I loved to read as a child. My imagination was average; however, I managed to enjoy books for children my age and get inspired by them for when time came to play.
Despite that, for the longest time, I didn’t think about literary symbols. I didn’t worry about the significance of themes. Jokes with any kind of undertone escaped my notice.
I suppose it’s a consequence of maturing that I gradually began to appreciate and understand these concepts. Or maybe I really was just a dolt.
When I surf the Internet casually these days, I see that kids (aka, anyone younger than 18 as of this post) have taken up the habit of treating music and other works of art with the “theory” treatment. Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, before denounced as “extra” and goofy by parents, now receive deep analysis from teens.
Perhaps it’s nothing new. Teenagers have ushered in new trends time immemorial. But I certainly didn’t expect, as a middle schooler testing for Advanced Language Arts, to be subjected to the rigors of profound literary critique.
It just wasn’t something I did.
The room was dark. All I could hear was the scratching of my No. 2 pencil into the paper on the dimly lit desk before me, and occasionally the breathing of my test proctor. I would look up from time to time to see if she was still there in the corner, on the chair. Yep, she was. If it weren’t for the chair, she’d have blended right in with the dismal walls, the dismal everything.
It’s not that I didn’t want her to be there. It was that I didn’t want to be there.
I held it together okay until she asked me if I could answer some questions verbally—she was going to ask me about “analogies.” I smiled and said, “sure.”
And what were analogies, exactly?
Apparently, she wanted to know how a duck is like a spoon, and how a computer is like a picture. Nonsense like that. She asked me about ten of these comparisons, and I answered as confidently as I could, not-so-secretly sweating. But her expression never changed from one of professional nonchalance.
It was a few days later, after I left the Advanced Language Arts test and the emotionless lady behind, that I found out I failed by three points.
Now, my parents have never judged me by my academic ability or intellectual prowess. But in that moment, I felt small and incapable. Those three points meant more than any homemade dinner my mom could make, more than any quality time spent with my dad playing sports. Nothing measured up to success.
Normally, this wouldn’t bother me. I’ve worked hard to not let the competition get under my skin. Maybe it’s my generation, spoiled in many ways and disadvantaged in plenty others, that forces me to desire unattainable goals. I get it, I won’t always get the blue ribbon.
My heart lies with the underdogs, the trampled-on. I’m one of them. I could never keep up in Gym, so I looked for mental stimulation, but I failed to meet the mark there, too.
People tell me I’m intelligent, and that I just can’t take a compliment. I have taken that into consideration, but I also know results. What you may not know about me is that I’m equal parts logical as I am emotional, though I seem more readily able to cry than digest a research paper and spit out concise data about its findings. My logic is serviceable, but it doesn’t get the job done.
When I got the news of my test failure, I felt ready to vomit. My mind whirred, and followed in the thought pattern of Marlin Brando: “You coulda been a contender. You coulda been somebody.”
I wanted to be like the cool kids. The smart kids. But instead I was stuck in The System™, and I was neither smart nor dumb, but an in-betweener. And that was worse. When you’re one of those, you’re nobody. You mean nothing to no one—or so I thought. I was crushed. All because of Mad Hatter-style riddles.
English never caused me problems as a younger child, in elementary school. But I was never a member of the elite group of students that analyzed books with finesse as fourth graders. I only achieved membership of the advanced spelling group.
I guess it only made sense that now, as a seventh grader, I was still underperforming, and got lumped in with the usual average joes.
Similarly, at that time, I was barely making it through my grade-level math class and my teacher didn’t have much confidence in me. She had her favorites, and I was not one of them. The year prior, the math classes on our academic “team” had been divided up into what amounted to “advanced” and “regular” and I too barely eked out an existence in ‘normal’ sixth grade math there.
But let’s fast forward to the end of eighth grade. I had spent an entire year on beginning algebra and weaving my way through complicated (to me) math mazes. I came in early to school to study and get my grade up from first a D, to then a C. I think by the end of the year I had a low B.
I don’t remember how the conversation got started with my teacher, but somehow he mentioned to me, “You know, you worked really hard this year. I don’t see why you can’t skip straight to sophomore math next year.”
At that point I almost cried. I actually may have.
In contrast, my Language Arts teacher merely signed a sheet stating I could be a part of Honors English the upcoming year, and made no comment.
Achieving the status of an advanced student in that subject then started to have no weight and significance—until I actually got to the classes. But I’ll talk about that in a moment.
Learning hands-on is more for me than analysis by paralysis. Meaning, of course, I don’t want to be stuck in a desk all day sending out emails and commanding people and directing the ship. Conducting research sounds fun but only because as young students we learned to associate science with intelligence and monetary gain.
We all know society functions on times tables and schedules. We are strict in our application of rules, and we are unforgiving in the way we crush non-conforming thought. I don’t see myself as too much of a zealot or hippie, but I view myself as unique and needing a different, gentler approach than the one typically handed out by research institutions and corporations that run their employees into the ground with taxing work hours.
I believe my math teacher’s positive affirmation of my efforts helped me to believe in myself, and fostered a belief that I could achieve results. I then spent my high school years in math classes studying hard: not only because I had an extra challenge, but because I knew I could succeed if I kept going and got myself stuck in, as the English say.
On the other hand, no one was guiding me in the study of English. The transfer of knowledge was a coldly-delivered process. And yet, it remained challenging enough that it held my interest for four years and beyond.
At this point, my experience with these two subjects starts to diverge.
In my sophomore year of high school, I took Algebra II. At one point, I cried in front of my teacher because I received a D on a test and I really needed at least a B. I always knew Mr. LeRoy* was a bit of a snake-oil salesman, trying to sell his personality to sell the subject. But two things happened that really made me disappointed in him, and thus even more discouraged in my ability in math as a whole.
After I bawled in his classroom, snotty and raw, Mr. LeRoy told me, “It’s just a D. There’ll be other tests.” Well, yes. But understanding the material was important to me. To me, getting a good grade showed I understood the material, because most of the time I either understood math completely or not at all. And at that time, my grade was poor.
He didn’t reach out a hand to help me up when I’d fallen.
And then, when the time came to sign up for classes for junior year, I asked if I could take trigonometry. He replied, “You don’t really like math, do you? I don’t think it would be a good fit. Take College Algebra instead.”
College Algebra was a remedial class.
Mr. LeRoy didn’t believe in my ability to succeed. I liked math when I understood how it worked. I had achieved a lot in middle school, working to learn how to learn. But my impression of math again changed due to his reactions, and thereafter I no longer worked as hard.
To finish up: With English, however, challenges appeared constantly. And no one ever told me I didn’t have any talent, or diminished my abilities (though they didn’t praise them, either), so I kept trying. I only ever got one B in all of high school in advanced classes of this type.
In those classes, the students in comparison to me often had higher intelligence, but we all became equal in the eyes of the teacher when it came to grading. These classes, despite being steeped in theory and the abstract, most reflected real life. And due to that, we achieved more. Ever since, too, I’ve had an interest in critical thinking and perfecting my ability to wield the written word.
I became less perfectionist, and even though I still get the heebie-jeebies when trying to read a novel, I’m determined to stick it out. I won’t let a theme go unexplored, or a turn of phrase unappreciated.
Books are our lives. They catalog human experience, they enrich us.
We can’t afford not to turn them over and upside down, especially if that’s what they do to our minds in order to expand them.
(Preview photo credit: @charlfolscher on Instagram)