You have brains in your head. Who goes to dine must take the feast
You have feet in your shoes. Or find the banquet mean;
You can steer yourself The table is not laid without
Any direction you choose. Until it is laid within.
~Dr. Suess ~Emily Dickinson
The sinking feeling was just under the surface as I sat in class during my second day of a two-week fellowship at Columbia University, Teacher’s College.
I was back in the classroom, sitting at a desk for the first time since 1980. There I was with 18 other heads of independent schools from all over the globe, classmates and Fellows at the Klingenstein Center for Independent School Leadership, class of 2015.
The professor had just handed out a form and asked us to take 15 minutes to write our own philosophy of education – in response to readings by Michel de Montaigne and John Dewey, both of whom I had read before and both of whom I had read again in preparation for this class – and hand it in!
Immediately, I felt an eruption in my chest and brain; my skin flushed, and my mouth got dry. I felt my heart rate increase, and my palms started to sweat. I was back in the fifth grade taking a vocabulary and spelling test! Back then, I either knew most of the words but couldn’t remember how to spell them, or my handwriting was so bad my teacher would mark me down because she couldn’t read the letters.
My old nemeses – shame, fear, anxiety – jumped out of my skin and sat in front of me glaring and accusing: “Your handwriting is so bad, he won’t even read it” and “Your spelling will shock the professor; he will think you must be stupid.”
The feelings of shame and vulnerability never completely go away for me even though I can hide them fairly effectively; even from myself most of the time. And I have learned over the years from many other successful adults with learning differences like dyslexia and ADHD, that they, too, experience these moments of shame and embarrassment over feelings and experiences buried deep in the past; notwithstanding the many years and outward examples of achievement and success that may now bury them.
Quickly though, I reminded myself that I was no longer a child. I had indeed earned my place at this table of learning, and in this class among colleagues in independent school leadership. I have people who love me in my life, people who respect me in my profession, and many students and parents who know me as an experienced and successful head of school.
Yes, my handwriting is indeed sloppy, but my thinking is not. And while spelling continues to elude me, I have worked hard over many years to acquire and use a broad and deep vocabulary. Yes, I get help from others; and yes, I use technology that assists me in presenting my ideas legibly and spelled correctly. I access resources that help me use and align strengths so that most of the time my challenges and weaknesses can be rendered largely irrelevant.
Thankfully, the moment passed quickly. I am an adult.
I can exercise control over these situations and I have a context and a history to help me stay in the saddle even when the horse stumbles and I feel like I’m going to hit the dirt.
The vulnerability I felt in that moment was a great reminder of what so many of our children and students feel when they realize that other kids can do easily what they cannot, despite their hard work and best efforts. This not only robs them of confidence in their abilities, but also security in school.
I am therefore thankful to live in an enlightened community and serve at a great school with thoughtful and well-prepared colleagues who accept, understand, embrace and support students with learning differences. Their example to me is nothing less than the struggle of a human spirit to be free of assumptions and conclusions drawn about them in school environments that judge narrowly and marginalize the creativity and collaboration that will ultimately drive our success later in life.
I welcome your comments both publicly or privately. Please feel free to share your thoughts below, or e-mail me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.