Skip to content

It’s Not You or Me. It’s Us

When I was in the fifth grade, I changed schools. The new school had a placement test with two sections: Verbal and Math. Being 10 years old, I wasn’t too worried so when my mom dropped me off with my two No. 2 pencils, I didn’t think much of it.

Two hours later, I had a very different perspective. I was a big reader by that age, so the verbal part seemed easy. The math? Blown out of the water. This was not an episode of summer forgetfulness. I had no idea what I was even looking at. None. By the time my mom picked me up I was a strange ball of distraught fury… ashamed that I did so poorly, mad at the new school and their stupid test, and furious with my old one for leaving me painfully ill-prepared.

I learned two big things that day. First, that my perception of competence was off target. There was an obvious gap between where I was and where my new school thought I could be. I know this because they tested for it. Second, this gap could probably be closed because what was being taught at one place was clearly different than the other. Together, these lessons signaled that what I previously thought was hard work was only scratching the surface, what I thought was high-quality work probably wasn’t, and what I thought was a good school was at best incomplete.

I feel fortunate for those lessons. I was young enough to do something about it and lucky enough to be in a place to learn, to improve, to test, to fail, and to naturally navigate to where I could be reasonably strong.

There is no globally triumphant conclusion here; I was not the valedictorian, I was never going to win a Fields Medal, and there is not a Nobel prize in the offing.  That’s fine. But I did get the long-lasting gift of understanding that our individual and collective outcomes are emergent and interdependent. And I don’t mean this in some social science verbal sorcery way either. Our outcomes are neither wholly our own nor wholly external. We have the agency to control our attention and guide our actions, but we are also embedded in sets of relationships and these relationships matter. We both craft and are crafted by our context. Perhaps most importantly, we serve as that context for those around us.