Few teachers take up space in Sarah’s mind.
There was the teacher she had three times in elementary school. She remembers her because she liked her and because she had her 3 times: Kindergarten, Second and Fourth Grades.
She remembers the freshman social studies teacher who hired her to babysit his son so she could earn the money to pay for a sports physical and join the cross country running team.
She remembers Mrs. Hall from the continuation school because she noticed a change in Sarah and took the necessary steps to make sure she got the mental health care she needed.
But Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith takes up the most space in Sarah’s memory. She was her Sixth Grade teacher and she would change the trajectory of Sarah’s life.
Mrs. Smith was a young teacher and it was her first year teaching at Sarah’s school. She was tall and thin with long, straight blond hair. Sarah was 11-years-old and her experience with Mrs. Smith still haunts her. Just thinking about it makes Sarah shrivel down into nothingness and brings tears to the corners of her eyes.
But there was cake
Sarah remembers the map contest. Sarah was part of the group that made the best South American map. It was a large map, drawn on a long stretch of butcher paper with every detail colored in. Sarah remembers the research, the collaboration and the feeling of inclusion while adding the final touches before judging. The reward was a homemade Chocolate Cake Sarah’s group ate while the rest of the students did classwork and had homework assigned.
Abraham Lincoln’s Mother
Each week the students had to write a biographical book report and read it aloud to the class. Sarah doesn’t recall any of the book reports she wrote that year, except for the one on Abraham Lincoln’s mother. Mrs. Smith always asked a question after each presentation and then assigned a grade. After this particular presentation she asked Sarah why Abraham Lincoln’s mother was famous. Sarah thought to herself, because her son was the President. She also thought it was too obvious of an answer. It can’t be right. It’s a trick question. Mrs. Smith is looking for something else. Sarah’s mind raced as she second-guessed herself. She scanned her paper for the answer. She couldn’t think. Her heart was pounding. Before she could utter a word, Mrs. Smith chimed in, “Because her son was the President. D. Sit down.”
There was a distinct tone of sarcasm and disdain in her voice. She may as well have said, “How stupid are you? Her son was the President.”
Sarah slowly walked back to her seat and sank down in shame and disappointment as she tried to ignore the murmurs and whispers from across the room.
The Birthday Suit
The second such instance took place during a lecture. At some point Mrs. Smith used the term birthday suit. Sarah had never heard the term. She didn’t know what it meant. She leaned over to the student sitting next to her and whispered, “What’s a birthday suit? Are we supposed to have one? Do you have one?” Sarah was a welfare kid being raised by a single mother. She thought there was a special suit people were supposed to wear on their birthday that her mother just couldn’t afford.
Mrs. Smith overheard the exchange and stopped dead in her tracks in front of Sarah and said, “Youuu don’t know what a birthday suit is? It’s what you’re born in. It’s when you’re naked.”
All Sarah heard was that she was stupid. Feeling ridiculed in front of the entire class, she sank down into her seat filled with shame, embarrassment and complete nothingness as all eyes were on her.
Sarah had always been a shy child. She was the nice, quiet girl who was rarely teased and was always the last to be chosen for team sports in P.E. She didn’t raise her hand to answer questions in class very often, but she didn’t have an overwhelming fear of being called upon.
Until the seventh grade.
Sarah remembers being absolutely terrified of being called on in class, or having to do anything that resembled a presentation in front of the class. For the next five years she was often sick on days she was supposed to make any kind of presentation. She thought she was just pretending to be sick, when in reality, it’s when the roots of anxiety started taking hold. It’s a miracle she finished high school at all.
As an adult taking college courses, if the syllabus included a presentation [or a group project] Sarah dropped the class. She never would earn a degree.
Out in the world, Sarah didn’t ask questions. She remembers shopping with her young daughter, talking aloud to herself, mumbling questions under her breath. Her daughter piped in, “Why don’t you just ask someone?” What a concept, huh? But Sarah can’t. She can’t ask questions.
Sarah always attributed this to being a sensitive, shy, quiet girl. People often pointed it out as a character flaw. She constantly berated herself for it; always thinking there was something wrong with her. She always remembered Abraham Lincoln’s mother but never considered it had anything to do with her issues. It wasn’t until she remembered the birthday suit and put the two pieces together that it all began to make sense to her as she felt it all over again.
That’s why she has an excruciating fear of being seen as stupid, dumb and incompetent. That’s why she has an exorbitant fear of being called on or asking questions.
Mrs. Smith made asking questions reprehensible. She deemed not knowing as shameful. She opened the tap wide, drenching Sarah with the fear and anxiety that would shame her into hiding. Mrs. Smith had no idea what impact her tone would have on the 11-year-old girl who’d been abused and lost her support system the year before.
This realization is part of the reason Sarah’s tag-line is mistaeks are mandatory. A reminder to herself that it’s okay to screw up, to not know something, to purposely do something badly. It’s okay to fail. Practice makes better. Fail more better. Yes, Fail. More. Better.
Socks for the Win
It’s why going out shopping and asking the clerk, “Where can I find socks?” is a total win for Sarah and deserving of a high-five. Could she have found them herself? Of course. It might have taken an hour in the large clothing store where everything had been rearranged, but today, today she grabbed some brave and asked for help.
Baby steps count.