I spent kindergarten and first grade in a Montessori school where Caucasian, African, and Pakistani kids all played together. We were each assigned different books to read and different math problems to do, based on our skill levels. The boy who knew how to tell time before his classmates was treated as a hero, just like the girl who could draw beautiful pictures. Overall, we were not only expected to be unique, we were encouraged to be.
When I moved to a public school, in second grade, though, I noticed a very different atmosphere. My classmates generally ate the same lunches, watched the same TV programs, and played the same games. Teachers didn’t notice that kids who were different from the norm were shunned, called rude names, or believed to have “cooties.” The ones with mental or physical handicaps were ridiculed most frequently and most harshly, until they formed a separate group that didn’t play or even have conversations with the rest of us.
But disabilities weren’t the only causes of teasing and name-calling—any obvious difference was enough. For me, growing up in a progressive household in a conservative town was a recipe for being teased. When I told classmates I was a vegetarian, they called me weird, and the containers of refried beans I brought to school didn’t help my social status either. After I could no longer stand the disgusted looks my classmates gave my food, my mother consented to letting me take white bread and cheese sandwiches (organic, of course) in Ziploc bags like they did. Proud that I played creative games instead of watching TV, I once admitted to my friends that I had never seen “Blue’s Clues.” They, who watched it on a regular basis, were shocked and disapproving. So I started watching TV.
Elementary school felt like a competition to find who could be teased the least, who could be the most normal. At the same time, though, we played games where the winner stood out and was admired. Teachers taught us our multiplication tables by holding contests to see who could do them the fastest. Gym class consisted largely of running races and playing dodge ball, and kids who lost these games were often ridiculed.
As the years went by, though, it became clear that kids who often won were criticized as well. For example, my fourth-grade classmates, including my friends, loathed me for winning the weekly spelling bee every week. Their complaints were answered when my teacher changed the rules so that I couldn’t win, earning applause for the girl who did win and teasing for me who came in second. A friend of mine, who does extremely well in school, was asked by a teacher if she could name some of the Supreme Court justices. She recited all nine names with ease. Her classmates rolled their eyes. Later, a helpful classmate gave her the simple advice, “You should have pretended you didn’t know them.”
School seemed like a lose-lose situation: We were encouraged to compete, but we weren’t encouraged to win all the time.
What did I do, then? I stopped trying. My new goal was to be average, to be unnoticed. I intentionally didn’t study for tests, hoping I would be able to face the same uncertainty about the answers the other kids faced, and maybe I would not be able to get many of the answers right. I didn’t raise my hand in class because if I did I would answer the question right and appear a know-it-all. I didn’t take the most challenging classes in middle school because I didn’t want to be seen as the type of person to take those classes.
This new strategy seemed perfect. For a few years, I was able to disappear into the crowd, and I still kept my grades high enough that my parents didn’t comment. Recently, though, my mother admitted that she had been annoyed with my conformist strategy. Not experiencing what I did in public school, she couldn’t understand how anyone could be that concerned about fitting in. Most of all, she didn’t support the idea of trying to appear less capable. She hoped fervently that I would realize what I was doing, but she let me realize it on my own.
I certainly did realize it on my own, and I now have a completely different philosophy on school. How could someone know an answer and not say it? If someone could get the highest grade in class with a few more minutes of study, why not do it? It seems now like competing to be the best one can be is the only sensible thing to do.
What changed? In high school I started taking honors classes, where my classmates were all good students and my grades didn’t stand out as much. I became friends with my honors classmates and felt comfortable trying to do my best, because they did too. Finally, my classmates and I began to understand that it’s better to express and develop our talents than to try to conform. All of our talents, from soccer skills to math skills, began to earn us respect.
I look back fondly on my time in public school. This is in part because the years I remember most (the most recent ones) have been fun. But it is also because in public school I learned more than just how to multiply three times six and how to spell “threshold.” I eventually also learned how to compete and how to want to compete, skills important in a society that promotes survival of the fittest. While I criticize the encouragement of competition among young children and of students who make fun of those who stand out—both losers and winners—I support competition among high school students, who can use it to motivate themselves to do their best.
Finally, as a girl who gave up watching TV and started bringing salads to school for lunch, I think it’s important to respect, from an early age, the differences among students. I hope that in the future, the public school system will try harder to cater to students’ individual needs, so that they don’t have to wait until high school to appreciate their talents.
Aminy Ostfeld graduated from Red Hook High School as the valedictorian of the class of 2007. She currently lives in Red Hook and will be attending Brown University in the fall.