I was almost kicked out of honors English (or… The dangerous dance with “unearned” support)

Last week, Cheri wanted to reach out to everyone who supported her campaign and found that she was having trouble. Words were scarce, emotions jumbled, and her gratitude, which had been soaring, was suddenly fighting for lift against a thousand little weights clipped to her clothes like leaden ornaments.

As we worked to sort out the jumble and drop the weight, I kept thinking of the summer before my junior year of high school.

I was particularly miserable that summer. My grandmother had recently had a heart attack, and after open-heart surgery, had come to recuperate with us. My mother was working all day, my sisters grown and gone. So I was expected to provide my grandmother’s care during the day.

I loved my grandmother, but I was extremely intimidated by caring for her. Her frailty scared me, and that was on top of the language and cultural barriers that already made our relationship awkward.

Plus I was depressed, at least chronically and maybe clinically. I didn’t want to do much of anything but watch TV and eat. I certainly didn’t want to do something that made me deeply uncomfortable. And since I wasn’t being given a choice, to my depression, fear, and discomfort was added resentment and general sullenness. (Ah, to be a teen!)

Given all that, you can probably guess how little I wanted to do the mandatory summer reading for honors English!

I’d been in the honors program since the start of high school and I’d always struggled. English was never my favorite subject; I rarely studied, always procrastinated. And the previous year, my sophomore year, had been particularly bad. I was especially unmotivated, turning in late and incomplete assignments, doing very poorly on exams, zoning out in class. I was in a lot of pain, though I wouldn’t have known to call it that and wouldn’t have thought to tell anyone. And I hated my teacher. On the last day of school, I’d walked out of her class and whooped at the top of my lungs like an inmate finally freed from jail.

As the summer dragged on, my mother would periodically ask about the reading and I would generally blow her off, saying I’d do it or that I already was (because if you read a page from time to time, you’re doing it, right?). My mother’s nagging didn’t have much effect. Just noise in my background.

Until about a month before the start of school. That’s when it became clear to my mom I wasn’t getting it done and, in a seemingly sudden burst of extreme frustration, she told me this:

After final exams, Mrs. Stevens, my English teacher had petitioned to have me removed from the honors program. She claimed I was unmotivated to succeed and unprepared for the rigors of honors programming. As a student who routinely refused to study, performed poorly on exams, and required multiple extensions on assignments, I clearly did not belong in an honors program and should be reassigned to the regular track.

I was stunned. But then it got worse.

The head of the English department, having never met me, had consulted with my guidance counselor, Mr. Hooker, who rose resoundingly to my defense. Seeming to understand that I was teetering on the edge, he told the head that I was exceptionally bright and in danger should I become bored. “If you drop this kid,” he warned, “we’ll lose her.”

The head of the department had been moved by his plea, and I was allowed to remain in the program. All unbeknownst to me, until my mother dropped the story in the middle of our kitchen.

Hearing all this, I was mortified. I had no idea that Mrs. Stevens saw me as unfit, nor that Mr. Hooker had gone to bat for me. And in that moment, I couldn’t say which shamed me more.

Mrs. Stevens’ description of me as unmotivated and underperforming was completely accurate. And that mirror in my face, particularly attached as it was to rescinding a privilege, was both humiliating and humbling in the worst way. I’d not only been seen, I’d been called out and catapulted toward consequences I’d never even imagined possible.

But, in the end, the shame of that was nothing compared to how I felt having a kind man defend me when I didn’t deserve it. That was how I saw it. And it makes perfect sense. How else could I have seen it? Mrs. Stevens’ observations had been patently true.

I felt sick that Mr. Hooker had stood up on my behalf, like I’d been given a prize for an essay I hadn’t written. The fact that I was capable of writing it wasn’t good enough. Only the real thing would do. So now, I owed a debt. I’d have to write the essay and earn the prize, retroactively. I’d have to become worthy of his support, after the fact.

The upside is that it totally kicked my butt in gear. I was determined to live up to my counselor’s view of me and, sure enough, first quarter of my junior year, I was one of only two A’s in my honors English class (taught by the department head, no less).

But the down side… I became bulimic that summer, that week in fact. My shame wasn’t contained to my lack of performance in English class. I was disgusted with myself on the whole, and imperfection would no longer be tolerated. I would earn my worth across the board, starting immediately with my weight and size.

I don’t think there is one among us who hasn’t struggled at some time to receive good coming our way. But “struggling” doesn’t always look the same. Some of us outright reject or sabotage the good. Others demand of ourselves a sacrifice. If something good happens in one part of life, we secretly expect and accept that some other part of life must suffer. Last week, my struggle looked like suddenly being unable to own that I had anything to do with the good. And the summer before 11th grade, it looked like feeling unworthy and, therefore, indebted, striving to somehow earn what had already been given.

The problem then was that Mr. Hooker’s view of me was deeply contrary to my view of myself. He saw me as exceptional, full of potential, struggling, and worthy of a helping hand. I saw myself as insufficient, arrogant, a fuck up, and worthless. Given the discrepancy, the only way I could accept the gift of his support was to do everything in my power to become the girl he saw. I missed completely that I was already her.

And this brings us back to Cheri, because I think it was the same for her last week.

By participating in her campaign, more than 100 people demonstrated their belief that Cheri is worthy of love and support, and that is deeply contrary to the view she has historically held of herself. She’s working to reorganize that, of course, but in the face of such a huge outpouring, it was hard to feel deserving. The discrepancy loomed large, the indebtedness crept in, and suddenly 100 donations turned into 100 tiny weights.

And just like my teenage self, Cheri was missing completely that she already deserves.

Here’s the truth: Simply because she exists, Cheri is worthy of love and support. Every human is worthy of that – everyone — from birth. It’s only because some of us don’t get it that we become the assholes who don’t appear to deserve it. But we were all born inherently deserving love. It’s not something we have to earn.

It took me years to figure out that I deserved my counselor’s support. It was an honor to hold that truth for Cheri last week.

If you’re curious what Cheri finally had to say to her community of supporters, you can read it here.

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