Last week I started up another semester of language school. As I watched the classroom fill up, I started evaluating the rest of the class. Most of them were chattering in American English about their recent arrivals in Paris and their studies. I was really looking forward to the edge I had on them. Having lived here for a year, I was confident that not only would I be at the top of this class, but that after the first day the teacher would recommend that I move up a level.
We did a writing exercise and the teacher wandered around checking everyone’s progress. I finished early, of course, and turned my paper as she walked by so she could make corrections (LOL except she wouldn’t find any! I was totally having a Ralphie moment).
She began to mark up my paper with her red pen, and then, in a quiet classroom and in a volume that was not a whisper she said to me, in French, “Kelly, I think this class will be too hard for you. You are not ready for it. You need to go back a level.”
Wait. What. I could feel my face getting hot. I could tell it was betraying my attempt at a cool response by giving away the shame and embarrassment I felt. I immediately covered my cheeks with my hands. “Madame,” I replied in (apparently not great) French, “I already took the last course here at this school.”
“Well,” she replied, “you haven’t practiced or studied. This is not intermediate work, it is elementary.”
She walked away and continued checking papers and I immediately launched into defense mode.
These French teachers. What do they know about teaching.
My last class must have had a bad teacher. She never helped me much anyway.
I know how a good teacher is supposed to act, and that is not it.
And on and on my inner dialogue went. I texted a friend. I texted my dad.
I became aware of an old two-headed monster within myself, one that I know too well. On one side was pride, an ugly need for my classmates to know I was better than them, smarter, more experienced. On the other side was a deep fear of failure. I felt such shame; the spiral into worthlessness was immediate.
The fact that I could recognize those things in myself meant that I could engage in an inner dialogue (yes I do talk to myself, move along) that went something like this:
“That teacher is using shame to make me feel stupid. Why did I even come here.”
“Maybe she just wants you to succeed and maybe you will learn more if you repeat the last level.”
“What? That’s so stupid. I did well in the last level. Nobody in this class can even speak right.”
“Forget about everyone else, this is YOUR learning process.”
“But everyone else in here is like 20 years old. I’ve lived here for three years now. I should be farther along.”
“Are you farther along.”
“Then why did you do so poorly?”
“……because I didn’t review.”
“And because I came in more concerned about showing off my conversation skills than reminding myself of the grammar I learned last semester.”
“So maybe the teacher wants me to know it’s okay to switch if I need to, but I don’t think I need to.”
“So then what do you need to do?”
“We needs to study like we is still a student, Precious. We needs to open ourselfs to the learning process and work, Precious.”
“Tricksy French teacherses! Gollum! Gollum! Gollum!”
Sometimes when we are criticized or presented with our own failure, we defend ourselves by berating the other person (they have no clue what they’re talking about! I wonder how many languages SHE speaks!) or shaming ourselves into paralysis (she’s right, I’ll never be good at anything. I’m not smart enough for this. I’m not good at anything).
The reality is, there are times when we fail. Sometimes it’s because of things beyond our control, but if we are honest with ourselves, a lot of times it’s because we haven’t prepared. Or we’ve been prideful. Or we’re too concerned with our appearance to internalize change. Your friends will probably take your side. So will your mom. They will agree with you that your French teacher is stupid and mean and wants you to feel bad. Maybe they will tell you that you are too good for this, that it’s everyone else’s fault.
But if you want to grow, you have to look at those mistakes, grammar or otherwise, and let that criticism motivate you to improve. You have to look at that person in your life whose job is to help you grow, and admit that they’re right. You have to accept help, accept correction, and decide that you will appreciate their challenge and either put in the work or go back a level so you can improve.
And about language school…the teacher and I decided that I was in fact ready for the intermediate level. Mostly because I went home that night and studied, and have been working hard ever since – not to impress her or my classmates, but to learn, to grow, and to accept the instruction of a person who is in my life to give it.
What situation in your life right now has you at a crossroads of blaming others or accepting responsibility? Have you ever learned this lesson before? What does your self-talk look like?