Have you ever felt completely out of your comfort zone?
The way I see it, when we feel this way, we have two choices: 1) we can stay in our discomfort and let the situation grow us, or 2) we can high tail it back to our comfort zone!
My earliest memory of this was in September 1980. I was in fourth grade.
The previous school year, I was in second grade. My teacher at the time, Mrs. Tang, was teaching a combination class that year: half of us were in second grade and the other half were in third.
Second grade – just like kindergarten and first grade before it – was easy for me. I often finished my schoolwork early, so Mrs. Tang would give me the next lesson to work on. After several months of this, by the midpoint of that school year, I had worked my way through the entire second grade curriculum. So, Mrs. Tang started letting me work with the third graders on their assignments.
I don’t remember a lot about what happened next, except that there were some phone calls and a meeting with my parents and the principal. They decided to give me some special tests. After that, they explained to my parents that I was gifted, and that their recommendation was for me to go straight into fourth grade the following school year.
That’s how I found myself in Mrs. Shaw’s fourth grade class in September 1980. I had just turned eight years old. The other kids were all either nine or ten. In terms of social and emotional development, this age difference was enormous.
And despite being younger, it didn’t help that intellectually and academically, I was smarter than most of my classmates.
The day I decided to high tail it back to my comfort zone, Mrs. Shaw was teaching us how to do long division with decimals.
And I just wasn’t getting it.
Not getting it was a new experience for me; I’d never not gotten it before.
My face felt hot. I began fidgeting in my seat. I didn’t understand what was happening, or why I kept getting the wrong answer.
I was beyond frustrated; I was filled with rage.
I began to cry.
Still, Mrs. Shaw was patient. She explained it again. Then she explained it another way. She smiled and told me not to worry, that I would get it eventually.
That wasn’t good enough to quell my desire for self-immolation.
Tears burned like rivers of lava coursing down my cheeks.
The other kids were staring at me. A few of them laughed.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore; I stood up, grabbed the back of my chair – you know, the ones attached to the desks – and dragged it to the back of the classroom.
And out the door.
I pulled that desk behind me, bumping it down the cement walkway.
Mrs. Shaw peeked her head out of her classroom door. “Anita! Where are you going?” she called.
“I’m going back to second grade!” I cried back.
I don’t remember what happened next, when I finally made it to Mrs. Tang’s door, back to that familiar feeling of being the smartest kid in the class, the teacher’s pet, the mermaid in a small lagoon.
What I do remember, however, is feeling understood by Mrs. Shaw.
One day, while the other kids played on the monkey bars and chased each other around the blacktop, I stood next to Mrs. Shaw as she kept an eye on the kids during her turn as playground supervisor. We talked about all the different ways to approach a math problem. We talked about our thinking process and how sometimes, we just need to look at something a different way.
I would recall this conversation on metacognition in the middle of ninth grade, when I had gotten a D in Algebra and my guidance counselor put me into Business Math — Bonehead Math is what we called it then – so I could still earn a math credit. I passed it and retook Algebra again in tenth grade.
I finally earned an A in Algebra and regained my self-confidence.
I’ll always be grateful to Mrs. Shaw for letting me go that day. She knew that as a gifted student, no teacher or parent could ever be harder on me than I was on myself. She knew I needed to go back to where I felt secure so I could return to her class and try again.
She didn’t take it personally.
She knew my needs as a gifted learner and respected me enough to give me the time and space I needed to figure it out.
Her confidence and trust in me gave me permission to trust myself.
Now that I’m a teacher, I admire and appreciate what Mrs. Shaw did for me so much more, and I hope I can imbue my students with the same level of confidence Mrs. Shaw imbued in me.
Comfort zones are tricky; we need to breach their boundaries to grow, but ideally, we won’t do it alone.
We all need a Mrs. Shaw in our lives, whether she be a teacher, mentor, or trusted advisor.
We grow best when we not only feel seen but understood.