EE - Exceeds Expectations
EE was equivalent to an A in elementary school. I remember getting all EE's on my report cards. I always exceeded expectations. I was great at math, I kicked ass in reading comprehension, and my writing was so good that my teachers would often have me read my stories at the front of the class.
For years, I was pulled out of my afternoon classes to go to a special gifted class at the school library. At those classes, we got to do really neat projects that were somewhat guided by adults, but were mostly based on questions we asked. We were allowed to be curious and to find answers to our expanding list of questions. While other kids stayed in class gluing bits of colored paper to a larger colored paper, we got to do things like create micro sets of a city to film mini movies, or work on science labs that most kids wouldn't touch until high school. One year, I was even singled out to take a solo field trip to the local high school to meet with the newspaper team and learn about journalism.
So many adults in my life believed in me.
And then suddenly... it ended.
My mother, worried for our everlasting souls, stuck us in Catholic school. Worst. Decision. Ever. I was still one of the smarter kids in class, so the other students were impressed, but the nuns and B-team teachers favored the kids that behaved well and sat quietly. From reading my blog, you must have a few assumptions about me, one of which is that I probably wasn't the kind of kid to sit quietly. Your assumption would be correct. No, I was the kid that argued religious dogma and questioned why we were praying more than equating. My only other ally was a girl named Shannon Smith. We had a bit of a rivalry, always vying for the best grade in class. If it wasn't for her and our sometimes unfriendly competition, my brain would have turned to oatmeal. Eventually, we left Catholic school, not because my mom saw the error of her ways, but because she and my step-dad were heading towards divorce and finances would be tight. Tuition was no longer a luxury we'd be able to afford.
Plus, Catholics frown upon divorce.
I entered a public junior high at a school that I wasn't supposed to go to using a friend of the family's address. My mom didn't want me to go to the school where I had toured the newspaper at because, in her mind, there were too many bad kids there. By "bad," she meant Mexicans and Blacks. I always reminded her that A) we were Mexican, and B) there were rumors that my dad had a not-too-distant African ancestor, so technically, she was taking me away from the very things that I was. She just shushed me and sent me to the whiter school anyway. This move planted a tiny seed of self-hatred that would eventually blossom into the bleaching of my hair and denying my own ethnicity for many years.
I didn't know ANYONE. I was surrounded by Barbies and Kens, and I felt out of place as a fat, wiry-haired Mexican kid in my Waspy/Mormon surroundings. My only redeeming quality that saved me were my blue eyes. Those gave me a pass. The hairy legs and arms of my people? Not so much. But I eventually, I shaved my legs, made some friends, and started to fit in.
Middle school was the start of being ushered from class to class by bells. Each forty minute increment was lead by an overwhelmed teacher who had too many kids to deal with. Nobody even bothered to find out how smart I was. Nobody had time. That was something that needed to happen at home, but the adults in my life were even more overwhelmed than my teachers.
By the ninth grade, I was ditching class a lot, mostly because nobody was paying attention. I'd show up only to beg forgiveness of the teacher to let me back in. I had found a couple of sisters with parents that didn't pay attention, either. They left joints and pills laying around after mid-week binges and the sisters would imitate that behavior. I learned to smoke Marlboro Lights and Virginia Slim Menthols, the same cigarettes that the girls' parents smoked.
I remember one afternoon, putting a cigarette out just as I rounded the corner to come home. I caught a WASPy woman's eye inside the house a few doors down from mine. She gave me the "tisk tisk" look and shook her head disapprovingly. For a split second, I felt the warmth of shame cover my face. It quickly faded to a resentful and arrogant this-is-what-you-guys-expect look that I sneered back at her.
I remember my mom and grandma yelling at me every time I got in any trouble. They'd go back and forth between "this is what we expected" to "how could you let us down?" I was as disappointed and confused as they were. How COULD I let them down? They were both struggling to keep me fed, housed, and clothed. I never once thought about the fact that they showered me with such negative expectations.
I was exceeding their worst expectations because that's the bar they set.
Whatever it was I wanted, any idea or goal I had in my mind, my family would just shoot down. Instead of cheers of support, I heard:. "Oh sure you will" or "And then you'll think you're too good for this family" or "With what money?" But the little girl who got pulled out of class for special projects just because she was smart... that little girl never gave up. She got quiet for a while, but she was always there, in a tiny little box, waiting for someone to let her out again.
It wasn't until half way through the tenth grade that I met people that told me I could achieve the things I believed. And they helped me regain what I'd lost. But a kid's mind is impressionable. In the back of my mind, I still believed some of what the short-sighted adults believed. There were so many years that I just wanted to give up, but that spark that had been lit in grade school always fanned the flames and helped me get back on my feet.
My family meant well. They were afraid for me. That fear paralyzed them and in turn, they tried to paralyze me, not because they didn't love me, but because they DID love me. They just loved me the wrong way.
I thought about this today when I read Seth Godin's post about The Tragedy of Small Expectations. Tragedy is the most fitting word, isn't it? What we expect of the kids in our world is what they eventually expect from themselves. If we expect that they won't go to Pepperdine because the family can't afford it and the student probably won't get a scholarship, but rather end up pregnant, well guess what? She'll give up, get pregnant, and never go to Pepperdine.
And that is a tragedy.
It's the rare exception that overcomes her circumstances to go on to do great things all on her own. Most people make it because someone, or a group of someones, believed that they could. It's not about a universal secret. It's about instilling a confidence into a young person's mind, an expectation that they will win. When there's a big final coming up, rather than giving up because they probably aren't good at a subject, they'll hear that supportive voice telling them they can and will pass that test. They won't quit just because things got a little harder.
The expectations are set and they have to meet them.
If a little girl comes to you and says "I want to go to this university and study that subject and become a successful person," do her a favor, would you? Stuff all your well-meaning fears down your throat... choke on them if you have to... and then, looking beyond her skin color and her ill-fitting hand-me-downs, ignoring her present circumstances, simply say to her,
"I believe you can."
And then do everything you can to help her believe it, too.