Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

Not strictly school but formative years. This is a story I've used to teach my kids about various things in life.

When I was ten I was friends with a group of kids who were a year or two older. We played football every waking moment and I was always conscious I wasn't as good or fast or strong as them as I was slightly younger.

One Saturday we went to a nearby park where a local youth centre were holding a mini football tournament. The idea was you turned up with your mates and registered then played as a team against kids from the neighbouring areas to yours.

I was one of the weaker players on our team but we were good and made it all the way to the final. The team we were playing against to win the tournament were from the area over from us which was known for being rougher and more deprived. The team had this one kid who stood out as he was the best player, he was skinny, borderline malnourished and he had dark hair but with the top bleached blond. We nicknamed him Badger.

The final game was really close and Badger kept them in it and it was a draw at the end of the match. So it went to penalties. However, the catch was we had to take the penalty from the other end of the small pitch using our weaker foot with no goalkeeper.

As the worst player on our team I took the last penalty. There was added pressure as all my teammates had scored, and all of the opposition, including Badger, had scored apart from one player. This meant all I had to do was take the penalty with my weaker foot; score and we'd be champions winning a small trophy each.

One of the organisers asked me which foot I usually kick with. I'm usually right footed, but one of my groups jumped in, saying 'he's left footed!' I went to correct him but he gave me a threatening look which told me to 'shut up!'

I suppose I went along with it as I know my weaker foot was poor and there was a good chance I'd miss. I also didn't want to let my team down. So I took the penalty with my stronger foot. I cheated.

I scored the penalty and we were crowned champions and each given a little trophy. As we were leaving a saw Badger making his way home looking disappointed.

Our walk home was mixed, some of the group, including the one that said I was left footed, were celebratory, some of us were disgusted in ourselves for the way we'd won, especially over such a talented opponent like Badger. The trophy I took home, that everyone asked me about, became this awful beating heart, evidence of my disgraceful cheating. But more, it was evidence of my own self doubt. If I'd corrected my friend and took the penalty properly we might have won fairly. But I didn't, and the trophy made me feel weak and like a cheater.

The following summer I joined a new football team. The captain looked familiar but I couldn't place him. He was skinny, with dark hair and a great player.

In training he asked me innocently which foot I kicked with. 'Right' I answered honestly. He smiled in a knowing, self satisfied way.

The bleach had died out, but after this exchange I knew my new team mate was Badger. The lad I cheated the summer before to win a small piece of plastic was now my teammate and captain.

We became friends, and he never mentioned the tournament I cheated him out of. I didn't either. But he knew, and was the bigger man, on both occasions.

I never cheated again in my life.

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

Ohh I love this question! I remember being about 14 and in art class learning about the work of Kandinsky (abstract artist who played with shapes and colours a lot). The teacher assigned us the task of making a piece of art inspired by music, in the same abstract style.

So that's what I did. I didn't know at the time I had synaesthesia (when your brain connects sounds and letters to colours). I just drew what the song looked like and was really content in that task. Later I submitted the art and received a C grade. The teacher told me it wasn't what she had in mind and I was completely floored because she asked me to draw music and that's what I'd done.

It wasn't until years later that I realised that we were saying the same thing but from very different realities. I think of it every time I'm compelled to micromanage how someone else does a task - perhaps the 'right' way isn't the right way when someone else does it.

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Feb 16·edited Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

I remember the ex-military substitute PE teacher who told all us teenage boys we had to do multiple laps of the running track, and that the one that finished last would have to get down in the mud and do 50 press-ups as “punishment.”

I realised I was going to be the final finisher long before I got to the end point.

The humiliation burned in my chest as the other kids jeered and laughed, and as the sub teacher approached, telling me to get down, I shook my head and simply said no. “Someone was always going to be last,” I told him. Of course, he just began to berate me, levelling up the embarrassment in front of my Lord of the Flies classmates. I responded with a simple “f*** off”, and walked out of school.

I could have just committed to the press-ups and shrugged of the laughter, but the sub teacher had tapped into all my teenage insecurities; I was tall, clumsy, and perhaps a little more emotionally tuned-in than is accepted from boys in a tough comprehensive. Of course, decades on, this experience is a very minor note in my history, but I think we all know that feeling when someone in a position of authority is bullying us simply because they can.

That refusal to be pushed around has never left me. And while it’s caused a lot of issues (I’ve been fired more times than I care to remember), it’s a trait I’m glad to have not let go of.

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

One particularly painful memory was of my first art teacher at secondary school. Well, to be honest - it was a consecutive series of painful memories. He’d chastise my work in the classroom but not in the most subtle of ways. I.e., adult me would say “Please lower your voice, if the feedback is for me, the whole classroom does not need to hear this.” Every piece I turned in received Fs even when I’d tried really, really hard. Even when he left and I ended up with new teachers, by that point I was convinced “I suck at art”. And that has lived with me until this very day. I’m now facing a bit of a career pivot and I’m also going back to college to learn silversmithing. The act in itself is because I absolutely LOVE jewellery and I’m now curious as to what I could create purely for the love. But the act also feels like I’m giving my 12 year old self the chance to prove myself - and him - completely wrong.

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When I was 15ish, I was representing my school at a public speaking competition. I wrote a really good speech about the media (which I'm still very proud of), but I was just too shy to deliver it authoritatively. I hated having everyone's eyes on me, and really struggled with my teacher. She was a nice person, but much more extroverted than me and she just couldn't understand why I wasn't more forthright. She was really hard on me about it.

(I didn't know it at the time, but I had a huge crush on her. At the time, I was so closeted I just thought it was weird and obsessive how much I cared what she thought of me. But looking back, it's very clear that it was a raging teenage crush!)

Anyway, competition day came and I did my very best delivering my speech but I knew I wasn't going to win. My teacher wasn't even in the room when the winners were announced and IT WAS ME. I came second and it still, more than 20 years later, makes my heart beat faster. I went through to the second round where I flamed out, but I was so proud that I stood up and did my best regardless of what anyone thought.

So it's a nothing story - about a small town public speaking competition in rural Ireland and a nervous teenage girl. But it's also an everything story about some part of me saying "I don't care what you think about me, I can do this!"

Gah, I'm all emotional now thinking about it. Thanks for asking Anna

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I come from a working class family. No one in my family went to college or university: I was the first one to go. Going to art school was a bit of a leap, but I knew in my gut this was right for me. I dreamed about it since I was very little.

But art school wasn't as life confirming as I hoped it would be: the director of the faculty I was in didn't approve of me being there. He made very clear that people like me ('countryside folk' as he called it) didn't belong in the arts.

For years he put me down, with his final blow being calling me into his office a week before graduation. By that time I had worked on my graduation piece for months and was nearly finished. It was a picture book for visually impaired and blind children, with braille and pictures made out of textured materials.

He looked at me with a disapproving face: "I can't let you graduate. Your work isn't good enough."

I asked him to elaborate and tell me what I could do.

"There's nothing to be done. It's just not understandable what you have created. I just don't get it."

Now, you have to know that I wasn't a person that went against teachers, nor did I speak out. I always obeyed teachers and kept quiet for the four years I was there. But I had enough at that point.

I blurted out: "Just because you don't get it, doesn't mean it isn't good. Maybe it's not my problem but your lack of intelligence that's causing for you not to understand it."

That was four years of frustration coming out. I stormed out.

I wasn't allowed to graduate with my class mates, but was called in by the university's director a week later. She asked me what had happened, so I told her.

"What would your next steps be", she asked.

"I don't know. What can I do?"

"Well... you could file a formal complaint against him at the graduation comittee, for discriminating because of your background."

I was dumbfounded to be honest. I didn't expect her to say that.

I answered: "That is actually something I find fitting in this situation and I want to do that."

Her eyes started to sparkle. "I am so happy you want to do that. This would be the third formal complaint against [teacher's name] and I can finally fire the bastard."

For four years I believed I wasn't good enough to be in the arts. I let one person's opinion get to me. Even after graduating, this teacher's voice kept haunting me whenever I was drawing. I didn't draw for years because of it. But I'm very happy we got rid of him, and spared hundreds of students his bullying.

A few years ago I spoke to a former classmate. I thought she was well-liked by this teacher but it turned out he bullied her too. People like that shouldn't be teaching young people.

It taught me to never trust someone else when I feel something is right for me, and to speak out whenever it's necessary.

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

Neither here nor there, really, but at Georgetown, I was definitely the "dumb blonde" in my Turkish class. It was a small cohort of maybe 10-12 students, and there were so few resources back then for learning the language aside from our textbook, and I didn't have the natural opportunities to practice that I did with other languages. I walked into that class thinking "I'm so good at language, I'll rock this!" because I'm fluent in French. Turkish is not French. Everyone there already spoke some kind of related-ish language. I'll always recall the girl sitting next to me, a total polyglot, casually complaining: "I always get this confused with my Azerbaijani!" Me too, girl. Me too.

I studied that language for two years and never did learn to put a proper sentence together, but it forced me to humble myself and think quickly on my feet. I did my best to make up for it by semi-assuming the role of class clown and making people laugh.

I did love learning about the culture and country through the language, though, even if the grammar went over my head. And I learned enough to slowly, painstakingly, write an email in Turkish to a (Turkish) mentor of mine who was moved to tears receiving it. Although, next time we got together in person and I could barely say "thank you," I think he was a bit disappointed. Womp womp!

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

Anna: Well, he kind of had to, since he moved my seat back to where it was and needed to explain to the class what he'd done and why. But, he was good about it, and in my misty memory I believe he chuckled and patted himself on the back for his ability to clarify the subject for those, such as me, who were having a hard time grasping the rules and methods of algebra.

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

In eighth-grade algebra, I almost always received a "D" for my homework but more often than not received an "A" on my tests. Here's why: my father was a single dad, didn't have time to help me with my homework, and I struggled with it. But, after the math teacher explained the problems and the correct solutions on the blackboard while discussing the homework we had done, I got it. However, the teacher distrusted those results and ultimately, as he passed out that week's test, asked me – in front of the entire class – to sit in front, facing the blackboard. I nervously, somewhat embarrassed, and full of doubt, took my seat at the front, all alone and with no one on either side of me, facing the blackboard. I received an "A" on the test, as usual, and afterwards my teacher not only explained to the class why he had put me where he did, but apologised. I became one of his favourite students after that and he even allowed me to act out for the rest of the class a Jonathan Winters' "Little Green Men" skit while sitting at the teacher's desk.

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I was so bad at art and did not hide the fact that i resented having to take it to graduate high school. My art teacher wrote in my report card that I approached art like a senile retiree. He didn't use the word senile, but that was the import of what he wrote.

So, we became, to my adolescent mind, mortal enemies. What follows is embarrassing to me and I'm still ashamed of it.

I used to miss school quite a bit with the aid of notes from my mother. I got good grades and I liked taking Fridays off, which was one of the days I had to take art.

I went to a private school. So one day my art teacher said to me in front of the whole class, "Roberts, you miss a lot of school. What if I decided to miss school like you did?'

My insufferably entitled reply, "You're paid to be here; I pay. That's the difference."

He said nothing in reply. I think he was shocked at my impertinence. I'm still shocked at it.

In order to graduate with honors, you had to be approved by every department. I did not graduate with honors.

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When I was 15 in high school I had a boyfriend for a couple of months. We hung out all the time, at school breaks, after school, on the weekends. He was your typical immature 15 year old and I liked him.

One day we were walking in the school grounds after class, his friend walking beside him and my best friend beside me. The boys were walking behind us and were making jokes and jeering at us, which we eventually ignored after telling them to shut up a couple of times. My boyfriend kept going, getting annoyed at us for ignoring them. Making comments like ‘oi! I’m talking to you’. He then progressed to trying to trip me and laughing with his friend. When that didn’t emit a response he kicked me at the back of my knee, not very hard but enough to wobble.

I was surprised, shocked, more than anything. I think I turned round and shouted some profanities at him before storming off to the girls toilets with my friend, where I proceeded to cry. Overwhelmed by whatever emotions I was feeling. I remember feeling confused about what to feel but ultimately I had a conversation with him after school, he dismissed the event and told me I was being silly.

I think it was the following evening I broke up with him.

I don’t think I articulated it well at the time but I know I didn’t want to stand for that kind of behaviour and his dismissive attitude when I had tried to resolve it.

What bothered me more than the original event however, was how I was then treated at school by some of the boys (and girls) he knew/ had told about it. They put it in the context of “is he REALLY beating you though” and jeering about it, and commenting that I had ‘over reacted’.

I felt so shameful and uncomfortable. Like I’d done something wrong by not tolerating that behaviour. In the grand scheme of things, I moved on and it hasn’t played a huge amount of significance in my life apart from the fact that I still don’t tolerate bullsh*t.

Now I think about it and know it was significant, it showed me how society would react if I spoke out or did something as bold as ‘dumping my boyfriend’. Or how other people can make you doubt yourself, even though you know you were right.

Thankfully I had a super supportive Dad who always championed me to be independent and fierce and never follow the crowd 🥰

This was 14 years ago… and I think the exact same situation and outcome would happen if it happened today 🫤

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Feb 18Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

In kindergarten, we had to tie a bow under the day of the week it was when we were student of the day. I had been practicing tying my shoes for months, but I just...could...not...Everyone in my class to that point had been able to do it, so I was getting very nervous that I would be the first that couldn't. I stepped up to the board and lo and behold, I tied that darn string. Clutch performance of my life right there.

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Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

Such a good question. I'm lying in bed reading my emails and this one has made me sit up and want to give an answer right now. The one that comes to mind was after our exam results when I was 16. My friend and I both got 8 X As which back in the 80s in the UK was a big deal. We had exactly the same results. But I later found out the deputy head then spoke to my friend to tell her the school thought she should apply to Oxford after her A levels. We'd had the same results but she didn't speak to me. Why? I think it was because, although we had the same results, I didn't seem as intellectual as my friend. I was different, more down to earth, unassuming. Anyway once I found that out I was determined to get into Oxford, which I did, we both did. But unlike my friend I was desperately unhappy there and left after a year, destroying my relationship with my mother at that point (a different story). When the deputy head found out I'd left Oxford she rang me up and asked me if I'd left because I'd failed my exams!!! This was not the case. I had passed my exams. I just didn't like it there. Once again she showed an incredible lack of belief in me. Anyway I transferred to a different university nearer my home town, got a first class honours degree three years later and a few years after that went back and got an MPhil and then a PhD. I think inside I was always trying to prove myself to that teacher and to all of them who thought my friend was better than me. But in many ways it took me away from really knowing who I was and what I really wanted to do. I'm only now finding that out in my 50s!

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Not specific to this article but I love your nothing vs everything narrative! It makes the existential feel more mundane and relatable in the best way possible

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Feb 16·edited Feb 16Liked by Anna Codrea-Rado

I remember a chat with the school's career officer that went in the most mechanical and depressing way possible. He went through my hugely unimpressive grades and wearily matched them to a checklist of potential careers, and I ended up getting the written version of a printout, with "librarian" being the only one of the careers I can remember. (I WISH that had come true. Also, this was absolutely an insult to librarians - it's outrageous that they were seen in that way.)

Now I look back - at an event that happened 36 years ago - and I think "you had no clue whatsoever." I don't mean me (although it's true) - I mean my career officer didn't. It was 1988. Home computing was barely a thing. Doing what I'm doing now, on the devices I'm doing it on, was pure science fiction. The world was about to change so damn fast, and none of us in that room (or outside of it) had a clue. But he advised me with absolutely certainty.

So now, I wonder about career advisors in schools nowadays. What advice are they giving? Is it "Don't doubt your own ability to at least TRY to make a weird career out of doing something you feel very strongly about, because it DOES happen, even though it is HARD and MESSY but also FUN" - or is it the bad old deterministic "economy and government and society decide your role and it's your job to fill it without kicking up a fuss, little one" stuff? Because if so - maybe we need to start doing public speaking in schools, all of us doing our weird career stuff out here. Maybe we need to cause a quiet ruckus.

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I struggled as an introvert all the time; I did have friends, but just being in social situations constantly was a strain. But the lowest moment I remember was in fifth grade I got in trouble for something very minor--laughing during dress rehearsal for a Christmas program because my friends kept tickling me--and my sister's teacher said, "Your sister is a sweet little girl, I hope she doesn't grow up to be like you", confirming everything that I already believed to be true.

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When I was little (I think around grade three) I was asked to take a special test to determine whether I was a good fit for an after-school program, called Gifted And Talented Education (GATE), at least I think that's what GATE stood for. I didn't make it into the program because I was deemed "not creative enough" with my answers. Since then, "not creative enough" has stuck as a voice in my head. I've done well in English classes--I even won an award for English in grade 12--and I've been a freelance writer for almost 20 years. But still, whenever I try to do something that pushes me outside my comfort zone, I think about that test and not being creative enough for an after-school program. Even as an adult, knowing logically that the test really doesn't say anything about me or how I might have grown (I have no idea what their parameters were for being "creative"), it still haunts me.

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This is probably more than you asked for but as it happens, I wrote about one of these moments a few years back and reading your invitation made me think of it. Here goes:

In the summer of 1966 my parents sold our house right out from under my four siblings and me, piled us into the station wagon, and drove north about 300 miles until they reached Jefferson, New Hampshire. We went from living in a Connecticut town within easy commuting distance to Manhattan to a town of less than a thousand people, less than two hours from the Canadian border. I went from being the winner of the courtesy award at Our Lady of Fatima school, to the girl Buddy Nickerson stuffed into a garbage can outside the lunch room at Jefferson Elementary. 

We were in fifth grade. I was the new girl. Buddy (not his real name), was the biggest boy in my class. In fact, he was bigger than most of the sixth grade boys and girls who occupied the other side of our shared classroom which is why I heard every question the teacher asked of them and began to mouth the answers. I made sure the teacher saw me. She made just as sure to ignore me which couldn’t have been easy because there were only 12 of us on the fifth grade side of the room and there I was twitching in my seat, sending messages to her with my eyes, because for the first time in my brief academic career I felt really smart. 

I was not smart. I just knew stuff because I dove into books to escape the world and, until a few months earlier, a convent full of wimpled nuns with high expectations had been in charge of my education. 

Now Buddy was. 

He spied me and my new friend Debby on the playground a few weeks into the school year while we were all waiting outside for the bus to come bring us home. For reasons that escape me, Debby and I strayed from the pack of fifth grade girls by the swing sets. Buddy swooped down on me like a peregrine. His brown eyes glinted above his high cheekbones, his ten-year-old arms already had muscles which rippled as they powered him towards me. Glen, his shorter, blonder, chubbier sidekick was right behind him. They raced after us as we ran to hide behind our brick school building. They cornered us next to a garbage bin, a brown barrel sitting lidless, gaping at the sky. Debby edged away but they weren’t interested in her. They’d known her since first grade. It was me they were after and it was me they grabbed first. Then they spied the barrel and immediately grasped the possibilities. 

Each boy grabbed an arm and a leg and hoisted me above the rim of the barrel. They did it so quickly I couldn’t land a kick or a punch. They kind of folded me into a “V”, shoved me in, and watched as I sank, ass-first, into the papers, pencil shavings, that red saw dust used to mop up the cafeteria when someone puked, scraps from the school lunch, and whatever had come out of the trash receptacles in the bathroom. I couldn’t reach the rims with my hands. My feet kicked uselessly above me. My skirt hiked higher with every move I made. I don’t remember what I yelled or if I yelled at all. All I knew for sure is that I wasn’t getting out of that barrel by myself and as long as Buddy was there, no one was going to help me. 

The boys lost eventually lost interest and Debby helped me get out of there. She convinced me that telling the teacher would not make things better, so I didn’t. The very next year, when we were sixth graders and couldn’t go outside for recess because of storms, we slow danced in the gym to records we played over and over. Buddy always wanted to dance with me.

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