I got my first real taste of judgement in ninth grade. I had just started the magnet school. I was comfortable. I had been with the same classmates, by that time, for several years. We were a unit, becoming part of a larger one. I had no concerns.
Ms. Nota was my ninth grade Honors English teacher.
The year started as every other one had, weather still too warm to buy into the fact that it was fall, and me still high from my summer reading. I loved it, that reading list. And the beach. I did most of my reading on the beach, which, for me, remains an intoxicating combination.
I never worried about my studies. School had always come easily to me. I would learn, two years later, though, that physics was not my thing, which was okay. I got by (with a little help from my friends, of course).
Long story short, Ms. Nota and I did not see eye to eye during our time together. I was literally shocked into silence when I received my first graded essay from her. She gave me a C. I had never received a C in English, and didn’t know what to do. English was my thing. I did my best to shake off the uneasy feeling that I may not be standing on solid ground with her, by reminding myself that I had won a statewide essay contest a mere three months earlier, had never received below an A in English, and had won the school’s spelling bee more than once. Hadn’t she seen my record?
I handed in the next paper. C minus. Though this paper, after my attempt to discuss the situation with her, came with a smattering of what I believed was truly behind the grades.
During the conversation, there were intonations that I wasn’t “like the other students in the class,” and that my acceptance into the Honors English Program (which, ironically, was determined by a submitted essay), might have been some sort of mistake. I know I didn’t look (dress, or talk) like anyone in my English class, but I never did. For the most part, I had been with them since fourth grade, and there was never any line delineating me from anyone else, or anyone from anyone else, so I was genuinely confused.
Sure, I wasn’t wearing Birkenstocks, my backpack wasn’t from LL Bean, and it certainly wasn’t monogrammed, and I wore lipstick. And a walkman. And hoop earrings. I was finding myself. I was thirteen.
I put my head down and continued to work, silently hoping she’d realize she was the one making the mistake. The third paper? A D. A D. My first-ever D. And then came the Deficiency, the notice I received that my grade was below a B, and that if I didn’t improve, I would be removed from the program. Removal from the program, by the way, meant I could never get back in.
At that point, I talked to my parents. I urged them that they had to come in, that this lady clearly had some issue with my appearance, my demeanor, or with herself, because it wasn’t my writing. I was sure of it. I managed somehow, though, in almost the same breath, to convince them I could handle the situation myself. Because, you know, I was a kid. They backed off.
The last straw came near the end of the year, when she hobbled (yes, hobbled) into my homeroom, asked for a paper (that I had refused to write on principle), and loudly announced, with a chuckle, “You could FAIL!” I was never so embarrassed, hurt, or confused in my fourteen years. Had I shrunk any smaller, I’d have slid clean out of my clothes and into the space between the floor tiles.
Though we set up a meeting and went through the appropriate steps, at the end of ninth grade, based on my letter grade (a C), I was no longer part of the Honors English Program. I could not take the AP English test at the end of twelfth grade (though I would take the SAT-II Writing, scoring in the 93rd percentile), and I would no longer share discussions, books, or homework with those whom I had been sharing for the past six years.
Every year following, I would walk into my English class with my heart in my shoes. I grew accustomed to my subsequent English teachers taking me aside after I handed in my first paper, informing me about and recommending me for the Honors English Program, forcing me, three times, to rehash the saddest, most painful story in my young life, and watching the silent half-nod from each teacher when they realized we were stuck.
I went home and cried after each iteration of that story. And cursed Ms. Nota. Cursed her within an inch of her life.
All these years later, I have lingering regret. I feel I let her win. I should have fought harder. I should have insisted my parents address the situation earlier. But I was stubborn, and I knew, I mean, inherently knew, I had done nothing wrong.
When I graduated high school, I swore I’d dedicate my first book to her. But you know what? She is (or was, who knows) not worth it.
And though I’d like to stop this post right here and have her eat her smugness, her judgment, and her abuse of power, I can’t. Because it’s Easter. And there are a lot of people like her out there.
So, what I’m asking you today is to reserve your judgment. And if your urge is strong, please look beyond the surface of the situation. Your behavior and actions may have emotional and far-reaching consequences. Just because someone doesn’t look, dress, or act like you, or share your love of albacore tuna, doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And on the other side? When you know, I mean really know, that someone is wrong about you, especially about your passion, you just keep swimming. Like your life depends on it. Because you will get to that island, and when you do, I promise you’ll forget about the waves that rose up to push you off course.