"I'm no good at math."
I must have heard this come out of my daughter's mouth a thousand times over the years. When she was in primary school, she would hide behind the curtains and cry when it came time to review her math homework. She hated it so much, and there was no convincing her otherwise.
Then we moved to Florida from Britain, and she joined the international baccalaureate program at Largo High School during second semester, ninth grade. The IB coordinator took a chance on her, and into Algebra 2 Honors she went. (He warned me it was hard, and he wasn't kidding.) Unsurprisingly, it was a major shock to her system; it's hard enough to switch schools, much less countries. She failed math quiz after math quiz. But her teacher, Mr. Britton (no, the irony is not lost on me), wouldn't give up on her--he'd work with her, one on one, every Wednesday after school. Instead of making her learn American math methods, he adapted to her British methods. She passed Algebra 2 with a B, thanks to his patience and diligence. Then we found out he was moving to New York City, and I panicked--what would she do without him?
And along came Dee Baker, the new IB math teacher, from Virginia. She said on her first parents' evening that she decided to become a math teacher to help kids who hated math, because she hated math as a kid, too. Ed and I were blown away by her--she was inspiring, enthusiastic, organized and fair. She made math fun, but didn't put up with any nonsense. She demanded excellence with a smile.
Georgina was taught by Mrs. Baker for three years. Mrs. Baker taught Georgina not only math, but more importantly, persistence, patience and grit. She learned that hard work often pays off. As Georgina wrote in one of her college essays, "I learned that, 'Hey, I'm actually pretty good at math.'"
Mrs. Baker inspired a girl to excel in a subject that girls are taught from a very young age, with both conscious and unconscious bias, that they aren't very good at.
And this week, Georgina won a math award at the high school's annual awards ceremony.
I hugged Mrs. Baker afterwards, trying not to cry, and told her she changed Georgina's life. Mrs. Baker modestly replied, "She did all the hard work." I responded, "She used to hate math. You gave her the tools and the confidence to overcome her fear of math. Consider this moment one of those reasons why you do what you do--your influence on her will last her whole life."
And I speak from experience. When I was in ninth grade at Clearwater High School, I had an English teacher named Joyce Parker. We learned this week that sadly, Mrs. Parker has died. She was, in the words of my good childhood friend Peggy, a "tough cookie. She taught me the beauty of the five-paragraph essay." And my wonderful childhood friend Sarah Lynn, whose mother also taught English with Mrs. Parker, said, "Without her I would not have sought out Kipling when I'm in need of solace. We learned how to write properly and take care with our spelling."
Like Mrs. Baker, Mrs. Parker was kind, and she also didn't put up with any nonsense. I hated memorising Julius Caesar. I was bored by writing the root meanings of prefixes and suffixes on index cards. And yet I remember nearly all of them to this day (but of course forget where I've put my handbag). And as an editor and a writer, I use the knowledge that Mrs. Parker beat into me every single day of my working life. I liked her, and I respected her. She made me work hard, and I knew that the As I got in her class, I earned, just as Georgina did.
Teachers put up with a lot of crap. I know firsthand, because I trained as a high school social studies teacher. By chance, instead of a high school, I ended up at Forbes in New York, and the rest is media history. The hours teachers put in are long, they are underpaid, and the level of hassle is off the charts. And yet these wonderful human beings persist. They change lives. They make the world better. Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Parker, you left your mark on many, many children. And Dee Baker, as with me and Joyce Parker, I guarantee you that Georgina will remember you, and still be using the tools you taught her, long after we are both gone.
Do you remember this 1970s Crackerjack TV ad? (If you don't, then just watch it. That's why I embedded it. You're welcome.) "Whaddaya call a kid who can swing like that? You call that kid a Crackerjack."
This ad popped up repeatedly during Saturday morning cartoons when I was a kid, and jealousy would surface. I would bitterly think, "What's wrong with me? How come I'm not really good at any one thing? I'm not a Crackerjack kid." I certainly wasn't that girl in the ad: I took gymnastics, and while I managed to learn how to do an aerial, I never could master a back handspring or the uneven bars because my arms were too skinny and weak.
My grandmother would buy me Crackerjacks. I'd first dig out the prize, then pick out the peanuts, and finally crunch the caramel-coated popcorn, all the while feeling like a fraud. And just as I embedded this charming ad for you, dear reader, that stupid ad has been embedded in my subconscious my entire life. Thank you, Crackerjack, for introducing me to Imposter Syndrome.
I always envied people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up, or who were driven enough to be truly amazing at just one thing. Crackerjack's ad preceded Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours of practice" theory in his book Outliers by decades (I never would have practiced like that for anything anyways), and I didn't know at the time that it might have been helpful to weigh 50 pounds and have a Romanian gymnastics coach. I just thought you were born with extraordinary talent. What I wanted to do as a kid was watch TV, play with my friends, swim, and read a whole lot. But who got to be a Crackerjack kid for reading a lot? Nobody. But you might get a certificate from the library. (Maybe that's why when I was in second grade, I decided I wanted to be a librarian. That didn't work out.)
Fast-forward to college. I love history, and make it my major. I get a teaching qualification so I have an excuse to study history. We are in a recession when I finish graduate school with a second history degree. And after working in a group home with disabled adults (I loved it but couldn't support myself on it) and very successfully holding down a night job as a drunken barfly, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing, I got my first job in ad sales. That's what was on offer at the recruitment agency, and I grabbed it. It was a history magazine—close enough.
My resume is like a 19th-century traveling salesman's covered wagon: There's a little bit of everything in there. Writing? Check. PR? Check. Editing? Commissioning? Outreach guidance worker? (Yes, seriously.) Check. Check. Check. TV and film. Architecture. Travel. Alcohol. Business and productivity. Technology. The refugee crisis. Syria. Global warming. Cancer research. Financial inclusion. I sometimes feel like that granddad who bores the pants off everyone at a dinner party because he's got something to say about everything.
And for a very long time, I thought this hodgepodge was a weakness. I wasn't an expert in anything. But then the internet and smartphones showed up. And now we've all got to keep swimming, like sharks, or we become obsolete, at least in my field.
So where do I want to be five years from now? (Yes, someone actually asked me that in an interview. Nil points for originality. I resisted the urge to reply, "Paying the fecking mortgage, mate.") I don't know. And I have now (mostly) made peace with winging it—or at least I've learned to live with the uncertainty. I bought a copy of How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell, to see what he has to say on the matter. The 16th-century French philosopher was frank, and I like frank. I'll share what I find out.
But as I said last night to my daughter's friend, who displayed her artwork, which explores her own existential crisis, at a beautiful exhibition put on by high school seniors, "I completely relate to everything you did here. It's okay to feel like this—it took me this long to figure that it's okay." She replied that she felt relieved that it wasn't just her. I hope she realizes that there are millions of us.
So, here's what I've learned so far: