One of the double-edged swords of my personality is that I like to impress people. The biggest high I get out of life is giving someone something they never thought they’d see, whether it’s an interesting piece of writing, exceeding expectations in a competition or simply giving them a smile and laugh on a dreary day. I love being the hidden treasure that adds a bonus, however small, to someone’s day. I was this way even as a kid. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “I wanted to do unbelievable on the hearing test.”
The flip side of this is, I’m all that more insecure when it doesn’t happen. I can be incredibly proud of something, but if it’s met with indifference, I feel like I failed. And while I’m almost militantly self-motivated most of the time, I can get frustrated when I feel like I don’t reach others. Or worse, when I get the sense they won’t, and don’t, care.
For the most part, I loved school. That, and inertia, explains the 21 years I spent there. But I hated having teachers I couldn’t impress. You know the type: They expected nothing but your A-plus game every single day, and anything less made them look down upon you. And even when you did meet their stratospheric expectations, the most you could hope for was a shrug.
I suppose that approach works with some people. And I can see its virtue in military or sports training. But in the classroom, I hated it. Part of my problem was that I tested into gifted classes in second grade. Before then, I had been a straight-A student in a regular class. My first-grade class was divided into three reading groups based on ability, with 3 being the most advanced, and I started the year in Group 2. One day, my teacher pulled me aside and said, “Ian, from now on, you’re in Reading Group 3.” Yeah! Having been misdiagnosed as a slow learner at an early age, I’ll never forget one of the first times an educator made note of the opposite. My grades stayed at the top of the alphabetical order all year, and then I tested into the gifted program that summer.
I never made straight A’s again. Or even honor roll most of the time.
For the next 10 years, my success in school hinged largely on what kind of teacher I had. That mattered even more than the subject — some of my most brutal teachers made hamburger of me in my favorite subjects: reading, English, literature, history. Conversely, even a math-and-science dunce like myself could thrive with the right quirky teacher. Instructors could be likable but difficult. Or not likable but easy. Or not likable and difficult. Occasionally, they’d be both likable and just right. And like Goldilocks, I would eat that porridge up.
Near the end of my senior year in high school, my IEP (Individual Education P-something or other) mentioned one of my weaknesses as disinterest in subjects in which I didn’t excel — a revelation made less surprising by the fact that I literally told them this. I explained to my IEP adviser that, while I like to succeed in as many areas as I can, that I’m inevitably going to favor my skill set over those subjects in which I struggle. And sometimes, it was a struggle to do well even in my strongest classes, because the motivation wasn’t there. How could it be, when my drive to impress means so little in an environment where achievement is demanded?
To wit: Some of my classmates would get grounded or lose other privileges for six weeks if they got a B. A bloody B! When I was in sixth grade, that was a 94. It seemed to work for them, though more out of fear than an earnest desire to achieve. I don’t get that. I’ll never get it.
For some, success is a game. Grades are points, and you want the high score. You join as many clubs as you can, lead as many of them as you can and rack up the awards. My approach was a bit different: good-enough grades, learning all the right lessons, joining a few activities but pouring my heart and sweat into them, not burning myself out and just being as decent a person as I knew how to be. That might not mean Princeton could use a guy like Ian, but I don’t recall anyone asking me my ACT or GRE scores lately. Both schools of thought can coexist peacefully; I just wish more educators thought to tout the latter approach once in a while. At the very least, it opens the door for the kind of surprises, bonuses and positive recognition that you don’t get with the all-A-game-or-else attitude.
I’ve struggled with this ever since. It’s not so much a function of anyone else’s attitude as it is of mine. I know that it isn’t fair to expect everyone to be bowled over all the time and that I should accept that some people are going to have stratospheric, ridiculous standards. But to anyone who reads this who teaches, parents or otherwise has authority over someone else, I ask you to consider this: Everyone deserves some credit sometimes. Not to a spoiled degree, but perhaps a little. You never know how much it could spur further success or give someone the motivation to overcome struggle. My family and favorite teachers, coaches and mentors understood that. The ones who didn’t taught me that the world can be a cold, cruel, indifferent place. That’s a pretty valuable lesson in itself, I suppose. But not one that makes me want to do my best.
Also, I miss summer vacation. And field trips.