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Full of Myself

Writer Lee Martin recently posted “Looking Back on the Follies of Youth” on his blog. He challenged the reader to do the same, examining something from the past through the eyes of the child at the time and the adults we’ve become. So I turned the microscope on myself.

I have gotten very comfortable, smug even, in my role as a 58-year-old tutor of high school students. I raised three boys and am a grandmother. I was a straight “A” student; my sons were not. I am ashamed to admit that I’m a know-it-all. I’ve seen it all: just ask me.

Every now and then, I sit across the table from a student, working pleasantly with him or her but thinking “Aren’t we full of ourselves?” Such a student has an aura about her that the expensive tutoring her parents have paid for is unnecessary and inconvenient. That I’m bothering her with my expertise gained through three college degrees, eight books, 38 years either attending or teaching at universities, and hundreds of articles published.

My first published piece was a poem, written when I was in third grade. It appeared in a national children’s publication called Golden Magazine. Riding on my early success, I then wrote my autobiography at the age of 12.

My mother said no one would buy it because I hadn’t done anything important yet.

Harsh words? Yes. Typical of my mother? Don’t get me started. But she taught me early about rejection, about criticism. However, my mother’s denigrating remarks were because she had high (and in all humility, not unrealistic) expectations of me. She was trying to challenge me to achieve my best. I understand that now; I didn’t understand that when I was a pre-teen, teenager, or 20-something. All I understood was that I was never good enough.

Then I became a mother. I had watched my siblings and in-laws with their kids and realized there are many ways to convey your expectations to your children. One way is my mother’s. I tried to avoid that. A sister-in-law told me about something she’d read in which some expert said to focus on how the child feels about something, then go from there. Other parents heap praise on their children for every accomplishment, every action, every “participation” trophy.

I think it is this last situation that creates children who end up with over-inflated ideas of their self-worth and their contributions to society. Many of my students take advanced placement and honors courses, but can’t take a given punctuation example and then apply that to another similar question.

So, as I have watched the students who think they know it all, I have thought how haughty people can seem. As if they’re all powerful. Then I am reminded of an incident in high school when my best friend had a difference of opinion with our chemistry teacher, who was the advisor of the school newspaper, Maroon Reflections. I’ve long forgotten what the disagreement was about. What I do remember, with some embarrassment, is how my friend, two other girls who were on staff of the paper, and I marched into the Chemistry Department office and confronted the teacher. The teacher looked at the four of us and said calmly, “Is this discussion between you and me, or do we need a whole army?” My friend said it was just the two of them, really, and glanced at the other three of us. Here’s my shining moment: as we filed out, I turned and said to my friend, “We’ll be right outside. Let us know if you need us.”

What did I think was going to happen? A fist fight? By the time this teacher could have gotten out of her chair, my friend could have run to the next county. But the bigger thing is that this was a teacher we all liked. I don’t think I ever heard her raise her voice. In retrospect, I think I just wanted to act important, “too big for my britches,” as my grandmother used to say. Maybe I wanted fodder for my autobiography.

So I sit with my students now and remind myself that the mission of most teenagers is to find purpose, to find worth. My job is to help them develop that sense of genuine worth. As a mother and a teacher, my responsibility is to give them roots and wings. Their responsibility is to flex those wings and soar.

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