My third grade teacher told me I was retarded… and sadly I believed her. My dad had been in the Air Force which took us to Dayton Ohio. When I was just shy of 8 years old we moved back to Utah and were living in an apartment while waiting for our house to be built. I was the new girl in school and it was understood that I would only be there a short time, the plan being that I would transfer once our house was finished. Already feeling uncertain and shy, this was a devastating blow to my self-esteem as a young girl. Although my time there was brief it obviously had a profound affect on me. I did get over it, I haven’t thought about it in years, but for some reason it came to the forefront of my mind today. After some introspection I think I’ve figured out why.
I’ve decided that we are too quick to accept the negative things that people might say, or that we might believe of ourselves instead of embracing the positive within us. It is so much easier to believe that we are flawed or damaged than it is to realize and accept our true potential. When we make mistakes or have a bad day we automatically internalize it with the belief that we committed an error and so therefore we are bad. This is faulty thinking; we all know it cognitively so why can’t we accept it emotionally and spiritually?
The afternoon in question where I decided to believe that I was “retarded” began with an art project. We were given construction paper and told to rip it into pieces to make abstract shapes and colors in whatever pattern we saw fit. I worked hard on mine but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not artistic by any means. The most creative I get is with my music and I’m pretty sure it’s because the fundamentals of music come from manipulating numbers and then adding emotion. Try as I might, I can’t seem to translate that to any other art form. My “abstract” torn paper art looked like a sailboat adrift at sea to me, but apparently it resembled something closer to big blobs of paper and glue that made no sense to the “artistic eye” of the teacher.
Each of us was called to the front of the class to display our work and the teacher would then critique it aloud in front of the class. Don’t get me started on that soap box; I’m sure you can imagine my thoughts on the public shaming of children. (In case you need me to spell it out, I HATE IT! If anyone; and I mean ANYONE did something like this to either of my sons, especially my oldest who has Asperger’s, momma bear would be out with her claws at the ready!) Oops, got on the box anyway…
Most of the students got the reaction that you would think a typical 3rd grade teacher would give; praise no matter how deplorable it really looked. After all, this was 3rd grade where seeing how much glue you could squeeze onto your project was the name of the game. My turn came up and with pride I held my project aloft, glue dripping, sailboat sinking, torn approximation of waves falling off and all. I really thought I had done my best so imagine how my little 7-year-old heart broke when the teacher proclaimed to the entire class, “That is terrible, are you retarded or something? Christina, I really think that you could have done better. I really think there is something wrong with you. You weren’t smart enough to do this right.” For a minute my little girl mind thought she might be teasing me, but when I glanced back at her face I actually saw hatred in her eyes. I’d never seen such a thing from a teacher before. I was a model student and was never one to make trouble.
I guess I will never know why she felt the way she did or why she saw fit to shame me so thoroughly in front of the class. It doesn’t matter because that day I internalized what she said and hung my head trying to hide my burning blush. There were a few students after me I think, I’m not sure because the only thing I really remember was holding back tears while I let the knowledge that she thought something was wrong with me settle in. On the walk home I decided that I wouldn’t even tell my parents what happened. I was absolutely sure that if I told them what my teacher said they would be so disappointed in me. I’m not really sure why I believed this, I just know that what my teacher had said about me and the thought that I was stupid wedged itself deep into my spirit until I had accepted that it was the truth and nothing was going to change that.
Thankfully in the sixth grade I had a wonderful teacher, Mr. Laney, who saw that I needed someone who believed in me. I will never forget the day he pulled me aside after school and asked me how I felt about the work I was doing. Afraid that I was going to be reminded of how fundamentally flawed I was, I carefully responded that I was doing the best I could but that sometimes I just felt stupid. He frowned at me and said, “Why in the world would you think that? Do you realize that you are tied for the top performing student in my class?” I’m sure my eyebrows disappeared into my hairline at that comment. My parents had always offered positive reinforcement but let’s not forget that I never told them what that teacher had said and for some reason my little ego decided to believe her over my parents. Mr. Laney then asked if I would like to try some accelerated learning tracks he was going to start for math and reading. I would be one of 5 students who were invited to participate. This wonderful teacher transformed my life in that moment. It took most of that year and lots of positive reinforcement on his part to finally internalize what he had said about me. I was smart, very smart, so smart that he eventually told me he could hardly keep up with the type of curriculum I would need.
This led to a scholastic career that involved several accelerated tracks. Sadly the far-reaching effects of that third grade teacher took their toll when in high school I became your classic “over achiever” but that is another story which I’ve already shared. My point is as I stated before. Why is it so easy to take in and internalize the negative beliefs that we have about ourselves? Do we not realize that we are sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father whose love for us never diminishes even in the face of our gravest mistakes or sins?
You are probably wondering, as I was, why I’ve been thinking over these events from my childhood. I’ve obviously gotten over them, or have I? I think this is something that we all struggle with from time to time depending on our circumstances. After a good deal of reflection I realized that I’m struggling with the thought that my illness somehow makes me “less”. I’m less able to care for myself. I’m less able to care for my family. I’m less able to be a good friend, daughter, sister, wife, mother, neighbor… you name it I feel “less”. I’m struggling not to internalize what is going on with my body as part of my internal makeup as a person. I don’t want it to define who I am. I feel like that scared and heartbroken little 7-year-old girl all over again internalizing a lie set forth by a teacher who probably had her own issues to deal with. I don’t want to be characterized by what is happening to my body. My sweet friend sent me this quote the other day.
“Do not confuse physical vibrance with spiritual vitality. You are not your body. Your body is simply a tool. A magnificent tool, for sure, but nothing more than that. As with all tools, your body will from time to time need repair. And one day it will wear down completely. Your soul will do neither. Not now, not ever. Listen, therefore, to the whispers of the soul, not the cries of the body.”
Neil Donald Walsh
This is how I hope to approach life, no longer permitting my identity to be about what others may say, my struggles with health, or my own faulty thinking. These things don’t make me “less” than who I really am. I want to be remembered as a kind, loving woman who loved God and tried her very best to do what was right. I might not always come through my trials gracefully. In fact I’m pretty sure that there are days when my “crazy” is out on display for all to see. However, I know that my heart is in the right place and so does my Father in Heaven. We are not defined by our diseases; we are not the sum of our mistakes; we are not what “so and so” says we are unless we choose to accept that belief as our own. Rather, we are a wondrous creation, even if at times it doesn’t feel like it. We are, if we so choose to believe, the sum of all of the good that we do and accomplish. Instead of saying, “Oh today was an epic FAIL…” let’s focus on what we did right, no matter how great or small. Each victory should be celebrated. Yesterday I took my kids to the park even though every step was painful and all I wanted to do was curl up in the wood chips and sleep. I think I’ll choose to say that, “Walking the kids to the park, epic WIN!” I am not retarded or stupid and I am not defined by my chronic illness. Yesterday, at least, I was a mom who took the time to get her kids to the park, GO ME!