Increasing awareness of my own mortality has me looking back at moments in my past, and lessons that were taught, but not learned until years later. My third grade teacher (we’ll call her “Mrs. Y”, because she definitely got a lot of “why” from me) taught me two of those lessons, though I didn’t quite grasp them as a nine-year-old.
Third grade is the year I was put in the gifted class in our new school. I had always known I was quicker to catch on in school than my classmates, but now I had proof that I was smart. This coincided with another big event in my elementary school career: my first non-A grade. It was the most “non-A” you can get, in fact. I can’t remember which came first; I want to say I ended up in the gifted class because they felt I wasn’t being challenged enough, but it could just as easily have been the other way around. The worst part of the failing grade, though, is that it was in spelling, which was one of my best subjects at the time.
How does a gifted child who taught herself to read at four years old suddenly become a failing student? I stopped trying. I didn’t need to study the spelling words, I already knew how to spell them all, and I could ace any spelling test. I didn’t see the point of writing the words over and over, so I just didn’t do it. Mrs. Y could have just let it slide. I had a French teacher who actually put me in independent study when I didn’t do my homework, so that I could work at my own pace and just take the tests. But not Mrs. Y. She just kept giving me zeroes when I didn’t do the work.
Mrs. Y also had a tradition of giving a book to each of her students at the end of the year. As she was handing out Babysitter’s Club books and other preteen “fun” stories, I was getting more and more excited as my turn came. And then she handed me a copy of Little Women. To this day, I feel bad about my reaction. I was absolutely crestfallen, and she saw it in my face. She tried everything she could to cheer me up, explaining how it was a more “grown up” book, and how much she loved it when she was a girl, but all I saw was how different I was from the other girls, and now even my teacher was confirming it. I ended the school year wondering why my teacher hated me, and thinking maybe the book was punishment for not writing my spelling words.
Of course, I read the book over the summer, loved it, and went on to read other “grown up” books long before I probably would have otherwise. And I learned that sometimes what we want and what’s best for us aren’t necessarily the same things.
The other lesson took a lot longer to learn, and I’m still not fully versed in it. It lies in the awful, monotonous, repetitive rewrites of those spelling words: talent and intellect mean nothing if you’re not willing to do a little bit of work, even if the only reason seems to be “because I said so.” My mother called it “playing the game”, a former boss called it “being easy to work with”. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do, for no reason other than because you have to do them.
So, thank you, Mrs. Y. You understood that awkward, obnoxious, too-smart-for-her-own-good nine year old a lot better than she gave you credit for.