When I was a kid, my teachers would get frustrated with the seemingly-random distribution of my abilities. They didn’t understand how I could read at a high school level but not read aloud, how I could do trigonometry, but not write cursive, how I could memorize some things instantly and others not at all. When faced with a kid who frustrates and baffles them by turns, many teachers, I’ve found, don’t seek to look further. Instead, they blame the kid.
I gathered many unofficial labels due to my parents’ refusal to get me an official one. One of the most damaging to me as a kid was the idea that I “just don’t want to succeed.”
Some of you will not have to imagine this because you lived it, but for the rest of you, imagine that you’re a kid again. Imagine you’re having trouble with something in school – doesn’t matter what it is, but just imagine that the thing giving you trouble is utterly incomprehensible to you. Someone might as well be speaking Klingon to a non-Trekkie for all the sense it makes to you. Remember the frustration you felt as a kid when having trouble with something.
Imagine you told your teacher about this frustration, and were met with a reiteration of the words that make no sense to you. When you say they make no sense to you, that you don’t understand, the teacher tells you to try harder. You don’t understand how you can try harder on something that you don’t even have a sliver of understanding about, but you try harder anyway. And you still can’t do it.
So you ask a different adult. And they give you the same explanation. And it still makes no sense. They also ask you to try harder.
You go back and forth like this for a while, and finally you give up. You don’t understand, and it’s obvious they can’t help you understand, so why should you keep trying? It’s not like you’re going to get it anyway.
And that’s when the adults start telling you that you could get it if you tried (ignoring the fact that you were trying before and it didn’t help), and when you continue to not try because you’re sick of trying to break down a metaphorical brick wall with your forehead (all that’s done is give you a sore forehead. The wall stands unperturbed.), they tell you that you must not want to succeed.
At first, you ignore them. After all, you know you want to succeed, and you just don’t understand it and don’t see the point of doing the same thing over and over again with the same results.
After a while, though, you start to wonder if they’re right. Especially as it becomes grown-ups go-to answer whenever you have any trouble with anything. You don’t want to succeed. You’re not trying. Try harder, and you’ll succeed. If you don’t succeed, it’s your fault, you didn’t want it enough.
Imagine the impact of that message as the kid starts to take it to heart. Imagine it.
What “you don’t want to succeed” did to me is it made me afraid to ask adults for help. Because I’d be blamed for the difficulty I was having an told that I just needed to try harder. The hilarity of it was that if I didn’t ask for help, I would likewise be blamed. I needed to ask for help when I was having a hard time with it. That I didn’t meant I must not want to succeed.
It became a catch-22 that absolved the grown-ups around me of any responsibility to help me learn the things they claimed to be trying to teach me. Everything was my fault for not wanting it bad enough. If I succeeded on my own without them, it was proof that I could succeed when I “wanted” to badly enough (ignoring the fact that those successes were in subjects that did and have always come easily to me, like math and science). If I asked for help, it was me being lazy and trying to get someone else to do my work for me because I didn’t want to succeed enough, and if I didn’t ask for help and struggled along on my own, it was because I wasn’t trying and didn’t want to succeed.
I have never met a kid that doesn’t want to succeed. The child’s definition of success may be different from that of the adults around them, but all kids want to succeed. When adults say they don’t, I wonder what it is the adults are trying to explain away.