(Partial excerpt from pp. 15-16 in the Frieda B. The Whole Child Educator Handbook)
I still can call up the way it felt… Sitting in a math, science, social studies class and feeling disconnected. Like I was missing something. In elementary through high school – with a few exceptions – I flew below the radar, academically. Not good enough to be recognized, not bad enough to be recognized. I rotated through the classes and classrooms, but never really meaningfully engaged. I guess the best way to put it is that I didn’t have an academic identity.
I had friends and peers all around me who excelled, academically, in one way or another. When I thought about it too much, it intimidated me. Thankfully, for whatever reason, I didn’t think about it too much. Thankfully, I didn’t feel altogether badly about myself. I had dear friends, a good family, I had books that helped me to know I had gifts outside of the classroom that gave me a feeling of worth. I was good at relationship, at understanding and expressing emotion. I was good with words. I was moderately gifted at music. I had a good work ethic and found enjoyment in working hard.
These things gave me a feeling of worth outside of the classroom. But what I know now is that there was good reason for me to also have a feeling of worth within the classroom.
What I believe now is that there is not only good reason – but importance – for every child to have a feeling of worth and belonging within a classroom and a school.
My dad is a master at seeing the whole child. He is one of the best teachers I’ve ever known. He used to say it’s amazing that some students could learn anything at school considering what they were shouldering emotionally. He’s always had a knack for connecting with a student’s personhood and gifts, and providing safety and direction. I’ve been blessed to witness how this approach helps to cultivate within a child/teen a genuine sense of worth and belonging– the essential building blocks to a life of purpose and fulfillment. Without these, a child learns and builds on far less steady footings.
My Junior year of high school there was one such teacher who saw me in this way, saw a gift I had, and called it out. Professor Moldenhauer taught Language Arts. And two weeks into my Junior year, he asked me to speak with him after class. I waited nervously as all my friends and classmates filed out. Professor Moldenhauer then said to me something I’ll never forget. He told me he’d been assessing my writing over the past couple of weeks, and that he wanted me to know:
“You’re a good writer.”
Four words. Four. Four words that let me know he saw something in me that had worth in his classroom, in the world as a whole. I was simultaneously stunned, elated… and validated. I remember it took only a moment for the surprise to give way to conviction: what he said resonated with me as truth.
A child knows truth when she hears it.
I’ve come to learn that the sincerest path to validating the whole child is speaking truth to what he deep down already knows – and maybe hasn’t yet fully seen or realized himself: His gifts, his interests, his experiences, his successes, his failures, his tenacity. His story. Authentic words and insight give him permission and authority to accept and believe it. I knew Professor Moldenhauer was speaking the truth because my inmost being knew it was true. He validated an innate gift I held. And in that moment, with four words from him, I found an academic identity, a belonging. In many ways, this is where my lifework as a writer began.
I dedicated my fourth book, Frieda B. and the Finkledee Ink, to four people who truly SAW me in my formative years: Jean Dorn, my first-grade teacher who grasped and graced my love for words by often granting me permission to read in the clawfoot “reading bathtub” she had in her classroom; Professor Moldenhauer; and my first and second bosses, Don Carlsen (Lands’ End) and Helen Vollmer (Vollmer PR), respectively – both took a risk in hiring me. Each of these wonderful souls provided a framework upon which I began building a life of purpose and fulfillment.
Who saw and believed in you, who sees and believes in your children, grandchildren?
As Mr. Rogers would say, take sixty seconds of silence to reflect on what a gift they have given to you: a foundation of belief and belonging more precious than all the world’s gold.
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