mental health

A Different Kind of Ceiling

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe,’ and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.”

~Malcolm X

Storytime! At my high school, the end of the English year meant term paper time. Everyone knew and expected it. You’d get a general topic, and you had a few weeks to turn in at least five pages of double-spaced work, complete with citations and references. It was pretty standard for an Honors class, and everyone knew the drill. So when Junior year rolled around and the teacher gave us the option of writing about any author we wanted, it felt like a jackpot. I’d just finished reading Les Miserables, and my brain was surging with joy for Victor Hugo and his way with words. I dove into the library (yes, library – we didn’t have Google back then) with a giant stack of notecards.

And then things started to unravel.

For some of my classmates, that year was their first experience in an Honors class. And they weren’t prepared or – if I’m being honest – qualified. They complained about EVERYTHING. Quizzes ended up open book to accommodate the fact they hadn’t read the material or studied. She offered Pygmalion as a substitute when they whined that Waiting for Godot was too hard to understand. (I read both – mostly because I loved My Fair Lady) And the term paper? They threw a fit. Within a week, the teacher cut the pages down to three. Three, double-spaced? That was nothing! I protested. I sat down and wrote a long letter to the teacher, outlining every way she’d let down the advanced students. It was the first time I dared to stand up to any adult, much less an authority figure. (And, really, one of the first times I took a chance on standing up for MYSELF)

She ratted me out.

If you aren’t a female and didn’t attend a public school, allow me to clarify things for you. Girls? They’re EVIL. Mean Girls gets it right. The teacher stood in front of my desk, looked straight at me, and announced that “someone” (she didn’t use my name – I’ll give her that much) was unhappy, so the term paper limit was reinstated. I didn’t have the best school life prior to that point, but it went to rock bottom from that point on. Everyone knew who she was referring to. (Why couldn’t she have stood behind her desk to make the announcement?)

I tried to make the best of things. After all, I was already used to threats of being shoved down the stairs. People already slammed my locker shut, narrowly missing my fingers. I got tripped in the hall on a routine basis. And I learned by Sophomore year to wear my hair in a bun to prevent things from getting put in it. (Sometimes I wonder if that trauma is why I’ve chopped it ruthlessly short now) I threw myself into writing one of the best papers of my school career. I was incredibly proud of it. And despite my teacher’s behavior, I expected professionalism from her.

I received my first harsh lesson in learned helplessness.

When our graded papers came back, I flipped to the last page. There was a red “A” written there. I was happy, of course. Until I started to go back through the rest of the paper. Nothing. No marks whatsoever. No notes, no edits, NOTHING. She never read it. Because I know for a fact it wasn’t a perfect paper (no one writes THAT well) I made it to the restroom before I started crying. And I tore the paper to shreds.

As I got older, others reinforced the lesson. I’d attempt something I thought was amazing or noteworthy, and they’d shrug. I’d hold out my accomplishment with a smile, and they’d snatch the rug out from under me. It built up a sense that nothing was ever good enough. Everything I did was actually a failure. I was a dog chasing her tail – never catching it, and with zero chance of doing so. Slowly, the lesson set in: that bar was always going to be out of reach. So why bother trying?

And this happens to people all the time!

It’s a subtle, sinister form of bullying that often goes without notice. Why people do this I have no idea. I don’t know why that teacher behaved as she did. I didn’t go to the Principal with my complaint. I didn’t report her to anyone else, or even threaten to do so. I was a student going to the source. While I understand she probably felt called out, was it worth squashing a person under her heel and leaving her to the mercy of the student body? (And if you want me to believe a teacher doesn’t know what happens in a school environment, you’re crazy) She knew exactly what she’d done. She watched me flip through my paper, looking for a critique that didn’t exist. It was more damaging than if she’d cut it apart and failed the assignment – and she knew it. After all, she was aware of the intelligence level of who she was dealing with.

You can’t hold a carrot out for someone and then tell them you ate it. It’s cruel. People are PROUD of their accomplishments. When they come to you, delighted that they managed to overcome something, and you YAWN?! You might as well stab them; it’d be cleaner. It’s a sadistic practice. But it slides under the radar. People enforce a learned helplessness every day. And the victims sink further and further into depression. They get anxious over attempting anything new. They stop trying.

And maybe that’s the point.

If you’re afraid, if you stop trying, you won’t accomplish anything anymore. Which means you stop running the risk of making them look bad. I crawled into the shadows after that paper. I dropped my head and closed my mouth. I continued to turn in my assignments, of course, but I never said another word when she adjusted the curriculum to suit the class. My acts of rebellion were miniscule. (When our idiot Teaching Assistant decided we needed to play “Head’s Up 7-Up – which I hadn’t done since elementary school – I read and stared her down when she encouraged me to participate) Whatever spark of determination I might have had fizzled and died. She won.

And other people won – over and over. I kept dropping my head and crawling away in shame. I stayed out of the way. The fire grew so cold I’m amazed I ever got it warm again. Because I refuse to let that helplessness rule my life anymore. And it’s a HEAVY blanket to burn away – believe me. I cringe when I hold out something special, expecting the same “meh.” It takes every drop of confidence I’ve scraped together to stand there and say, “Look, I did this!” And if someone DOES shrug, I have to shrug in response and find someone who won’t.

There are different glass ceilings out there no one talks about. The invisible barriers people concoct when they teach you to feel like a failure. They make you ashamed and helpless – for no good reason. And, yeah, it takes hindsight to look back and realize what an amazing badass you were the entire time. Hell, I stood up to a teacher! When no one else would point out her errors, I did. (And I had ZERO confidence back then – believe me) I demanded the education I deserved. How freaking awesome was I?

And how disappointing was she to take that moment away from me? I can’t rewrite history. The years of pulling shadows over my head so no one would see my embarrassment and “failure” aren’t going to suddenly vanish in this new enlightenment. But I CAN break the cycle moving forward. I CAN hold every single thing I do right close and put it up on a shelf to admire it. And I have people who’ll stand beside me and “ooh” and “ahh.” That’s how I move on and burn the damn misery out of the way. And you can do the same thing.