What I Learned in High School (And How I Unlearned It)

I got pretty good grades in high school. Sometimes I got really good grades. I was your average A/B student. I took (and did well in) honors and advanced placement classes, and my extracurricular schedule was nicely padded with sports and clubs and all those other things that colleges like to see. I didn’t dislike school, nor did I love it. School was a necessary evil. It was a place to go in between writing and drawing and daydreaming. It was place to be told what to do and how to do it. It was like a game to me, and it was a game that I felt I generally played well.

My teachers didn’t agree.

Sure, I had those few classes that I really loved. The ones where I was involved and engaged and connected with the teachers. The classes where I wasn’t bored, where I didn’t spend my time doodling on my book covers or passing notes with my friends. The classes where I actually learned the information because I found it interesting, and not because I crammed the night before in order to regurgitate it for a test. Sadly, those classes were few and far between.

In the rest of my classes? I learned I wasn’t good enough. I learned I was a failure. Worse than that though, was that I learned I was choosing to be a failure. Because I wasn’t fitting into their box, because I wasn’t “applying” myself the way I should have, because I wasn’t getting the straight A’s that would have corresponded with my test scores. Because I. Just. Didn’t. Try. Hard. Enough.

When I think of my school report cards, I can almost see them in my head. And I don’t see the grades. I don’t even see the classes. What I see is the comments, especially the one that haunted followed me my entire school career:

“Not working up to full potential.”

My senior year, I gave up. When a particularly miserable advanced math class drove me to just drop the class altogether, the teacher left me with those same parting words, “Why are you shutting doors for yourself? Why aren’t you working to your potential?” And that was it. That was my legacy. I was the girl who didn’t work hard enough. I was the girl with wasted potential. I was the girl who, when teachers got together in that teachers’ lounge, they’d shake their heads over. “Such a shame. If only she’d apply herself.”

“Not working up to full potential.”

I let those words define me for far too long. But the problem wasn’t me. The problem wasn’t even the school. The problem was that square pegs don’t fit into round holes. Once I realized that, once I realized that I was (and still am) that proverbial square peg, something happened. Something that slowly – oh so slowly – let me shed that one thing that I had taken from school … that belief that I wasn’t good enough.

After I got married, I got a job as a cashier at a local clothing store. I showed up on time, I worked hard, I asked questions. I was quickly moved out to the floor. I was taught how to run the service desk, then the cash office. Then I became a merchandise coordinator, and a few months later a manager. Was managing a clothing store my life’s dream? No. But it taught me that I was not a failure, that I could apply myself, and that I could work up to my potential.

I started taking classes again. I started writing again, not for a grade or a class, but because I loved it. I started researching, everything, voraciously. I realized how very much I loved learning, and I realized how much capacity I had to do so. And when I became a mom? I’d never applied myself so much in my life.

I don’t feel like a failure any more. I know I have value. I know I have skills. I know I’m more than a blasted comment on a report card. Now, at 38, I feel like I can do anything I set my mind too. I approach each new opportunity eagerly, with excitement, and ready to jump in with both feet. It took me a long time to get here, to be sure, but it’s something I see in my kids right now, at 4, 8, 11, and 15. I thank God every day that they’re not going to have to waste half their lives unlearning the message of their failure, and learning the message of their worth.

Because they already know.

They already know the power of learning on their own terms.

They already know that they’re good enough.

They already know that they can do anything they put their minds to.

They already know that their “potential” is not determined by a teacher, or a school, or a curriculum, but by themselves.

They already know that a square peg doesn’t feel bad about not fitting into a round hole. A square peg simply finds another hole … or better yet, it makes one of its own.

~ Jen

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