  I have to be enough.

But I'm not.

And when I lift up my eyes and see my Father standing there in the doorway, when my Father assures me that He already knows me, I realize:

I don't have anything to prove.

He's the One who comes to my defense.  He's the One who gives me the strength I need.  Through Him, I have what I need in any circumstance.  When the world is oppressive, when the world breaks my heart, He's the One who holds my hand.

I don't have to be anything.  Just His.

And He's enough.

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