Dunedin, FL – February 12, 2013
I remember 4th grade because I had the best teacher. Her name was Mrs. Mayfield and she was also my 3rd grade teacher. The only thing I remember learning in either grade were multiplication tables. You remember, 1×1, 1×2, 1×3, and so on up to 1×12. Then it would repeat with the 2s. 2×1, 2×2, 2×3.
I can still see these little paper huts along the wall over the blackboard. They were numbered 1 through 12 and each kid had a little person with their name on it that started at hut 1.
Every day we took a one minute test on the multiplication table from our hut. If we passed, our little villager moved on to the next hut. If not, we stayed put and took the same test again the next day. When we reached the last hut, we won a prize.
I got stuck at hut 12.
Day after day I took the test and day after day I failed it. To be fair, twelve is a tricky number, but it was harder to be one simple test away from the prize basket so I asked for the test to study with. I don’t remember exactly what Mrs. Mayfield said, but I’m sure it was something encouraging like, “I believe in you” or “you can do it!” when she handed me a blank test to take home.
I filled out the practice test carefully that night and sure enough, the next day, Mrs. Mayfield was right. I passed, but only because I hid the practice test in my desk and swapped it out for the real test the next day.
I remember collecting my prize–a paint set in a thin plastic case that snapped together–and how excited Mrs. Mayfield was that I finally passed.
It was the first and last time I ever cheated on a test.
Mrs. Mayfield never thought I cheated. I don’t think it even entered in her mind because beyond everything else, Mrs. Mayfield believed in us. She thought we could do anything. She didn’t just say it. She believed it. And among adults, that is pretty rare.
So what did I tell a bunch of 4th graders yesterday? I told them that the world is not full Mrs. Mayfields, but you have to act like it is.
I told them they had great imaginations, that I believe in their imaginations. That they imagine things I can’t even think of. But as they get older, adults are going to start to tell then that things are impossible.
“You can’t do that,” they’ll say.
“That will be difficult,” they’ll say.
“Why not do something less risky,” they’ll say.
And this expansive world they have in front of them will start to get cut away. Words will cut off a small bit of possibility here or there, they’ll snip off an edge, slash away another piece, round off a corner. Tiny little pieces will flutter to the ground.
Then one day, if they aren’t careful, they will start saying the same things to themselves. Other people’s words will become their words and suddenly that expansive world they live in will look very narrow, cut down to a very small place that’s tight and boring.
Don’t listen, I told them. Slap your hands over your ears and say “lalala” when people tell you things are impossible. It’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be scary, but keep dreaming, keep pushing your boundaries, keep exploring. Fail a lot, get wiped out in a storm, crash-land, but keep going, keep going after your dreams singing “lalala” to everyone who doubts.
And if you let someone’s words become your words, make sure they’re from someone like Mrs. Mayfield who always believes in you even when you cheat on hut 12.
If you’re reading this, sorry Mrs. Mayfield. I did learn those 12s eventually though, I promise.