Inequity in optimism distribution

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Some books make my rational side happy. Some books make my emotional side happy. Some books make neither side happy. And then there’s Paul Tough’s lastest book, Helping Children Succeed, a compilation of the latest neuroscience research on 1) why certain students who grow up with hardships succeed and 2) how those findings can be used to improve education for all at-risk children.

The entire book is available online for free. Here’s an excerpt:

Farrington concluded from the research that the key factor behind academic perseverance was students’ academic mindset — the attitudes and self-perceptions that each child and adolescent possessed. She distilled the voluminous research on student mindset into four key beliefs that contribute most significantly to students’ tendency to persevere in the classroom:

  1. I belong in this academic community;
  2. My ability and competence grow with my effort;
  3. I can succeed at this; and
  4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington wrote, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The complication, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

Those 4 messages match the narrative that students have been constructing for years about school. They address complaints, from “we’re never going to use this in real life” to “I’m just not good at this” to “the school doesn’t care about us beyond our test scores” to “my teachers don’t have time to know about me as an individual”. This confluence of neuroscience with the true, real experiences of students, if anything, shows the importance of students sharing their stories.

And maybe that the most damning inequity in education isn’t necessarily one of resources -counselors, social workers, quality teachers, Pre-K programs, extracurriculars-  but instead one of hope, of belief- that less privileged students don’t have.  I’m constantly reminded of this Atlantic article about the stories we craft about our lives:

The redemption story is American optimism—things will get better!—and American exceptionalism—I can make things better!—and it’s in the water, in the air, and in our heads. This is actually a good thing a lot of the time. Studies have shown that finding a positive meaning in negative events is linked to a more complex sense of self and greater life satisfaction.

[…]

The trouble comes when redemption isn’t possible. The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice. There are things that happen to people that cannot be redeemed.

Life’s Stories

And this same sentiment in a blog post:

It is gratifying to believe that we are the sole operating agents of our own lives. It is uplifting to believe in stories of redemption, wherein those with nothing make the independent choice to strive and turn their lives around. It is unsettling to imagine the great fortune we have in a confluence of circumstances that is entirely outside of our control. It undermines the distinction between us and those less fortunate.

The Narrative of Privilege

I’ve been force-fed the narrative that I can achieve anything if I put my mind to it. And I’d love to believe that it’s true, as it motivates me and gives me faith in the world. But more and more, I’ve become aware that this optimism in and of itself is a manifestation of privilege.

Before my high school graduation, I was talking with some of the first people I met in high school and some of the last people I would talk to: the people alphabetically next to me.

Among the red itchy fabric, (almost) all 800 graduating seniors in a high ceilinged concrete hall with dampened lights and poor ventilation, behind the scenes at one of the district’s largest graduations in Houston’s football stadium, one girl asked me: “Would you do high school the same again?”

“What do you mean?”

“If you were to do it all over, would you work this hard again?”

I pause before I say: “You definitely won’t believe me when I say this, but I probably didn’t work as hard as you think.”

“Bullshit, you worked your ass off for this. Don’t tell me that you going to college for free ranked in the top 1% and that you didn’t work hard.”

And somehow, I managed to do precisely that with some remark about grade inflation. 1

What I meant, I guess, was that I didn’t work any harder than what would have been expected given my environment. You can call it privilege, or segregation, or why affirmative action exists: I was a product of all of those.

I was the student that teachers didn’t need to pay much attention to because they knew I would do well regardless. I was the student that counselors didn’t need to pay much attention to because I would definitely be going to college. I was the Asian girl who came from the magnet middle school that over-prepared its students for high school. I would be graduating from the high school that was somehow an exception from the typical comprehensive, urban school, a school that could compete with the exclusive magnet schools, the private and charter schools, the suburban schools. That I had every reason to believe that the 4 years ahead of me are, for the most part, going to be great.

And that even in the face of all science and personal experience, I still choose to have this illusion of control in my life, this almost sickening degree of optimism and faith, that in the end, it’s going to be okay, and I’m going to be okay.

And I don’t know whether to feel stupid, guilty or grateful.


  1. Actually though. When more than 70% of your AP English III class gets an “A” and when 30-40 point curves on tests are the norm in other classes, you start wondering what your grades actually mean. 

Concluding Stories from Middle School

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But how much has my handwriting really changed since 7th grade.

While I packed away my high school stuff (read: the 5% of work I deemed worth keeping) into a large plastic bin, I found some of my middle school writing- mostly academic assignments from my English classes, from a time where I cared about my school writing and knew that it would be read. Somewhere in high school, I lost that motivation. 1

But alongside those assignments (and a daily diary), I also wrote other things back then- namely, the pieces that would later become Stories from Middle School, a combination of A) true personal experiences and B) true personal experiences disguised as fiction. And four years later, all of them have been made public.

I like to think that these stories span a variety of topics. There’s a story about the guy in the year above me I stalked throughout 6th and 7th gradeThere’s 2 stories about how I enjoyed nerding out to math problems with my peers.  There’s a story about a lunch ritual I did with my friends that involved Yoplait yogurt. There’s a story that I refused to admit was about an elementary school crush (but it totally was). There’s a story about how my entire grade seemed to idolize one of my best friends and how I dealt with the resulting inferiority complex. There’s a story about my 6th grade math teacher that I must have annoyed the hell out of but gave me some odd sense of identity.

My writing notebook, a wide-ruled composition notebook from 6th grade, is still on my bookshelf. I used to handwrite stories 2 or 3 times before typing them up on a computer. First drafts were a bunch of segments that had no coherence, and crossouts, arrows, and doodles littered the pages.  Each rewrite was a chance to string together ideas until they made sense- very much the way I write nowadays.

Emotionally, I mostly just remember balancing the fear of sharing my writing alongside the desire for it to be seen, especially when I got mixed feedback about my writing. My teachers usually liked my writing, but my friends didn’t. (Looking back, my friends were the honest ones.) The only compliments I ever got were that my writing had “voice” and flowed well, so much that I questioned whether that voice was even good and whether “flow” was just a generic compliment.  I was picked as one of 7 students in my grade to enter the Scholastic Art and Writing Competition, but even with extensive help from my English teacher, my piece didn’t win anything. This happened two years in a row, while my friends always got awards. Talk about feeling inferior.

I have one last story that I still don’t feel comfortable posting (or even rereading.) It’s a 10 page story- to date the longest I’ve ever written- from the end of 6th grade about how one of my friends had changed upon entering middle school. It drew a lot of judgement from my other friends and essentially marked the end of a friendship. Yikes.

What do I think of my middle school stories now? Some make me cringe, some make me laugh. Some of these stories are undoubtedly silly. And I could choose to remember middle school as a place where an idiotic me did idiotic things, under the premise that my brain wasn’t fully developed or that I was underexposed.

But on the other hand, in some of these stories, I see a raw and innocent energy, that same desire to write down ideas and experiences, that same desire to connect my life into a narrative, a less refined version of that same “voice”. These stories embodied the experiences I cared about enough to write and then to share, experiences I could proudly embrace and call my own. And given a choice, that’s how I choose to remember middle school instead, because chances are, I’ll look back on high school in much the same way. 2 3


  1. But actually, if your teacher is reading and grading 100 essays in a night, is she really reading them. 
  2. I’ve contemplated putting together a series called “Stories from High School”, but I’ve decided against it. If a story needs to be told, it’ll find its way into a post. 
  3. Reminder to self: You just graduated high school, not middle school. Stop thinking about middle school. Also, stop with the consecutive footnotes. You’re not Wikipedia. 

When a “success” feels like a failure

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Yes, that is JJ Watt’s mom at the front.

Last night, I brought students from 6 different magnet schools to my district school board meeting. Most of them were the only student from their school there. They spoke genuinely and authentically about the inadequate sports programs at their schools. And as a result, a racially divided board voted unanimously to not take away UIL sports at magnet schools, a drastic change from the heated and racially split vote from the month before.

Yet when I got home that night, I cried.

Why?

Because all the while, while the board members were complimenting the fantastic effort that the students must have put in, every single one of them was looking at the opposite side of the room from where I was sitting with my group.

Because even after spending all the time individually messaging students who I thought may be interested, making sure they had rides, and helping them craft arguments, I didn’t get a chance to talk to all the speakers beforehand as a group. Again, I sped through my speech.

Because even after the meeting, every time I tried talking to a board member, most of them didn’t even remember my name, even though I showed up to every board meeting since January of my junior year. I could blame it on them or on the lack of adults to introduce me, but it was also my simple inability to grasp this thing called “networking”- to start up a conversation, to have something to say, and to start that relationship and keep it going. Every insecurity I had about being an awkward Asian girl trying to fit in came flooding in.

Because it took me nearly a year and a half to even muster up the courage to take a stance on these issues, in my last semester of high school. And I have no guarantee that whoever will take on this role after me will even know why it’s important to come to these meetings, that they’ll face a similar struggle with simply starting that conversation.

Because I get the gut wrenching feeling that even had I not spent all this time getting a racially and socially diverse group of students, the board would have still voted the same way. In other words, we may not have made any impact at all.

On the bright side, some students spoke at their first board meeting on an issue that genuinely mattered to them, an issue that has come up at multiple meetings. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything of the sort.

But really, the atmosphere stuck most with me: After the board announced the result of the vote,  the audience cheered, and the board president rapped his gavel, demanding that the audience not disrupt the meeting. But instead of the solemn hush that characterized most meetings, the crowd laughed in response, releasing all the tension that had built up.  As students and teachers left the room, the board quickly reorganized, relieved that they had gone through the agenda more quickly than they had since the beginning of the school year.

And that made me smile.

Dealing with inferiority complexes

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A reflection on being un-extraordinary, plus a bit of advice.

I’m a second semester senior.

Let me repeat that again. I’m a second semester senior.

I’m a second semester senior.

I’m free to not care about anything, free to say #yolo to anything and everything. And yet for some reason, I’ve begun caring more and more about certain things. Knowing that I won’t see most of my classmates in a few months means that I should be nice as possible now. (Or maybe rather, there’s no risk in starting a friendship that could end poorly.) Knowing that I’ll be leaving most of the organizations I’ve been involved with motivates me to make some sort of difference before I leave. (Or maybe rather, that I’m finally not plagued with the idea that I’m just doing everything for my college apps.)

Of the organizations I joined as a freshman, Quizbowl has been one of the few organizations I’ve stayed in. And last week, as I saw 7 new members join the team for the last time, I began thinking back to when I first joined the team as a freshman.

Still fresh off the novelty of  high school, I was eager to join the team, to continue something I had done in middle school. In some ways, it was great. I was included in on the jokes. Most people knew my name. (This was a bigger deal to me than I care to admit.) My team members and the sponsors were witty and intelligent and nerdy. Plus, there was free food.

But something else wasn’t right: my actual quizbowl ability. Week after week, I watched juniors and seniors on the team name things I had never even heard of, much less could identify. Spending 90 minutes each week listening to hundreds of questions I didn’t know the answer to was demoralizing.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise that after a few months, I didn’t want to come to practices anymore. I wasn’t contributing anything to the team, and people had no reason to pay attention to me.

* * *

If this were a good story, someone else would swoop in right about now, motivate me, and I would muster up the drive and self-discipline to become a national quizbowl champion. If this were a good story and had I not won the birth lottery, this type of story might even become famous: the girl who beat all her more privileged peers.

None of that happened though, and now,  I’m still mediocre at quizbowl. End of story. Simply another failed story, a direct result of my lack of hard work…

…but is that really it? I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly was so discouraging in the first place. Was it being exposed to the genius upperclassmen? Nope,  I had seen plenty good quizbowl players in middle school and been pummeled at every math competition I went to. I had been exposed to the limits of my own intelligence early on. That didn’t explain everything.

What was different, however, was that in middle school, there were other people affirming how I felt. When my friends and I saw these “geniuses”, we could marvel at their intelligence together before throwing ourselves into studying more. But as a freshman on the quizbowl team, I was an outsider among a group of people who had already assimilated. (at least from my perspective).

When I ask people why so few stories of people overcoming tough situations exist, their response has been “some people just aren’t cut out to do well” or that everything can be accomplished with enough “grit”. My parents occasionally talk about the necessity of “chi ku” (literally: eating bitter) in order to succeed. Every work of literature I’ve read in English has had the theme “Wisdom through suffering,” to the extent that it’s become a joke.

I believe that mindset too at times: I’ve told myself: “Screw the inferiority complex. I’ll just work twice as hard and prove myself” more times than I can count. Because maybe that’s the right attitude. Maybe I’m just trying to rationalize my laziness, and maybe I’ll just have to face the uncomfortable truth that I don’t want to put the work into being a good quizbowl player.

Yet,  I can’t help but feel bad when year after year, I see the same excited students join the team each year and leave discouraged after a few practices. I see a bit too much of myself in them,  and most of them didn’t even have my exposure to middle school quizbowl. The last thing I want to blame it on is their own laziness or the lack of some innate quality.

This also makes me uncomfortable. By not doing more to help these new members, am I actively choosing to perpetuate the cycle that almost made me quit quizbowl? Am I guilty of my own crime?

I try to tell the new members “It’s okay if it’s tough. It’s always a difficult transition.”  in hopes that it will help. But I really doubt that’s enough to get them through the months it takes to realize that yes, Quizbowl  indeed only tests a finite list of topics, that yes, you can still have fun even if you’re barely answering any questions and that yes, it’s definitely worth staying.  What if they become systematically desensitized and developed a feeling of learned helplessness, like I been so close to? Until I had more friends join the team my sophomore year, I wouldn’t have had many qualms about dropping out.

* * *

It’s weird that I chose to focus on Quizbowl here–it’s been neither the most influential nor distinctive feature of high school for me, not by a long shot. But it’s something I’ve been involved with for a long time, something with easily quantifiable metrics, an activity in which I’ve felt both superior and inferior.

In fact, it’s a lot like school, though doing well in school has been an ego boost for me more often than not. What can it be like for the other half?

This weekend, I heard a former district superintendent talk about dismal literacy rates in my county. (Spoiler: two-thirds of students can’t read on grade level.)

At its heart, he said, not knowing how to read is a form of emotional abuse. Not even considering the social and economic implications of illiteracy, constantly being evaluated by your ability to take tests that you can’t even understand is emotionally devastating.

This bothers me. I didn’t grow up with parents who spoke English, I certainly wasn’t a hardworking preschooler (if that even exists), and I learned to read just fine. But for a myriad of other smaller, more subtle reasons, this isn’t a reality for the majority of my peers who grew up in the same community as me, and I can only imagine what their attitude towards school must be. 1

Ignoring that inferiority complex that we all possess in some form is just going to result in more and more insecurity, more jealousy, that constant feeling of not being good enough, or worst (and perhaps the most logical conclusion), simply not caring anymore. Affirming someone’s feelings goes a lot further than denying that they exist. We’re naturally hardwired to connect with one another, and ignoring emotional and biological feedback is rarely a good idea.

With that, I present…

Amy’s list of self-reminders:

  1. Find pleasure in what you’re learning/doing
  2. Find private, intrinsic, quiet pleasure in what you’re learning/doing. No one can take that away from you.
  3. Practice every day.
  4. Silence the outside voices and competition
  5. You’re not the best. Don’t get cocky.
  6. You’re not the best. It’s okay.
  7. Most of the journey is going to be done on your own. Be prepared.
  8. Other people are important. Find a good support system.
  9. Other people are important. Find a good system of people to support.
  10. Worst case scenario: Things don’t go your way, and you learn a bunch in the process.
  11. It’s okay.
  12. Get enough sleep .

Anything to add?

 * * *

Reading:


  1. To be fair though, one of the first things I did after learning to read was to pull a handle on a bright red box with the words “pull”. The fire alarm. Whoops. 

List of Lists: Effective Time Management

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What I used to think effective time management was:

  1. Making a list of everything that one was supposed to do
  2. Blasting through every task with no breaks, in no particular order. Finishing one task meant starting the next
  3. After finishing it all, starting ahead on something else.

Things I did in pursuit of good time management:

  1. Making to do lists.
  2. Crossing off things I finished.
  3. Transferred things that I hadn’t done to the next day.
  4. Starting using a Bullet Journal.

What started happening:

  1. Since I’d rely on my list to figure out what needed to be done, everything that didn’t get put down was not done
  2. Sometimes I’d forget to transfer a task over, and it’d just never get done.
  3. If there were a bunch of small tasks (And I mean tiny– “get form signed”, “tell ____ about ____”), I’d get those done first. By getting those done first, I mean only get those done.
  4. There were tasks I’d write every day for months (literally MONTHS) that would just never get done
  5. Longer tasks would always get pushed to the end of the day – “when I could get them done faster anyways”
  6. I wouldn’t get enough sleep in pursuit of finishing more things
  7. Self perpetuating cycle

What I tried instead that worked better:

  1. Scheduling time- literally making a hour to hour schedule of what I was going to spend each hour of my day doing.
  2. Using multiple to-do lists for extracurriculars, school, personal life, and college. Transfer a few tasks into each day.
  3. (Trying to) sleep and wake up at the same time every day
  4. Setting timers for everything
  5. Making routines for: a) waking up b) after school c) before bed
  6. Google Calendaring stuff in the future (no matter how petty)
  7. Acknowledge that the environment in which you work DOES matter and that turning off WiFi DOES keep you on task

The two things that distracted me the most:

  1. Twitter/social media (That includes reading blogs on WordPress)
  2. Talking to people online.

More personal observations:

  1. Winter break is a fantastic time to try out these things. Not so much once school starts. (Morning plans currently take up an hour of my morning- am I willing to wake up an hour earlier during the school year?)
  2. Paper or digital???
  3. Before, I would generally only get the tiny things done. Now, I tend to get more big things done while leaving the smaller tasks unfinished.
  4. I need to find a better way to handle more flexibility + unexpected things
  5. How much is me actually scheduling stuff badly (aka 5 straight hours on the computer with no breaks) and how much is just me being lazy?
  6. If I stick to a schedule, it generally works…until it gets to the last 2 items– usually slow, long term stuff (COUGH COLLEGE APPS)
  7. The biggest thing that determines whether I stick to my schedule or not– whether my notebook is 1) on my desk and 2) whether it’s open to today’s schedule. Literally. The tiniest things prevent me from getting stuff done sometimes.
  8. LEARNING THIS EARLIER WOULD HAVE LITERALLY HELPED ME IN EVERY CLASS EVER.

“Bibliography”

Readings:

  • The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman
  • How to be a High School Superstar, Cal Newport

Blogs:

  • ZenHabits
  • Essena O’Neil’s daily plans
  • Cal Newport’s blog
  • The Prospect

Other stuff:

  • Shia LaBoeuf
  • Nike
  • Stories of people constantly talking about managing their time well. And then realizing that I had 0 idea what managing my time well ACTUALLY meant.

A Different Metric of Impact

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Inspired by interviewing a nonprofit leader about their work for Givology. Rehashing many of his ideas in response to the question “how do you measure impact?” 

There’s something wrong with the way with we’re measuring impact.

Governments and large corporations want to fund large scale projects that have easily quantifiable results. With people demanding accountability from their governments, governments have been hesitant to fund projects that don’t guarantee measurable impacts. (“Statistically speaking, you’re three times more likely to get cancer than you are to get a grant funded by the N.I.H. to cure cancer”1) Then again, most companies are hesitant to fund projects that won’t generate profit.

In the world of research, researchers choose to tackle small projects that have a big chance of success (and thus a big chance of being funded) over potentially groundbreaking projects that may not yield results. In the non-profit world, people donate to non-profits that save lives (read: buying nets for malaria) over ones that address more ingrained and systemic issues (read: educating a community on the importance of education.)

But the latter category of issues, the ones without easily measurable impacts and where success isn’t guaranteed, may be where the slow, sneaky, and powerful impact lies. However, this type of impact is the most difficult to measure, and accountability may be impossible in some cases. In an area where paper and other resources are scarce, is collecting receipts and tracking every piece of equipment realistic? What if a more efficient use of the money comes up? 2 Accountability is clearly important for large scale projects where a dollar or two can easily slip out.. For small scale projects that don’t require a lot of money though, can a general belief in the good will of people really overcome the need for accountability and allow for more flexibility?

What if there were a metric of impact that somehow managed to capture these slower, more systemic changes? One that wasn’t as concerned with hard numbers but still could be adequately compared with numbers. Something that finally humanizes social impact. (While you’re at it, make it spew unicorns too.)

Right now, perhaps the closest measure is something like crowdfunding and microlending platforms that give ordinary people the power to collectively fund big projects. Not an accurate measure by any means, but it’s something that relies more on emotion than accountability. The one caveat is that crowdfunding lacks sustainability. Everyone wants to help start the next big thing. Very few want to keep it going. 3

Would this metric be easy to develop? Clearly not. Would it be worth it? I’d say so.

Thoughts? 4 5 6


  1.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/education/edlife/revenge-of-the-non-nerds.html?_r=0 
  2. This was something I read as a criticism of Kiva and similar organizations. Even though a 
  3.  This was an idea that I first heard through a #givchat with Teal Leaf Trust. 
  4. I’m like 99.9% sure all these ideas have been more accurately and precisely discussed in an economics paper somewhere. And that metric I described most likely exists already, but I don’t know about. (Please comment below if you know about it.) This is why I feel mildly not-accomplished after finishing these long ramblings. 
  5. Really wanted to include a point about how these were like the issues affecting education in the developed world. The focus on standardized test scores over the slow gradual development of a human. The need for “accountability” from the government. The large corporations promoting “reforms” that are only easily scaleable. 
  6. Would have been nice if I could have mentioned 80,000 Hours in here somewhere too. 

Thirteen Reasons Why

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Inspired by the book by Jay Asher and a page in my notebook where I was listing incidents that genuinely hurt me. Not trying to garner pity or outrage, just understanding.

(Background information: In Thirteen Reasons Why, the main character receives a box with 13 tapes from a girl who recently committed suicide. Each tape explains a minor reason why she ultimately decided to kill herself. Yes, I’m completely fine. Just thought the concept was interesting.)

1) In 6th grade, I had an elective where we made banners and posters and stuff for school events. Some people got to make locker posters for the volleyball and basketball team members. The posters were made with special paper cutouts and hole punches and was considered a coveted job in my eyes. (Paper has and will always be near and dear to my heart.) But everytime I finished a banner and wanted to work on a locker poster, the teacher would always move me away to something else, while my friends continued making locker posters.

At the end of the semester, I finally got the chance to make one. I was drew multiple designs in my diary to perfect the layout. After I finished, the teacher complimented my poster, but instead of any genuine happy pride, I could only feel smugness at finally proving that I was worthy of making these posters.

2) In 7th grade, I submitted this piece to Scholastic (with a lot of help and edits from my English teacher.) When I didn’t win anything and all my friends won gold keys, I ended up crying on the bus ride home (with those same friends sitting next to me). Someone on a nearby bus saw my tears and made funny faces at me to make me laugh. It worked temporarily, but aside from that, I received no comfort.

3) I also tried out for the volleyball team that year. (Yes, I actually knew how to play a sport not-horribly.) Again, did not make the team, but I ended up crying at home instead and similarly received no comfort.

4) The adult sponsor who runs a youth council I’m part of doesn’t know my name. Whenever we plan events and I contribute ideas, she always attributes them to someone else whose name she does know and ignores me. This has happened multiple times for multiple events.

5) I used to do my Algebra II homework during class sometimes. Another person who sat a few seats away from me also would do their homework. When the teacher went around the class after a lecture, she would generally tell the other person “Already finished your homework huh” in a ambivalent and unsurprised tone, while I received a stern “Working ahead instead of paying attention in class again?” (I spent the rest of the year not paying attention in class to fold origami and play games on my calculator. After I finished my homework of course.)

6) When I took art in middle school, I had a teacher who would ask for people to bring their works up to her to grade them. For most people, she would glance at their paper and instantly assign a 100, but for me, she’d take an extra look, pick out something minor, and dock off a few points. It wasn’t a huge deal (a 98 opposed to a 100), but I suspected favoritism.

7) When I did robotics in elementary school, my team and I were at a competition where our score was miscalculated and resulted in us not placing in the top 3. When we protested, the people organizing the contest refused to change our score and claimed that our score wasn’t high enough to place. (I suspected racism.)

8) I did science fair with a friend in middle school. We presented separately to our teacher since we were in different periods. After I presented to my class, my teacher told the class “This project got a 100. Look at this detailed notebook” and passed around the notebook for the class to look at. I didn’t contribute to that part of the project.

9) In 8th grade, a group of people created a dictionary for the people in our grade with definitions and synonyms for each person. It was something fun and not meant to be offensive.  The first part of my definition was “Someone who is constantly overshadowed by [someone else in my grade]” and one of my synonyms was “Not Quite There”.

10) When I used to dance, one time during break there was a running joke amongst all the girls in my class. Each person was supposed to tag another person, one by one, until the joke involved everyone. When literally everyone else in the class (15+ people) had been tagged, the last person didn’t choose me and chose the teacher instead.

11) My first week of high school, my French teacher personally called me out for having too much pride. She told my parents the same thing. Eventually, I just stopped paying attention in class and memorized my verbs and vocab and supposedly learned a bunch of French. Not sure if that ruined my pride or made it even stronger.

12) When I was doing a self-reflection over the summer in hopes of finding potential college essay material, after writing close to 5 pages of thoughts, I had nothing positive to say about myself.

13) When I was visiting my middle school with a classmate freshman year, we ran into an administrator. He spent the entire time talking to my classmate and barely acknowledged me.

Individually, none of these incidents are horrible, and I brushed most of them off at the time. I had always known that I don’t come across as the friendliest person at times and that my pride comes over me at times it shouldn’t. These were just the consequences. In retrospect, many of these events could be seen differently from different perspectives, but I still suspect a degree of racism, sexism, a culture that values achievement over well being, or general favoritism.

45 Thoughts During Every Board Meeting

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Inspired by the 4.5 long board meeting tonight.

  1. Finally here after the horrendous traffic again.
  2. Hmm the news stations are here. Maybe something interesting is happening.
  3. I wonder what all these adults are here to support today.
  4. Is it too early to walk into the room already?
  5. I don’t know anyone out here. I guess I’ll pretend like I’m waiting for someone.
  6. It looks like other people are going in. I guess I’ll go in too.
  7. How does security here work again?
  8. Where do I sit?
  9. *scans room looking for familiar faces*
  10. Should I be looking for people I know?
  11. Should I talk to that person? Nah they look like they’re busy
  12. Wait they’re not busy anymore.
  13. Did I just talk to that adult awkwardly?
  14. Nope. Nope. Not thinking about that.
  15. Would it be weird to sit down here?
  16. Wait everyone else is still talking.
  17. Should I stand back up and keep talking to people?
  18. Why do I actually know 0 about interacting with adults?
  19. I wonder what the other students think about these board meetings. Oh wait. I’m the only student that’s here every time.
  20. How long are these introductions and recognitions going to take?
  21. Finally onto agenda items. Oh wait general comments from trustees.
  22. Wow these people are busy.
  23. Ok, now agenda items.
  24. What’s this flurry of items they’re voting on?
  25. Would it be impolite to pull out homework right now?
  26. What about now?
  27. Ok I’ll look like an studious student now *pulls out homework*
  28. Oh yeah THAT item is on the agenda this time.
  29. That’s a good point from a speaker
  30. Oh wait. That’s also good point from another speaker.
  31. How long has this meeting been going on?
  32. HEY LOOK A STUDENT. *runs out and tracks them down*
  33. I guess homework can wait. This is worth listening to.
  34. Wow each trustee has pretty insightful comments.
  35. Why aren’t there more students here to listen? Oh right because board meetings take up like 3+ hours and aren’t actually relevant to student life 90% of the time.
  36. What’s being voted on again?
  37. Wait…so did they vote for it or against it? What was the actual measure?
  38. The politics is intense.
  39. Hearing of the citizens time.
  40. Ack complaint.
  41. Yay compliment.
  42. Is it over???
  43. Time to talk to more adults.
  44. Wow there’s not that many people left at the end. Guess I can go.
  45. I’m tired. But that was interesting.

Stories from Middle School: The Person in First Period

“Okay, here are the answers,” Ms. Gordon said as she placed the answer sheet onto the projector.

I skimmed through the answers hastily, not wanting to miss any questions. Number 1, check, Number 2, check, Number 6, check, Number 7…Number 7… I paused for a moment and double-checked to make sure that I was checking the correct question. Yup, it was wrong. I stared at the problem and mentally re-added everything together. Same answer. I grabbed my pencil and re-worked it using pencil and paper. Still the same answer.

“Ms. Gordon,” I called out. She looked up from her sheet. “Shouldn’t the answer to number 7 be 2½ quarts instead of 3 quarts?”

Ms. Gordon was not your ordinary stern-faced teacher with wire-rimmed glasses. Well, she actually did wear glasses sometimes, and she could be stern at times, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that she was Ms. Gordon, a short and stout African-American who had a very obvious Southern accent. And she was loud. On Monday mornings at 7:50 AM, we would be all woozy and tired and she’d just be jabbering on to the class. “So what is 34 times 3, class? … Class? Come on, WAKE UP EVERYONE! I don’t want to be the only person thinking at this time!” And when she taught, it wasn’t a lecturing type of teaching. She’d be standing at her projector and writing down each step of whatever she was explaining, with genuine eagerness, asking us questions along the way to make sure we were paying attention to her.

Anyway, after I asked my question, she eyed me suspiciously for a second and then her eyes flickered back to the answer sheet. After a moment, she opened her mouth, but no words came out.

Then she spoke, “Well, you guys didn’t read the question carefully. The question asked how many quarts she needed to buy. Of course she needed 2½ quarts, but she had to buy 3 quarts.” She glared at me with her arms crossed, expecting me to go, “OH…oops.”

But I didn’t. It didn’t make sense! “Why not?” I cautiously answered back.

Ms. Gordon looked at me as if the answer was obvious. “Because you can’t buy half a quart of milk at the grocery store! Half a quart is equivalent to a pint!” She was waving her arms like crazy.

“Well, I’m not in charge of grocery shopping at my house!” I burst out. What was this, a how-often-do-you-go-to-the-grocery-store test?

“Then go to the grocery store more often!” She definitely was annoyed.

“But…but…” I sputtered. “That’s not fair! You can’t take off points for that!” I was annoyed too.

A few minutes later after an excessive amount of debating, the whole class was also annoyed at me, Ms. Gordon was extremely frustrated, and I finally had to admit defeat since “3 quarts was what the book said,” and she “wasn’t accepting any other answer.”

For some reason, that one incident set off a whole chain of arguments. It seemed like every single class period, I would manage to find some reason to argue with her. I never really noticed how seriously she took it until I was telling a friend about it.

“Ms. Gordon never listens to me! She always ends up saying something like, ‘When you get to higher-level math, you will have to be able to do…,’ or ‘The book says _______. You can go write the authors of the book if you want to protest. Those people know a lot more about math than you do.’ I just don’t find math class fun anymore!” I complained.

My friend looked at me kind of funnily with a slight smile and said, “So you were that person in first period that Ms. Gordon kept on talking about.”

A lot of my friends think I’m weird in a way. I’ve been known to come up with some random theory about something and then try to explain it to my friends without any success at all. It would often take up the entire lunch period, and they would constantly ask, “So exactly what is your point?” and according to them, I would keep changing the topic to something else. They could never get my “point.” It was just plain frustrating.

Anyways, I was surprised by her comment. “Ms. Gordon said something about me?” My eyes widened.

“Yeah, she keeps saying that there’s this person in first period that keeps arguing with her.”

 “What?!” I nearly shouted. I wasn’t really trying to argue with her, I was just proving my own answers right! I never said her answers were wrong! And she would never listen to me!

After some more questioning, I also found out that Ms. Gordon thought I was “stubborn,” “annoying,” “frustrating,” along with a whole list of other things.

The truth was I actually wasn’t used to arguing with teachers and being so…loud. (I was a different person with my friends. They thought I was amusing.) It was already the second semester, and everyone had their place among the teachers. I was the type of student who would sit in the off center region of the room and listen to everyone else talk. Something must just have come over me at 8 o’clock in the morning every day in math class.

One day after an argument (do you seriously need subtraction to realize that 4 is greater than 3?), she decided to confront me. “You know, I tell all my classes about you.”

I laughed. “I know. I’ve been asking around.” She didn’t even look surprised.

Every time I said anything that was barely disagreed with Ms. Gordon, the entire class would groan very loudly, and Ms. Gordon would always look annoyed and cross her arms even though her eyes kind of sparked a little. So, in order to get her less annoyed, (not completely unannoyed. I still had my pride.) I tried to shorten my arguments to under a minute so they wouldn’t be as time consuming. Yet during lunch, my friends would still tell me, “Ms. Gordon said that she had a looong argument with ‘a certain person in first period whom you all should know very well by now.’”  

But there was also the time my friends told me, “Ms. Gordon said ‘That person in first period proved me wrong today.’” I was so proud. Another time, she purposefully pointed out a mistake I had made on a worksheet. I think that she actually enjoyed arguing with me just so she could tell all the other classes about it.

Thanks to Ms. Gordon, the entire grade knew about my “half-quart” arguments with her. Once when I was in another class, I was defending my answer (I wasn’t really arguing.) and the whole class was like, “Don’t start arguing again like you do with Ms. Gordon.” The teacher actually didn’t look too surprised. In fact, since I had completely broken out of my “place” with Ms. Gordon, I was suspecting that all the other teachers were wondering why I still was the same quiet person in their classes.

I still didn’t know if Ms. Gordon liked me or hated me though. It seemed like she got really annoyed every time I said something contradictory, but according to my friends, she would usually (not always) be smiling whenever she mentioned “this person in first period.” Another friend said that she had to really like me in order to not get super mad at me when I argued with her. Still, she did seem frustrated when I was arguing with her.

Soon, it was end of the year, and most of my doubts about Ms. Gordon started unfolding. First was awards day, where the entire middle school crowds into the cafeteria and the teachers go up on stage to present awards to specific students. When it was Ms. Gordon’s turn, she went up to the podium and told us that she gave awards to the people who “really pushed her.” I’m telling you, it was creepy having the entire grade glare at you at the same time and mumble your name. And once she called my name, I was pretty sure of one thing. She didn’t hate me–it was the complete opposite.

Then on the last day of school, when I was saying bye to all the teachers, another teacher told me, “You know, Ms. Gordon thought very highly of you. You wouldn’t believe what she said to us during lunchtime.” (She didn’t mention anything about her own class…)

Now that I think about it, there was something special about Ms. Gordon, and it wasn’t really the arguing (although it was fun.) It was more of the way she made me feel different. I mean, I wasn’t just a student that was …there. I was actually someone to Ms. Gordon–me.

Over the summer, I went to the grocery store. They didn’t sell half quarts of milk there, only pints. But they sold half gallons and half pints. What’s wrong with half quarts?


I wrote this in 7th grade about my 6th grade math class. Intentionally left unedited.

 

Dissecting Middle School

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“I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how anybody does it, waking up every morning and eating and moving from the bus to the assembly line, where the teacherbots inject us with subject A and subject B, and passing every test they give us. Our parents provide the list of ingredients and remind us to make healthy choices: one sport, two clubs, one artistic goal, community service, no grades below a B, because really, nobody’s average, not around here. It’s a dance with complicated footwork and a changing tempo”

-Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

In middle school, I saw education as a chance to become as smart as possible. Learning was a moral issue– how could I dare to contribute to society without knowing how things worked? Often times, I found that if I didn’t know something, I wouldn’t simply not know it- I would “know” the information incorrectly. My education was a chance to fix up the misconceptions in my broken mind. And this was my youth, when I would absorb the information the quickest- why not take complete advantage of this? But in the reality of carrying out these noble motives, I could often only see immediate numbers and not wanting to disappoint a teacher. I got A’s in all my classes without any special effort.

However, I would get frustrated at only getting 95s on tests when my friends got 100s. (Literally, when my class made a “dictionary” with a definition of everyone in 7th grade, one of my synonyms was “Not Quite There”) I checked my grades online less than 3 times throughout all of middle school and learned to avoid the question “What did you get?” by simply saying that I didn’t know. I told myself that these tests were merely a test of accuracy, not knowledge (I made and still make a lot of stupid mistakes.)

And an the midst of Mathcounts competitions and quizbowl tournaments, as close as one can get to an approximation of a purely academic competition, I began coming up with (unfounded) justifications of why I wasn’t doing as well.

  • I don’t have teachers and coaches to teach me the fastest way to solve all the problems
  • I don’t soullessly memorize lists and formulas.
  • I actually enjoy what I’m doing.

But who was I even to say anything? (Even assuming that everything above had valid ground.) I could complain and justify my actions all I want, but at the end of the day, they still knew more than me, still did better than I did. I wasn’t willing to put in the sweat and tears they had. Any dislike I had was really just secretly jealousy…right?

…To be continued