Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Framed and hung in my "Mantic" is an essay I wrote when I was in third grade, entitled, "When I'm 23." I don't remember writing it, but from what I'm able to ascertain, I was asked what I'd be doing when I was 23 years old, which I assume was 15 years from the day I was asked to perform this prognostication.

In the paper, I write that I will have two cats, a goldfish, and two adopted sons. I also claimed I'd either be playing professional soccer for the (now defunct) San Diego Sockers or become an astronaut. The only thing I got right was that I wouldn't be married, and I only wrote that because I thought girls had cooties.

I've never owned a cat or a goldfish, nor do I have any intent to adopt children. Nevertheless, these are at least attainable goals. What in the world could've made me believe that I could play professional soccer (I'm one notch above completely sucking at it) or be an astronaut (no way could I handle the amount of math that would take)?

I think I know. It was that great American myth that was pounded into my head from the day I started kindergarten: You can be whatever you want when you grow up. You just have to work hard, and you can achieve anything.

Hogwash. Nonsense. Bullcrap.

We're all born with certain aptitudes. Some people get more than others. Some people win the genetic lottery and are extraordinarily gifted in an area that society prizes the most: Being able to dunk a basketball without jumping, being gifted with amazing oratory skills, being able to hit a golf ball farther than anyone else, and of course being really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

But the thing is, if you don't have the natural inclination for mathematic equations, you're not going to be the next Stephen Hawking. If you can't spell and struggle putting words in the right order, you're not going to be the next Bill Shakespeare. If you can't pick up the seams spinning on a curveball, you're not going to be the Kung Fu Panda.

Sure, you can practice all of these skills and get better at them. And when you're a kid, I suppose there's no harm in believing that the sky really is the limit (or the stars, in my case).

However, at some point, we've got to face reality. I knew full well by junior high or so that I wasn't going to be a professional athlete, at least in a sport that had already been invented. Since girls showed more interest in their jelly bracelets and hair scrunchees than talking to me, so being a famous model or actor was probably out. When I couldn't cut algebra during 8th grade and was sent back to pre-algebra, that pretty much ended any future with substantial math in it.

Sure, these things hurt. But that's part of growing up. You learn to focus on what you're good at and work hard enough to get by in the stuff that doesn't come naturally.

The problem is, there's a school of thought out there that if you ever tell a kids that they're not good at something, you're crushing their self esteem. Here's the crazy thing: In my experience, teenagers have too much self esteem, not too little. They've been told their whole lives how good they are at everything, and they've built up unreasonable expectations for themselves.

You should hear the apoplectic parent responses we get when we do something cruel and malicious, like...hold on to your hats...not recommend their kids for an honors class. To them, we're breaking their kids' hearts and crushing their spirits. To us, we're simply saying they're not good enough. And guess what? That's going to happen a lot in life.

No, you can't be whatever you want when you grow up. But that's not the end of the world. Find something you're good at, and do what makes you happy.

Unless it's something evil, like mutilating puppies or being the world's craftiest pedophile. If that's the case, please stop reading my blog, 'cause it's creepy.


Lance Christian Johnson said...

Here's the crazy thing: In my experience, teenagers have too much self esteem, not too little. They've been told their whole lives how good they are at everything, and they've built up unreasonable expectations for themselves.

But that's not really self-esteem - or at least, it's not a genuine sense of it. If you have solid self-esteem, then you can accept and love yourself in spite of the knowledge that you're not good at everything.

Natalie Wierdsma said...

You started a ferocious hunt for the one I made in fifth grade.

Some points I enjoy:

2. I will be an acress.

7. There will only be electrick cars.

The rest of them are relatively reasonable, but I was thinking about it the other day and I'm pretty sure I came to a lot of the same conclusions as you did.

dules said...

well, at least you turned out to be really, really, ridiculously good-looking.

Megan said...

I don't think your aptitude for math in middle and high school can accurately determine your aptitude to become a mathematician. Mainly because the math done at a college level, (I'm talking upperdivision and graduate level here) is completely different. It's proof based and not computationally based. One of the most intelligent and competent math/physics major I know cannot add fractions. He graduated from high school and went into the navy. After he got out, he started going to community college. He started taking college algebra. Now he's 28, a 3rd year math and physics double major, doing research in theoretical physics, and taking graduate quantum field theory and graduate differential geometry. He plans to get a PhD in mathematical physics and I have absolutely no doubts that he will fail.

I guess my point is, if you had really wanted to be an astronaut, I think you could have been.

Megan Maguire said...

Edit: Delete "I have absolutely no doubts that he will fail." Change to "I know he will succeed."