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Success is believing in yourself
Most of your applicants went through school being told that they were the best, that they were intelligent, successful, talented.
I went through school being told I was stupid.
It began in first grade. My teacher told my mother that I needed extra help: tutors and summer programs for students behind in school. But here’s the truth — I didn’t have a learning problem. I just couldn’t see a thing.
Whenever my teacher put a lesson on the board, it was blurry. And when I would ask the student next to me what it said, I was told I was disrupting class. Soon I stopped asking.
In first grade, I was put in the remedial reading group along with Marco and Emilio, two brothers from Mexico who spoke no English but soon became my friends.
I was the last of three brothers to pass through elementary school. My teachers, who had watched my brothers thrive, couldn’t figure out why I was so bad and my brothers so good. They made obvious their perception, that I was bad and stupid. And when I would look back at them, everything was a blur.
At school, kids would hold their spelling test scores high over my head, bragging that they were smart and I was not. At home, my brother would taunt me by calling me the “bad-stupid boy” of the family. And as of then, I was. I felt stupid, and everyone seemed to agree.
Back then, I don’t remember trying to change people’s perceptions. But when you’re so young and you don’t know who you are other than what people tell you, you believe what they say. I believed I was bad and I believed I was stupid, and so I acted that way. I didn’t want glasses to see the board because making friends was all that I had. Cool kids didn’t wear glasses, and I needed to be cool.
Teachers didn’t believe in me. But there was one teacher who was different, who looked at me and saw someone else. Mrs. Kirk, my sixth grade teacher, was the first person who believed that I was better. And there was one thing she said that righted the course of my academic ship.
“You’re better than you think you are,” she said as she held me late in her classroom after school. “You’re better than you think you are.”
And that was where my trouble ended. No one had believed in me, and I hadn’t believed in myself. But Mrs. Kirk helped change that.
Mrs. Kirk had told me that I wasn’t bad and that I wasn’t stupid, and so slowly I began to play catch-up. My parents took me to the optometrist and I received eyeglasses. I entered the seventh grade, and for the first time, I could see the board. I took notes during class and there was no reason to zone out. At night, I had my parents quiz me on basic fundamentals I had never learned in elementary school.
By the end of the year, I got my report card; I was on the honor roll. I continued to improve and challenge myself. I elected to join an eighth grade advanced history class that began an hour before school. By the time I started high school, I was all caught up. It was as easy as that — all I needed was a pair of glasses, some hard work, and a belief in myself.
While my outlook had changed quickly, others had moved more slowly. I have not forgotten the reaction from the girl next to me when I took a seat in the first period of ninth grade — Geometry Honors.
“What are you doing here?”
To my peers, I was still not an academic. They couldn’t grasp the fact that I wanted to be a scholar, that I wasn’t bad or stupid. And it wouldn’t be easy to change their minds.
I received my report card that year: 4.0.
If you look at my high school transcript, you would find no evidence that I was ever “stupid,” that I was ever an underachiever. And there is surely no evidence that anyone ever thought I was. Instead, you would have to look deeper, ignoring my grades and looking at my actions. Even though I have now excelled in school, being “behind” gave me the experience of feeling at a disadvantage—of knowing what it was like to have people think I was unintelligent. I have never forgotten my roots—the feeling of being lost in the classroom, the feeling of inferiority. I now strive in high school to share my good fortune, to raise awareness of educational inequality, and to mentor kids from disadvantaged backgrounds so that their confidence may grow.
This year, I am a tutor for Sal and Heidi, two students who are seeking to become first-generation college graduates. Looking into their eyes through my well-worn glasses, I sense their fear. It is a fear of failure, and it is a fear of ridicule — which I once felt.
“Well, some day you may fail a test,” I tell them, “and someone will call you stupid.”
As I speak, I think of the times when I felt ashamed because I could not read.
“But we will rise to try again,” I continue. “And this will make us better. With a belief in ourselves, we can succeed.”
With this, Sal and Heidi smile. It may be a challenge for them to go to college, a goal that some perhaps have told them they cannot achieve. But I know they can. I know that they are better than they think they are.
Sal and Heidi have not yet connected with their biggest advocates, the people who know that they will make it. And when they ask me who those people are, I tell them to start by finding a mirror — in order to succeed, they need to believe in themselves.