Jenifer Fox's Learning Story


I can remember the very first moment I knew I had talents inside me.I was in first grade. One day my teacher, Miss Jonah, tapped me on theshoulder and asked me to come to her desk to speak with her about a storyI had written. In the story, I described a place populated by numbers insteadof people. In this land, only eight varieties of beings existed, the numbers1 through 8. I described each number’s personality in relationship toits shape. In my story, the 8s were supreme and had achieved perfection.They represented what all the other numbers strived to become: perfect intheir roundness and complete in their shape, an infinite flow. This madethe 8s the leaders in the Land of Numbers. Meanwhile, the 1s, 7s and 4s’having achieved no roundness’were the members of the lower class, furthestfrom the ideal. Of that group, the 4s were the least outcast becausethey had managed to close the top part of their figures. I wrote a ratherlengthy story for a first grader, yet I recall feeling it was incomplete becauseI had not explained why the 7s, who should have evolved from what lookedlike an obvious progression from the 4s, 5s and 6s, nevertheless took a stepbackward. They had lost all the momentum toward becoming an 8. Perfectform was a result of effort, and lack of effort resulted in exile. At the time,I had little idea that this was the meaning of my story. I do recall havingsome anxiety that the teacher would chastise me for treating the 7s sobrutally.Miss Jonah asked me if I would please read my story to the eighth gradeclass. To a first grader, the eighth-grade classroom, situated down along hallway on the second floor of the school, seemed to me as far-off aplace as the Land of Numbers. I was simultaneously surprised, nervous,and thrilled to accept her assignment. Miss Jonah walked with me up thestairs to their classroom. I will never forget the feeling of facing thosetwenty-five eighth-grade students. Standing before Bobby Hackett, a bigred-headed kid who once ran past me so carelessly on the playground thathe knocked me down and didn’t even notice, and Nell Jennings, a girl withshiny blond hair that reached down past her hips, I couldn’t help but tremble.I read my story, stopping every now and then to hold up a page andshow the little illustrations I had drawn in the margin. They laughed whenI read the part about the 3s and the 6s ganging up to confront the unruly 7s.At the end of my story, they burst into applause, and at that very moment,a puff of strength blew through me. I discovered the power of my imagination.It was then that I began to believe I had something worthwhile, evencreative,to say to others.I began my education convinced that there was something extraordinaryabout me. Despite my having received a D in penmanship in the secondgrade and a C− in spelling in the fourth grade, I nonetheless believedthat I had a talent for communicating ideas in writing and proceeded to livemy life as though that were so. By the time I left grammar school, I had developeda strong set of skills in most academic subjects. I enrolled in theprep school where generations of my family had been educated. I was fourteenyears old.The self-confidence I developed over eight years of grammar schooltook just five months to crumble into self-doubt, anxiety, and depression.As vividly as I can recall the moment when I first experienced the swell ofmy own strengths, I can recall the moment when I no longer cared aboutdeveloping them.As social beings, the worst thing humans can experience is the act ofbetrayal. In most communities, the consequence for an act of betrayal isexile. This principle is at work in such simple situations as a group of girlsno longer speaking to the one who broke their confidence, or a wife divorcingher husband for cheating on her. In profound instances, societies isolateprisoners who fail to comply, and for the grandest act of betrayal, humansreserve the right to employ the ultimate form of exile: the death penalty.Regardless of the circumstance, betrayal always constitutes a deep breachof the social contract.In 1975, I spent day after day in my algebra class with my hand thrustin the air hoping the teacher would call on me. Mr. Hayes was a longtime,well-loved veteran of the school. My father was proud of the fact that Iwent to the same school he did and took math with the same teacher whotaught him. My father is a well-respected, very successful man, so I assumedthat Mr. Hayes was the absolute best as a math teacher. Naturally, Iwanted to be successful at math. I remember hoping Mr. Hayes would callon me and value my contribution to class.When Mr. Hayes wrote 6x + 5x = 33 on the board and asked us tosolve for x, my hand shot into the air. ‘I don’t understand what x means,’I said.He answered my question by demonstrating how to work the problem.When he finished solving the problem on the board for all to see, heasked me, ‘Now do you see?’I told him I didn’t. I explained that I understood what he’d done, but Istill did not understand what x meant. He turned to the rest of the class andasked them as a group, ‘Do you understand?’ They all nodded their headsin agreement, and he said, ‘Well, let’s move on then.’ This was the way themath class went for most of the first half of the year. Initially, my difficultywas not with solving the problems, although this is what it became; instead,I struggled at first to understand the way one might think mathematically.Up to that point, I had thought in words and visual images. I grappledwith understanding how people thought in symbols. I had the same experiencelearning music. I couldn’t understand how a musician envisionednotes and music. To me, learning a math problem without understandingthe overarching framework was like learning to read music without everhaving listened to a song. Until I had some grasp on that understanding,solving the problems didn’t make sense to me. At fourteen I wasn’t able toarticulate this struggle, and I asked many questions. Mr. Hayes thought Iasked questions to intentionally distract the class from learning. His mountingfrustration eventually led him to ignore me when my hand went up.He moved my seat to the back of the room, and I began to fail my quizzesas he moved on to the next problem and the next section, leaving mebehind.This was the first time I felt betrayed by a teacher’a betrayal thatplumbed so deep that I feel prickles of anger in dredging up its memoryeven today. In response to my teacher’s betrayal, I unconsciously exiledhim in that I no longer cared about math. My grades began to reinforce thisexile. After that, my self-confidence was the first to go; next was my respectfor school as a place where good things happen. I then lost my motivation,and eventually I turned my strengths elsewhere. Adolescents with low self esteemand undirected strengths in leadership will become leaders in negativeplaces. When they begin down this road, we label them ‘at risk.’When it was clear I was not going to succeed in any arena, I left the independentschool by my own choice.A switch to the public school the following year did little to improvemy feelings. I hated the sound of the banging lockers and that the teachersdidn’t know if I was in class or not. I hated that kids smoked pot in the bathroomsand that teachers never even came by to kick them out. I took onlythe classes I needed to graduate from high school. In my senior year, I wasenrolled in geometry, which I recall liking, but I attended only the minimumnumber of times needed to pass. My journey through high schoolhad more low points than high ones. Month after month, year by year, theoverall experience threatened to suck all the life and enthusiasm right outof me. I actually think my father ended up bribing the geometry teacher inthe end to pass me with a D so I could finish high school.This is how my story began. The details are unique, but the general themesare becoming more commonplace each day. I write this book with thehope that it can offer a clear and well-lit pat
h to a new way of teaching andraising children. This book is written with the conviction that if we can retellthe story of schools and homes as places that revel in the strengths ofthe individual, and recast the characters as people who have intuitiveknowledge of the activities that cultivate their potential, then we will trulycreate a society where no child is left behind. The anecdote you just readbegan in frustration, but my discovery of personal strengths, as you willsee, takes my story somewhere quite different.In 1979, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a state-funded school,guaranteed admission to almost every high school graduate who could affordto enroll. With my life’s belongings stuffed into large brown trashbags, I boarded the Badger Bus for the ninety-minute ride to Madison insearch of the strong person I had left so far behind in the first grade.At the time, course registration at the University of Wisconsin was likean initiation ceremony. This involved following an unclear map across severalmiles of campus that had over one hundred buildings. It led to variousrooms where one waited in long lines and, at the end, received a stamp ona schedule, granting permission to enroll in your chosen course. Studentshad to prepare several schedules based on the possibility that when they fi -nally found the registration room and suffered through the line, the coursemight already be full’or, worse, the class meeting time changed to thesame time as the class for which you registered two miles, forty buildings,and a thirty-five-minute waiting line earlier. Due to my dismal performancein high school math, I had to enroll in a course called Math 99-100. In orderto earn an undergraduate degree in English, I needed to pass this, and onlythis, math class. It was the last math class I would ever take, and it wouldtake two attempts to pass.By the time I found my way to the Helen C. White Library to registerfor an English class, the one subject I looked forward to taking, all thecourses I had circled in the registration booklet had filled up. The only classthat was still available was an advanced-level course in Nineteenth-CenturyBritish Literature taught by a professor who at first glance seemed crustierthan burned toast. His name was Standish Henning. I couldn’t believe thatafter all the trouble, this was all that was left. I could just picture StandishHenning and my former high school math teacher, Mr. Hayes, sipping hottoddies and sharing a chuckle over whether or not Matthew Arnold understoodhow to solve quadratic equations.Nearly two months into the academic term, I admitted I was wrongabout Standish Henning. As it turned out, he was a very funny, extremelypersonable man. Despite my having been the only undergraduate in theclass, Professor Henning always called on me during the discussion. I answered his questions with hesitation, uncertain if what I was saying madeany sense. Students much older than me cited examples of literary criticismwhen they answered Professor Henning’s questions, whereas I, unfamiliarwith their examples, stuck to interpreting the text.One day after class, I approached Professor Henning and told him I feltvery uncomfortable in his class and that I considered dropping it. He lookedat me quizzically and told me I couldn’t drop it, since the drop date hadpassed; I would receive an F if I didn’t complete the course. I told him Ididn’t care, that I was going to flunk Math 99-100 anyway, so it reallywouldn’t make much difference, since my grade point average was alreadysunk. Then he said something that changed the course of my life.’But, Jenifer,’ he said, ‘why would you want to get an F in a class inwhich you are the top student?’I couldn’t believe my ears. I figured he was flattering me. On the otherhand, maybe he was trying to pick me up; I’d heard of that happening inuniversities. I asked him how that could be when the others in the class obviouslyknew so much more than I.’They may have acquired intellectual knowledge, which you can acquire,too. You just have to read the same books. But you have somethingthat they do not all have, and they cannot get it from reading books. Youhave intuitive intelligence. A lot of it, I might add. If you trust it and followit, it will work very well for you.’The minute Professor Henning said that to me, I knew on a viscerallevel that what he was saying was true.Between the moment when Miss Jonah had asked me to read mystory for the eighth grade and the moment when Professor Henning pointedout that I had intuition, I had received many sincere compliments. Eventhough I didn’t like school, I nevertheless had some minor successes andknew there were things I could do well. So what was it about those twoevents that so deeply impressed my memory and directed my life? It wasthat those two teachers recognized two strengths inside me, and when theypointed them out, I knew they were true. Sister Jonah and Standish Henningdid not fill me with strength. They did not give these things to me.What was so powerful was that they recognized something that was a realpart of me, a part that, once named, I could follow. Once I became awareof my strengths, I began to practice them. I started to trust my intuition. Isought out places to apply my imagination.I stayed in the class and received a fine grade. Even after my conversationwith Professor Henning, I didn’t fully believe the things he said to me.I never thought I was stupid (I always felt there was something wrong withthe school, not me), but it never occurred to me that I might be smart. Ithought back on my high school experience and was overwhelmed withdisbelief: ‘You mean to tell me I may have been one of the brightest kids inthe class and nobody could even see that?’ This realization defined a missionfor my life. I would devote my energies to preventing this kind ofoversight in the lives and educations of as many kids as possible. I decidedto become a teacher. Where others saw weakness, I would search outstrength. I became a champion of the underdog, believing with all my heartthat through identifying strengths, the underdog could become top dog.