My daughter recently completed a school assessment, and I was shocked by her answers. “Can you count for me?” In response, my five-year-old daughter, who regularly counts to 50 with her mother, counts to 12 and halts, stating she cannot go further. I begin questioning how I failed her by stressing that her “thirteen sounds like her fourteen.” I thought I was helping clarify her pronunciation, but actually, I was prompting her hesitation and, ultimately, her lack of confidence. How could a school psychology student with my history of academic mediocrity inspire such diffidence in my daughter?
In the military, we called what I did a warm fuzzy followed by a cold prickly. My daughter was progressing faster than her classmates, and I wanted perfection. I let my insecurities influence how I responded to her demur answer. Considering how I inspired such doubt in my child reminded me of watching my step-father return drunk after a week, rip my mother’s purse from her clutching hands, kicking and pushing her to the ground. I remember thinking my father would make things right while I watched this frightening man empty the contents of mom’s purse and take our last dollar. Later that day, I remember the momentary relief when my father told me he was coming and would be there in a few days. Sadly, such a rescue never happened; the error of a careless truck driver ended my father’s life a few miles from our location. That’s where I think fear and insecurity took hold. Doubt grew when my uncle, a giant of a man, died in a motorcycle accident a year later. In the space my perceived guardians once resided, fear became an unwelcome and long-term companion. Fear ensured few things captured my enthusiast. I lost interest in school, sports, or anything which required a long-term commitment.
The apprehensive nature I approached anything perceived consequential was evident to most and made me susceptible to bullying. Even those I considered friends would at times demote me to some emblematic lower level than themselves. Once in high school, I was asked if I wanted a ride in a friend’s new “ladies magnet.” Thinking he was facetious, I responded that I had read women preferred men who upgraded to an Altima. It was a poor attempt at a witty quip regarding his new stock Nissan Sentra, but I did not expect the scornful response. He glared and responded that I “would never own a car so nice.” The doubts grown from such comments did not make me different; if anything, I held the insecurities of most teens, which made me average and often less than average academically.
Admittedly, I never really tried in High School, and my academic record reflects far below the grade point average of even a mediocre student. For much of my life, my father and uncle’s deaths left me feeling moments with those I loved were far more valuable than anything I could have learned in school. I remember when I stopped being competitive or passionate about grades and grew into an unhealthy teenage codependent. Like many, my passion became my relationships with others; intense and sacrificial love became my modus operandi. I loved those who validated me with an intensity that easily could have been murderous as a young adult. I would have killed and died for those who cared for me. I am not trying to make excuses for my lack of academic performance, but I was like many kids whose focus wasn’t education. It was a foolish and emotionally immature outlook that dramatically affected my future.
I joined the U.S. Force when I became sure I was too noncommital to study without a boot on my neck. Over time, many beautiful mentors slowly challenged my presumptions, and I garnered a love of learning. I am a regular guy, a mediocre character whose circumstances altered my perspective and consequently the way I was perceived. I am not implying that doubt would have changed my score on a cognitive functions test, but that fear altered who I considered myself and who I thought was possible. I am nearly fifty years old, and I long to scream that I have lived worldwide, attended nine different higher education institutions, and garnered more than five pretty diplomas as if such accomplishments make me somehow worthy. Insecurity can lead us by the nose and limit our potential as it can likewise drive the socially inept at achieving post-doctoral degrees.
I am sure stories like mine are commonplace, but ‘common’ has a description I still long to overcome. My ability to compose an intelligible literary piece is not good, but my friends pretend they are interested, and I revel in the attention. I want to be a good writer; I want to spin riveting tales of intrigue and capture others’ interest, but my skill rarely matches my ambition. I make numerous mistakes, embarrassingly sometimes the same error over and over. Still, eventually, my determination has allowed me a modicum of success. I am mediocre but insecure enough to seek the approval of others doggedly.
In the education psychology world, a student’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test score is often described as the top speed they can ‘intellectually’ circle a racetrack. The higher the IQ, the faster the student can navigate a problem, subject, or around the hypothetical track. Children with high scores can comprehend processes or glean necessary more quickly than the average student. My wife, whose circumstances left her without any degrees, would surely lap many with higher educations, including myself. She picks up languages like I might pick up my socks under her glare, yet it is I with the pretty diplomas. She, too, was one of the multitudes that slipped through the cracks.
Life places unseen parameters which can limit our potential, and part of my goal as a school psychologist is to help students identify and overcome those perceived parameters. It is also hoping that we can move away from relegating ourselves and others to a purgatory of unrealistic ideals. All behavior is communication, and people whose experiences leave them non-committal are not lazy or fools but need help and understanding. Those whose financial situations leave them without means to strive must get the educational opportunity to thrive. We cannot be sure what child left behind might be the next great mind. We must unshackle those constrained minds and set them free to help us progress in a world more equitable and nurturing.