60. Finding My Place

60. Finding My Place

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Finding My Place

Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.”

~The Talmud

“Well?” my teacher prompted. “Do you know the answer?” I shifted uneasily in my seat and glanced around the classroom.

Forcing myself to meet her eyes, and in a voice I hoped was nonchalant, I said, “No idea.” Not noticing the tears in my eyes, she continued the math lesson. The rest of the day dragged on slowly, until finally the last bell rang. A signal of freedom, until the next day.

A throng of kids flew past me. I felt out of place at school, and I found no comfort with my family either. All the pain, frustration, anger, and embarrassment I had to face in school only intensified at home.

What would my parents, who raised my five older brothers, all budding intellectuals, want to do with a nothing like me? Me, the failure who had to be in a separate class because he couldn’t learn? The one who needed to repeat kindergarten when most of his brothers had already skipped a grade.

I always had a tough time in school. My father had put it best: “Some kids are good in school, and some aren’t. You’re just one of the kids who isn’t.” But I wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

Ever since the first day of school, it had been drilled into my brain that I must strive for academic success. Our principal talked to us many times about striving for greatness. Pictures of past scholars and professors adorned at least one wall of almost every classroom.

But school wasn’t the worst of my troubles; my time at home had the greatest effect on me. Whether it was the glowing reports on my brothers, or even the A’s and B’s on their report cards, I felt I wasn’t as good. That I was inferior. (It was only later that I realized I had blown things a bit out of proportion.)

By fourth grade, my self-confidence had shrunk considerably and I became depressed. As I only had a couple of friends, and I wasn’t even sure they liked me, I had no one to talk to. I would lie awake at night and wonder if my life had any meaning. Weren’t my brothers embarrassed by me? Did they see me as the failure of the family? The black sheep? Tears would soak my pillow. Eventually I would drift off into an uneasy sleep.

I had been tested three years earlier, and they found that I had several learning disabilities. I had to review constantly to keep the information in my brain, and I was always two to three years behind my grade level in math.

As the work became harder, and the shame too much to bear, the depression I had suffered the past two years snowballed into suicidal thoughts. I would wonder, long after I should’ve been asleep, if life was worth living. Thankfully, I never acted on those thoughts.

Rarely did I accept a compliment on achievements in school or at home, always shrugging it off and telling myself that they didn’t really mean it. To make matters worse, my brothers had all gone to the same elementary school. So all the teachers had known them, and I thought I had to keep up the “winning streak.” I was living with the ghosts of their pasts, and I simply couldn’t keep up.

In high school, without special ed, I had to find new ways to help myself do better in school. But the strain from the past six years had caught up with me, and I loathed working. I had had enough failure in my life. Why add more salt to the wound?

After school one night during my sophomore year, I was working with my tutor. I just wasn’t getting it, and it had been going on like that for a few weeks. My tutor had finally had it, and started yelling at me in front of the entire crowd of kids (each with their own private tutor). “How dumb can you be? We’ve been reviewing the same four math steps for three weeks now. If you don’t start shaping up soon, you’ll end up being a failure.”

That was the first time someone had said “you’re a failure” right to my face. Until then, my failure had been my private despair. I stormed out of the room and hid in a dark corner right outside the school. I stayed there for a half hour, crying and asking God if the pain and disappointment would ever end.

I left that school shortly afterwards, hoping to find a place where I could get away from the pain and find the greatness buried deep within me. And I did. My new school has allowed me to see myself in a better light and recognize how much I have grown. The academics aren’t as intense as my previous school and I’ve opened up to others, no longer scared of what they’ll think of me. I have built new bonds — not based on academic skill but on true friendship.

I can look in the mirror and see, not what I should be, but what I am. That it doesn’t matter who gets the good grades, but rather how I conduct myself and act that matter most. I realized that I had been looking at it all the wrong way — evaluating myself on my abilities, not on my potential to grow into a wonderful person. I had been so wrapped up in the academic side of things that I forgot to look at the person underneath.

People greet me cheerfully each morning because they see my inner spark. They see that I’m a friendly and caring person. They don’t care if I fail my classes or don’t do well on tests. They care about the person, not the achievements. They want to be with me because of who I am as a person. Me! The person who tries as hard as he can in class. The one who works to make himself into the best person he can be.

This year has breathed new life into me.

~Louis R. Cardona

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