The stories that bound us

Why I suck at writing, hate reading and have never been able to pick up languages… and how I proved myself wrong.

I’m sitting in my dimly-lit third grade classroom. My mom and I are facing my English teacher, sitting in hard, vibrantly-colored, plastic chairs. My teacher was your typical sweet southern grandma, until she opened her mouth and shared her opinions. 

“I know I’m not supposed to say it,” she said anyway, from her wrinkled, fuzz-covered lips, “but if I were you I’d go home and give him a good spanking.”

I don’t know if my mom nodded, ignored it, or what came after, other than the feeling of betrayal from my teacher, mom, and the educational system. I wasn’t a bad kid or bully, and never lobbed spitballs in class. This was Mrs. Manard’s solution to my “C” level performance.

Looking back, I tried things required to excel in school but, try as I might, I couldn’t do them the way I was supposed to. I disliked the slow pace of English class and reading large books that seemed irrelevant to my life. I already knew how to read, write, and speak. Knowing the rules to why one should never end a sentence with a preposition felt unimportant.

My foreign language class wasn’t much different. Aside from having a much nicer teacher, I didn’t do well memorizing all the rules. There was no satisfaction in the months of repetition required to eventually say “your cow is fat.”

I liked music, philosophy, painting, architecture, and sports. And finding ways to make money. None of these books, lectures, or classes helped move those interests forward. 

Ironically, I loved learning. I was glued to PBS television programs. I loved understanding how things worked and chasing the”why” of our physical reality. I gravitated toward disciplines showing success and failure quickly and clearly. There was instant feedback and noticeable improvements from practice.

A few years later I discovered coding. Again I found a connection to the instant feedback from trial and error. A program would spit back whether you were right or wrong upon compilation. You knew instantly. Even if you had to tear your hair out to find a solution, there was satisfaction in knowing a discrete solution was hidden within the impartial logic of a computer.

So, I had my answers in my late teens:

I suck at english, and was unable to learn languages.

I wore it on my sleeve for decades.

Some stories, like mine above, become obsolete in adulthood, but never get a makeover.

Being a “bad speller,” “bad at math,” or “not being witty” are a few examples of stories you may have calcified during childhood. They are either told to us, beat into us, or remnants of unwanted consequences we had to endure.

These stories are as relevant to us now as a favorite toy or blanky. They are anchors that swaddle us in chains, leaving us comfortably limited. We see these features as foregone conclusions, but, somehow, we are unable to remember when these features formed or when we last questioned them.

Maybe it’s time to update our stories.

My childhood story above is part of my history. It made me who I am today. But, it’s based on old experiences and, therefore, likely outdated.

It’s time to create new ones that are more relevant to my current situation, environment, social circles, and interests. It’s not about changing who I am, but ensuring I am not limited to who I once thought I was.

Recognizing this immediately changed my perspective. I went from reasserting my shortcomings out of habit, to searching ways to reexamine them.

When asked “do you speak any other languages?” I caught myself responding with a canned  “I am good with learning software languages, but have never been able to grasp foreign ones”. Sometimes I’d add comic relief with “I like computers more than humans anyway.” The first time I used that response was in high school. High school! How have I coasted on that response for so long? Hidden, very literally, under my nose. 

With my revelation I began looking  for language apps. If one didn’t suit me I tried another. I found groups at work that were studying languages. (Turns out a lot.) I Googled hacks to learn languages quickly. I found platforms that connect users to native speakers around the world so they could learn for pennies on the dollar. I kept what I liked and threw out what didn’t work for me.

Just over a year later, I’m speaking French and Spanish at an Intermediate level. Like a veil being lifted around me, I love recognizing the lyrics of foreign songs, working to keep up with rapid exchanges of dialogue in foreign flicks and eavesdropping on tourists to unravel their quickly articulated stories at my local coffee shop.

I then had to ask, is my line “I suck at English” or “I hate writing”, true? To answer that as an adult, I watched YouTube tips on writing, wrote blog posts every day for a year (as short or as bad as they were). I began to read all the books I wanted, sometimes a few at a time, many of which were required readings in school I had then skipped from “lack of interest”. Some, I never finished. I got a writing coach, and found tools and apps that served me better. I fell in love with the power, beauty and style of writing. I enjoyed the escape of binge reading classic fiction, then absorbing the lessons from a litany of non-fiction titles, and then reading nothing for months at a time. I took breaks not defeats. It was gradeless and fulfilling. 

I may never have disliked any subject, be it Foreign Languages or English, but rather loved learning at my own pace and following my own interests. Worst of all, I let the construct of success and failure chisel its rules into me and never thought to question outcomes and decisions of a child. 

Let’s let our old stories end, and make room for a new, liberating, reality.

You too can redefine your reality 

I had to catch myself repeating old facts to myself and others, and then process whether it is an old fact I wish were different. That’s your clue. Then, allow myself to reset and re-create that truth from scratch. 

  1. Catch yourself. When you hear yourself assertively self-deprecating what you’re capable of, replace it with “I haven’t taken time to be good at it.”
  2. Step back and see if you can pinpoint when you formed that opinion. Who were you then? Is it possible you’ve evolved in other ways since then? Do you view the issues that blocked you then still present now?
  1. Cut out something you do each week that doesn’t serve you. Do you spend hours on a phone or TV? Maybe cooking everyday is a burden, art or by one meal out it all you need. Can you trade a day, hour, or activity to investigate this question? Maybe block your work calendar for 30 mins, one day a week, or add an activity to your wake-up or sleep ritual. Maybe you mow the lawn one fewer time a month, and it grows just a bit longer. These are some of the thousands of trade-offs you can make to open yourself up to new possibilities. Personally I deleted all my social apps, and replaced them with Duolingo.
  2. Chose one thing from the list in #1 and start researching ways to engage with it for a few minutes gained in #2

Give it 6 months and see if your story changes.