There was this boy in France, whose paternal upbringing was so crushing and humiliating that by his early teens he had lost every ounce of self-esteem and self-respect. He was ceaselessly reminded of his incapacity, stupidity, and no-goodness for anything. A slap in the face or a vicious pinch of the ear helped instill the idea. Brain-washed by his early teens, here was a kid who believed that something was limp in his head, that he had some defect that made him worthless. Everything gave proof of it. School grades plunged. Communication drowned. Social skills sank. At school or in front of “the Father,” his voice would capsize. At the fear of punishment, his mouth would gasp for air. Because he’d stutter, he’d be punished. Because of punishment, he’d go under. An endless spiral of sinking into darkness. No redeeming light.
Until that one day.
I was the oldest in my senior high school class, two years behind my peers. My parents came to the mid-term teacher-parent day. Parents strolled with their sons or daughters from one classroom to another to meet the teachers for a brief checkup. As usual, this was going to be another serving of humiliation. Needless to say, my grades in all subjects were catastrophic. To top it, my dad, a computer engineer, held mathematics as the pinnacle of all subjects. For me, it was rock bottom. We were in the line leading to Madame Martin’s desk, my math teacher. With her, classroom management was efficient, discipline strict, testing regular. When our turn came, she stood up and extended a hand to greet us. My body was braced. I was going to get a whipping for sure. As we were taking our seats, my father made this gesture behind my head as if shooing off a turd-fly: “This no-good son of mine has no brains for anything!”
To my surprise, Mme. Martin totally ignored my father and looked me square in the eye: “Bruno, you are struggling with this class. But I know you are capable of doing well. I believe you have the brains for this. Just work more at it. There is absolutely no doubt in me that you will get good at this.” Then she paused. I was holding my breath. And she measured her words: “You’re smart, I know it. So, get to work.” She must have noticed the flicker of light in my eyes. Something had been ignited. So, she stood up, didn’t even offer a glance to my parents, said “Thank you for coming, see you next class,” and turned to the waiting line: “Next, please!”
That evening I brought home something to chew on. For the first time in my life someone had actually stood up to my dad for my sake, and to top it off said I was smart: if it came from Mme. Martin, that meant something. I opened my math textbook and started the slow ascension back toward the surface. My next math score was below average, the next above average, by the third test I had the best score of the class, and for the rest of both terms almost always hit full marks on every test. I had previously flunked the baccalaureate exam, but this year I got the overall best average score across all subjects, not only of my class, but of the whole district. I was sailing toward my future confidently, under the sun, blown forward by the winds of self-esteem.
Today, I am a teacher. My attention is highly tuned to difficult students and students with difficulties. I’ve learned to hold back judgment, to give learners the benefit of the doubt, and to show them I care. With timing and appropriate words. Words hold nuclear power: they can smother a struggling soul or ignite a fire of enthusiasm that will burn for a lifetime.
Mme. Martin, you are among the greatest. Thank you. I owe you my life
Bruno Jactat is a French teacher at the University of Tsukuba. He currently carries out research on auditory processing disorders and how they affect SLA.