My history teacher was slowly gliding around the room, pretending to be thought-provoking, deep, and brooding. Always attempting to be the intensely intellectual type, he was giving us a carefully crafted speech about how important the AP exam was. After all, it gave us a chance for college credit!
He started to hand out information packets for the history AP exam in the front-right corner of the room as he explained the details of the test. I liked history and I liked his class, even though I struggled mightily to keep up with his quick pace. He demanded that we take careful notes during his class, notes that we could use to study for his tough exams.
Throughout the year I struggled to earn a C+. Even though I had enjoyed history since middle school, I wasn’t very keen on taking the AP exam for the class. While earning college credit is tempting, I had never taken an AP exam. In fact, I had never been encouraged to do so by one of my teachers.
But now he was starting to hand out packets to my row. He stopped at the first desk, licked the tips of his middle and ring fingers, and pulled out a packet to hand to the first student. He took one deliberate, slow step forward. His dress shoes slapped against the linoleum floor with a resounding clack…clack, and he paused in front of the second student. Once again, he licked the tips of his fingers, grabbed a packet, lifted it up, and gracefully handed it to the student. He was saying something about studying techniques for the exam.
I was next in line to receive a packet. I was still nervous and unsure if I could even take the test. He lifted his eyes from the student in front of me and stared in my direction. I looked down uneasily at my desk. He prepared to take a step in my direction, but he suddenly stopped his step short. I looked up at him to see what was wrong.
He was gripping the top of a packet but had paused while pulling it out of his arms. He was looking at me with a twisted, playful gaze. His lips curled up, as though he was amused. “Oh, Henry. I assume you won’t be needing one of these.”
My heart sank. I responded with a defeated and barely audible “no.”
I had been struggling with my grades since elementary school. It’s not that I have trouble learning, or even that I dislike learning. In fact, I love reading and I always have. My parents both have master’s degrees in English and taught me how to read at an unusually early age.
So, what went wrong? A few years ago I dug through my report cards to try to find out. I found a very confusing note scribbled on my second-grade math report card. The teacher noted that I was getting all of the equations right, but I wasn’t using the same methods that she was using. I was figuring out how to solve problems on my own, without her help. To make matters worse, I preferred to do math in my head (I still do) and found it more challenging to write equations down.
Instead of nurturing my style of solving math problems, she took points off of all of my tests because I failed to follow instructions and show my work on paper. Despite the fact that I was solving problems correctly, I wasn’t solving them the way she wanted me to, so my grades suffered.
You may think that the way you were treated in second grade is completely irrelevant, but I disagree. Every time you are marked as a failure or a “poor student” it can actually make you less intelligent.
Research shows that telling children that they are less likely to succeed on a test will make them perform poorly. If you give a group of young girls a standardized test and include something in the introduction about how women tend to score lower on tests, their average scores will be lower. If you take the same group of young girls and give them a test with an intro that bolsters their confidence by suggesting that women are smarter than men, they will score higher on average.
Interestingly enough, my standardized test scores in math were extremely high in the beginning of elementary school but as my grades began to dip in math, so did my standardized test scores.
As adults, we cherish the ability to solve problems on our own, yet for some reason, I was punished for the same thing as a kid. Throughout elementary school and into middle school I became more and more resentful of my teachers. I didn’t like to solve problems the way that they did. I didn’t like to read the books they wanted me to read. As a result, my grades plummeted.
When you’re young and your grades plummet, a few things happen. The most immediate impact is that your parents freak out. I can remember as early as middle school being yelled at for poor grades. I remember my mom dragging me back into school after the bell rang to seek out extra help from my math teacher. Every time report cards came out I would feel waves of panic instead of excitement.
At home, I had to deal with my parents, but in school, I had to deal with my teachers. They thought I was either lazy or simply not very bright. Each year I got pushed down into lower-level classes and my parents would fight to push me into more advanced classes, insisting that I was more intelligent than I let on.
This trend continued into high school as my grades continued to dip lower. I barely passed my freshman biology class - I got a D- - and I struggled mightily in math classes. It wasn’t until I entered my first physics class my junior year in high school that I started to realize my capabilities as a student.
Despite what I thought was a crippling inability to solve math problems, I found physics incredibly easy! I got good grades and rarely studied. I could finally work on problems in my head and translate them to paper later. I’m better at visualizing things than writing them, a common trait of left-handed people.
The next year I took an anatomy class and absolutely breezed through it. For some reason, anatomy also clicked with me, probably because I could visualize the human body rather than relying on words and descriptions to paint a picture.
Many of the people that know me now in the fitness industry know me for my intelligence more than anything else. I always chuckle when people call me “smart.” For most of my life, I have been “below average,” according to our education system. My high school GPA was a 2.7 and my undergraduate GPA was a 2.8. Does that make me stupid?
I’m sure there are many people like me who thought they were stupid just because they learn differently and think creatively, rather than blindly following their teachers’ instructions. Rather than being nurtured, we tend to get lost in an educational system that can’t figure out how to teach us.