Part of the joys of homeschooling is seeing my child’s face light up during our discussions, the animated way he gets excited and can sit and talk about certain subjects for 45 minutes – which he said he didn’t have the opportunity to do before. The heartbreak is hearing my child’s fears of failure.
Our new routine has merged into him pursuing his creative endeavors while I work. This is his structured/unstructured art time during the day, which he loves. There is a constant whirlwind of activity in the living room as he makes, creates, tears apart, needs glue, needs more glue, then announces glue didn’t work, he needs tape.
There are cardboard boxes cut apart with paper people cut out and colored to set the scene in his ‘stage.’ He writes his own stories and illustrates them, carefully selecting the perfect colors. Creativity is a very, very messy process I am learning.
When we settle in to do his lessons after I am done with my work, he tackles the lessons he feels confident about with ease. Until, he finds out he missed a question. Then his whole demeanor changes. My child goes from being jubilant and buoyant to anxious and nervous within seconds.
“Why does this bother you so?” I ask. “This is one lesson. Out of hundreds.”
“I’m a failure,” he answered softly. “I want to do it right and I messed up.”
We’ve been over this ground before, usually about his artwork. I’ve never been one to push my child so I don’t know where this stringent perfectionism came from.
“You just need to spend a little more time on it; just review it and try it again,” I advised.
“No, I want to get it right the first time,” he said. “I am just not smart.”
“Now hold on one second,” I began. “You are smart. I’ve had you tested, remember? You are indeed very smart.”
“But I am scared of making a mistake and doing it wrong. I am scared someone’s going to tell me I am not smart,” he admitted. “A kid told me once I was dumb, because of the question I asked. He said everyone knew the answer and that I was stupid. I haven’t forgotten that.”
Any mother can tell you how angry that made me. But children reflect a lot of what they are given, so I wondered if that child had been told he was stupid. “Did he know the answer to your question?” I asked. Cole shook his head. “If one doesn’t know something, the only way to learn is to ask sometimes.”
“But have you ever felt…I dunno how to describe it. Stupid, dumb…less than? I can’t think of the big word for it.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Has anyone ever made you feel that way?”
Oh, heavens, yes. I frowned as I thought about the person who had. An insipid little troll of a man who’s only power came from making the people who worked under him feel inferior and incompetent. This miserable person would embarrass and belittle me and the rest of the department publicly; it was almost like he felt like it was his mission to make everyone in the world feel bad about themselves.
I have never been made to feel so inferior ever – years of being the fat kid weren’t even as bad as how this person made me feel. When I was asked to be the guest speaker at an event for a local college and needed to take the day off, he rolled his eyes and said “Why would they ask you to be the guest speaker?”
I whirled in my chair, feeling like the beat dog that finally snapped and lunged for the owners’ throat. “Because before I came to work for the likes of you, people thought I was pretty much incredible at every job I had. It wasn’t until I started working for you that I realized what a stupid, incompetent, drooling person I supposedly am.”
I don’t use the word hate often but if I had to think of one person I would use it with, it would be him. I was a nervous, anxiety-riddled wreck the whole I worked for this misogynistic bully, coming home in tears many days.
Flash-forward a few gigs later and I was working for the female version of the troll. Her comments and diatribes didn’t faze me.
A co-worker asked me how I could put up with it.
“I guess after working for a troll who told me how stupid I was for so long, I am de-sensitized to it. When you’re told how stupid and worthless you are, it starts to become what you believe, even when the one telling you doesn’t matter.”
Here sat my child, feeling like because he missed one question on a quiz that he was stupid and that some mis-truth some other child told him was fact. And he asked me, if anyone had ever made me feel inferior.
“Cole, I have. And you want to know the truth of it? The people who do it, are the ones who are inferior. Anytime you have to raise yourself up by making others feel or look bad, that’s a reflection of them – not you, not me.
And more importantly, baby, by letting them make us feel that way, we are giving them far more power than they deserve.”
He nodded, “It still makes me feel like it’s the truth, though.”
“It shouldn’t, because it’s a lie. Lies when they are told enough can feel like the truth but eventually, we realize they are just lies. Don’t let their lies become your truth.”
I don’t know if this made sense to my child but somewhere in the core of my soul, it started to ring true with me.