Monday, September 30, 2013

Teaching the Truth

Last week I started a second round of Life Writing classes. Our first homework assignment was to write something about high school. While writing the following story, I kept in mind that my number-one goal in writing about my life, whether I'm doing it here on this blog or in the classroom, is to leave something behind so my descendants, should they choose to do so, can learn through my own words what kind of a person I am/was. Maybe they'll find some traits they can relate to--either good traits or bad ones.

The following is what I read to the class today:


From first grade through high school, I nearly always forged a stronger bond with my teacher than with any of the other students in the classroom. I liked the other kids just fine, but the teachers were the ones who interested me. They knew all the things I wanted to know, and they shared thoughts and ideas that I could keep in my head to pull out later and mull over at my leisure.

My Senior English teacher, Mary Wheeler, might have been the best of the bunch. She was sharp, funny, and observant. Nothing got past her. She was also determined to teach us more than language and literature. She wanted us to learn to think for ourselves, to develop the skills we’d need in the world outside the classroom. She treated us as individuals, and she taught each of us a lot about ourselves.

We read Shakespeare’s MacBeth in Mrs. Wheeler’s class. I hated it. Our discussions were interesting, but the reading of the play itself was boring beyond measure. For days we spent that classroom hour taking turns reading aloud, each voice a different monotone reading words with no regard for the meaning behind them. I had trouble staying awake.

Eventually it was my turn to read, and, in a bit of serendipity, it was time for the witches. Shaking off the sleepiness, I began to read in my best impersonation of a witch’s voice, building up steam as I came to the part about “double, double toil and trouble; fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” I don’t know what my classmates thought about my dramatic interpretation, but I can tell you this much:  they were all awake. And Mrs. Wheeler was grinning.

In a classroom discussion later that year, Mrs. Wheeler asked for a volunteer to define the term “non-conformist.” One student raised his hand and suggested that a non-conformist was a beatnik. “A beatnik could be a non-conformist,” Mrs. Wheeler replied, “but all non-conformists aren’t beatniks, so that definition is too limiting.” Gesturing toward me, she continued: “Linda is as much of a non-conformist as anyone I know, but she certainly isn’t a beatnik.” I was stunned. I looked like the other students, dressed like them, and did my best to fit in, but deep inside I knew I was different. It was mostly a matter of being interested in different things than they were, but I didn’t think they knew that. It was shocking to learn that the uncomfortable differences I felt were obvious to someone else.

One day near the end of senior year, class rankings were announced on the P.A. system and posted on the bulletin board minutes before the bell rang for English class. Naturally, that’s what everybody wanted to talk about as we made our way to our seats. “Where were you on the list?” the boy at the desk next to mine inquired.

“Third,” I said.

“No, you weren’t,” he retorted, “Skipper was third.”

“Skipper was ninth,” I snapped, irritated. “He was the highest ranking boy.”

Mrs. Wheeler leaned in close to me and whispered, “I wouldn’t brag about being third if I were you. You should have been first by a long stretch.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.

“Never mind,” she responded, shaking her head as she walked back toward her desk. “I’ve already said more than I should have.”

That was the first time I’d ever been confronted with what I now know to be an unbecoming truth: I’m an underachiever. Always have been, probably always will be. I’ve been fortunate in that many things have come easily to me. I apparently learned at an early age that I could coast through most situations without expending a great deal of effort, yet when life has presented difficult challenges, I’ve been quick to back off, surrender, move on to something easier. People say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well, I get going, too. If you want to know where I go, pull out your street map and locate the intersection of Easy Way and Path of Least Resistance.

Mrs. Wheeler may have believed I could work on that particular character flaw if she called my attention to it. I’m glad she doesn’t know that things haven’t changed much in all the years since then. She’d certainly be disappointed. I’m not proud of it myself.


It occurred to me after I wrote this that the part about knowing I was different probably had more to do with my introverted nature than with anything else. In hindsight I'm sure there must have been lots of other students who felt the same way I did, but it's sometimes hard for us introverts to find each other. Each of us is too busy maintaining and preserving our own, individual block of personal space. The extroverts, on the other hand, put their personalities out there for anybody and everybody to see, so I knew them better, and they were the ones to whom I compared myself. As much as I liked them, I knew I was not like them. Now that I understand what that was all about, a do-over might be nice.


  1. Do you think part of your willingness to take the easier way when pressed has anything to do with the era we worked in? Women in the workplace weren't and still aren't completely supported. I know that I personally felt that I held back on the full power of my abilities at times because I knew it would make the men around me uncomfortable and insecure and I didn't want to rock the boat. It was easier to accommodate.

    1. Annette, the lack of support in the workplace no doubt contributed to it, but I think the pattern was set well before then. My mother was a factor in it, which is a whole other blog post, and, now that I think about it, my grandmother was, too. Hm. Maybe I will write a post about all that. I suspect they weren't the only women of their day who had that mindset.


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