How I became Stupid…

” Later after school, she said,“you know Doug I was wondering,… does dumb run in your family?” I had been taught that the teacher was always right. “

Doug Pacheco

I was never a great student although I tried hard especially in Math class. But try as I may, I never really seemed to get a lot of the concepts right. I just didn’t like it. My personality was always to look outside and think about being with other people. I was such a social child, that; to me, everything else in school just seemed to get in the way of talking with people, laughing with people and interacting with others. I knew that it was important to learn reading, and spelling and geography, and I did those pretty well, but I always wanted to “cut to the chase” and get out and be around people. That was what I liked, because I was good at making friends and influencing people! (Apologies to Dale Carnegie).

I don’t want you to interpret what I am saying as “learning isn’t important”because I am not saying that. But I recognize that the model of every student doing the same work as every other student, was not one that suited me. The content of the classes was very important, but the way I learned was in short bursts, not long class lectures and repetition. It bored me, and quite honestly, when a young boy gets bored, he acts out. Sometimes they cause trouble, sometimes they talk, or make jokes, or fiddle around with things in their desks. I did ALL of the above. And my teachers weren’t quite sure what to do with me.

At times, I was told to go to the principal’s office, other times I was given the assignment of writing 100 times on the blackboard, “I will not talk during class”. I got pretty good at that one, although my parents did not like having to pick me up after school because I had missed the bus. I understand their frustration with me. The teacher was trying to teach 35-40 kids and here was this “troublemaker” frustrating their best efforts. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was just bored and couldn’t concentrate for long periods of time.

For a while, I think the faculty thought I would learn my lesson, but it stretched into years.I got up in the morning dreading school, and not because I didn’t want to learn, but because I knew that the little gremlin inside of me that wanted to socialize would get the better of me sometime during the day and I would get in trouble. I really liked my teachers, and wanted to please them especially from first through third grades.

In about 4th grade, my teacher took it to a new level…she began publicly humiliating me and man, did she have an arsenal of weapons! Many time I would walk into the classroom and smile and say “Good morning Mrs. —– “and she would roll her eyes as if to say, “it was until you got here!” There were times she would say, “Okay, let’s see if even Doug can answer this question!” I felt my face turning red and got sick to my stomach. When I would raise my hand when she would ask a question to the entire class, she would look and me and say, “put your hand down, I want a good answer!”

On one particular day, when I answered a question correctly and expected to get an “attaboy”, she said, “well, what do you know, he got one right!” to the laughter of all my classmates. Later after school, she said,“you know Doug I was wondering,… does dumb run in your family?” I had been taught that the teacher was always right. My parents had raised me to believe what adults said was true, and so in answer to her question and in a broken voice I recall saying very quietly, “I guess so.”

And the die was cast… I was stupid and everyone knew it. That night on the bus, I didn’t look forward to going home and getting on my bike. I walked through the woods and cried my eyes out. Here I was at 9 years old, and I was stupid and it must be true because my teacher had told me so. My parents didn’t really know what was wrong. I just changed. I became sullen and angry.

Over the next two years, I would like to say that I buckled down and got with her program, but instead, I declared war. She would say “Everyone back in class after recess at 11:30!”, but I would walk in at 11:35. She would assign a punishment, I would smile and say, “is that all?” She would glare at me and I would smile and say, “how about something really hard?” “Is this all you have for me?” This brought me to the attention of the principal, who, knew my parents and called them in. I would like to say, I got to tell my side of the story, but instead I got in more trouble at home. I feigned being sick so much,that even when I really was sick, my “cry wolf” routine, fell on deaf ears. I hated myself, because I had no brains, and going to school just underlined that very clearly.

When I entered Jr. High, (that’s middle school for you Millennials), a less structured learning style came to my rescue. I was thrilled to have shorter classes and the opportunity to leave the classroom between classes, meet people and go to another class. My grades and attitude improved greatly. My homeroom teacher was a young pretty woman named Cindy Miller.

Mrs. Miller was a diminutive woman, with glasses and very keen discernment. Many times she would gently talk to me when I would be unruly. She never tried to embarrass me. When passing her in the hallway between classes, I recall she would come across the hallway just to say hello to me. My hard shell began to crumble, but the deeply ingrained habit of not doing my work, was still alive.

One day, when I had not done my lessons, Mrs. Miller sent a runner to the gym where I was at basketball practice, with a note to my coach. He told me she wanted to see me in the reading lab. I figured I was in trouble. When I walked in, she was angry with me, because I had promised to do my work and had simply broken my promise. She told me to get in “push up” position for punishment and I obliged. However unlike my elementary school teacher, Mrs. Miller did something no one had ever done.

She knelt down next to me, and began to weep. “Doug, you are so smart, and you have so much talent, how can I help you sweetheart?” She was appealing to me. “I hear your answers in class, and they are so smart, and you analyze things so well. She continued, “and every teacher I talk to likes you and they say you are a natural leader, but you seem bent on destroying yourself!” Tears were streaming down her face. She then asked the question of questions… “Who told you that you were stupid?”

There it was!!!! It was the question that unlocked 8 years of falsehoods that I had believed about myself. I could not stand it any longer and at 14, I began to cry like a baby right there on her reading lab on the floor. She took me in her arms and cradled me while I wept all the while telling her of what had happened for years. It felt as if for the first time,someone finally believed me! Oh, just to hear those words, “Doug you are so smart….” They wiped clean the blackboard written with 10,000 sentences that read, “dumb runs in my family”. I thought, “She knows…she really knows that I’m not dumb!” I was a mess. Snot, and tears, and drooling and crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath….machine gun crying I call it.

Fora moment I felt like I was going to get caught crying by my friends, but we were alone in that lab, and she just kept repeating, “you are not dumb, you are not dumb, you are not dumb!” and then she changed it to “You are so smart, you are so smart, you are so smart!” that made me cry more, because I had NEVER had the audacity to believe something like that.

She took my face in her hands and said, “Doug, you don’t have to learn like anyone else, talk like anyone else,or BE anyone else….you just be you. I like who you are!”  Today, in a politically correct world, we have removed that humanity from our teachers, but Cindy Miller was no straw woman. She was little, but she had tough love, and her tears were the key to healing my wounded soul. She became my personal cheerleader while I was in Jr. High School. She would walk up to me between classes and ask how my classes were going with genuine interest. She was my school mom. By 9thgrade I was averaging a B+ in about every class. I left Jr. High School without ever saying goodbye to her, and have never seen her again.

On my first day of High School, I remember walking into the main hallway and trying to find my homeroom like every other sophomore. Upon finding my room, I walked in to find many of my Jr High School classmates in the same homeroom.

The homeroom teacher began calling roll, and when he came to my name, he stopped and held up a note and said, “this is a message for you”. I thought it might be from my parents, but it was a sealed envelope with beautiful penmanship with my name on it. I went back to my desk and opened it, without anyone looking. There, on the paper was a singular line written, with the words, “Smart runs in your family!” Good luck Doug!” It was signed by Cindy Miller.