Why Do We Teach Kids Mediocrity?

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Summer, regretfully, is over. Students all over the country are heading back to school, and here in Iowa, I had lunch today with two lovely young ladies, one of which is starting high school tomorrow. 

At some point during that lunch, I suddenly flashed back to a number of scenes from my own high school. I’m not sure why - maybe it was listening to her worry about the upcoming year; maybe it’s because my 20th reunion is approaching; maybe it’s because I now mostly teach kids fresh from that phase of life. Whatever the reason, a set of memories came rushing back, linked by a theme I had never realized before. 

Someday I will write about the many positives of my secondary school experience. Today is not that day. 

Today, I remembered all of the times educators taught me to be mediocre. 

The first memory was actually from junior high, that transition ground between middle school, which still has the easygoing air of elementary school, and the growing anxiety about academics and grades that was promised in high school. 7th grade was the first time we had to pick a language, and the nerds among us chose Latin. I suddenly remembered my Latin teacher, the sweetest and most docile woman you’ve ever met, who was (maybe because of that temperament) utterly tortured by my classmates. People climbed out of the window while she diligently scrawled at the whiteboard. People threw textbooks across the room at other students while she wasn’t looking. People roughhoused each other during group activities, knocking over people’s desks. Ok, fine, boys did all of that. We girls passed enough tiny folded notes in class to fill an entire shopping bag. I still have that bag of notes at home - I can show you. 

Anyway, after a suitable amount of throwing things and some learning, our teacher told us that we would all take the National Latin Exam in the spring, which compared our progress to the rest of the country. If we did well, we might even get a silver medal, she told us proudly, just like some of our predecessors had! Someone (I think it was me) asked the obvious question … what did it take to get a gold medal? I can’t be sure who it was, but I sure do remember her response, “Oh honey. Don’t worry about that. No one gets a gold medal this first year.” 

And yet, two of us did. I don’t know if Kevin felt vindicated, but I sure did. And you know what? Starting the year after us, gold medals became a matter of course. In college, I met people from top high schools who told me that gold medals were virtually expected. I wondered if there was a Latin translation for my thought: “From those from whom much is expected, much can be expected.” (Latin nerds reading this, feel free to weigh in). 

This pattern repeated itself multiple times. Sometimes, the low expectations were for all of us, and sometimes a teacher’s low opinion was painfully targeted. 8th grade English was a case of the latter. I was so quiet as to be almost invisible, and my teacher never acknowledged me in class — except when I wore a pink corduroy button-down shirt and matching scrunchie from the Limited Too (the premier tween brand at the time). “Aren’t you just so cute in that shirt!” she would coo. “I love it when you wear that.” It was my favorite outfit too, but I grew so apprehensive of her comments that I stopped wearing it. After going on to high school, I came back to visit and mentioned that I had gotten a very disappointing B+ on a recent English paper. She looked at me and said (in all seriousness), “Well, at least you’re cute!” I can’t remember what I said back, but I remember how little I felt at the time. 

I didn’t know at the time that what I wanted her to say was that she believed in me, that she thought I could excel in high school, that I had the ability and creativity and discipline to do well. That she was glad I was holding myself up to a high standard. That disappointing grades are just an opportunity for me to examine how I could do better or ask for help or rethink what I wanted to get out of the class. I didn’t know what I needed at the time, but a reminder about my pink scrunchie sure as hell wasn’t it. 

This push towards safety got even worse in high school. My high school counselor, a gentle soft-spoken man, used every one of the few meetings we had to push Kalamazoo College, which had brought him up there for a recruiting trip or something. Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo, every time. In our last meeting, I finally ventured my application list, which included Harvard, Yale, Princeton and a number of backups (I wasn’t dumb). He seemed alarmed. “Those schools are very, very, very hard to get into.” No shit, Sherlock, I should have said. It’s what I was thinking. 

When it was clear that a number of us had applied to Harvard early, everyone treated us as gladiators who would have to fight to the death for the chance to go. Because so few people in our school’s history had ever gotten in, everyone waited to see which one of us would be the lone survivor. The day the letters arrived, Jason opened his first and called someone at the school. The news spread like wildfire. The rest of the day, staff, teachers, and students all gave me consoling looks. “I’m so sorry, Juliana!” they said. I nodded, numbly. I went home later and, with my brother, quietly opened my acceptance letter, leaving it on the kitchen table so that my parents could see it when they got home. 

It didn’t stop there. When it became clear that three of us had gotten in, I became a curiosity. I remember one teacher (not mine) coming up to me in the hallway and asking me what was so special about me. I’ve always found that question particularly insulting: “what makes you so special?” I’ve only had it leveled against me one other time, during a first-round interview with a female tax partner at a prestigious New York law firm. I walked into the interview room and sat down and she asked me just that. I put on my best alpha male impression and listed all of the honors she could plainly see on my resume. She seemed pleased and passed me on to the next level. Fine; in the dog-eat-dog world of BigLaw, you can use that question to see if your applicant has big enough balls to survive. Doesn’t make you any less of an asshole, but as law firm interviews go, it’s pretty tame (I have some pretty amazing stories from friends - just inquire). However, in high school, pulling a young student aside to question whether she has enough “special” qualities says more about you than it does about her. I see that now. 

One consolation for those of us who dared to excel was that, time after time, we saw that we changed the atmosphere around us. After my year, Ivy League acceptances became more frequent. We had magically become a public school that got people in. The funny thing is that nothing had actually changed … except people’s beliefs about what was possible. 

I’ve tried to put myself in the shoes of those counselors and teachers, and I get where they’re coming from. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of a competitive world, of how kids might react to rejection, of our school not measuring up, of how to motivate students to do challenging things. But none of those fears are valid excuses. We do not teach kids to thrive by protecting them from competition and rejection. We teach them to thrive by encouraging them to try, and supporting them as they learn from adverse outcomes. Who knows, they might even do great! Imagine that.

I don’t write all of this because I think I was permanently damaged (though I was pretty pissed at the time). Luckily, I had something inside of me that knew that I could achieve even unlikely things, and that it was worth shooting for them. And I did. 

But now as an educator, I am pissed again. What about those who didn’t have any confidence in themselves? Who didn’t have anyone in their lives telling them that setbacks are temporary and not defining moments? Who were surrounded by people telling them not to bother dreaming? I’m pissed for them. Because what I learned in high school is that the path to achievement starts with the belief that it can be done. And it is our job, those of us who work with kids, us teachers and coaches and mentors and friends and relatives and parents, to uphold that belief until kids can hold it up themselves. 

We need to stop this. We need to stop teaching kids to be mediocre. We need to not fear rejection and failure and big goals ourselves so that we can model the same for our students. We need to learn resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks so we can model the same for them. We need to believe in them even when they don’t believe in themselves. 

They’ll do the rest, and more importantly, they’ll pull others up with them. That’s when we know we’ve done our job.