March 1, 2012

Last night I had the distinct pleasure of speaking at Central Middle School’s National Junior Honors Society induction ceremony. They’re super smart kids and high academic achievers — something I definitely wasn’t when I was their age. Here’s what I said:

Thanks so much for having me. I’m delighted to be here to share a few words of wisdom and hopefully, a little inspiration.

As I stand here, looking out at your bright, young faces, I’ve got just one thing to say:

“I’m jealous.”

I’m not afraid to admit it. You see, in order to get here, you’ve scored the trifecta of school success:

First, you’ve benefited from parental involvement and participation. How do I know this? Look around. You’re surrounded by parents and grandparents who’ve come out on a cold, wet school night wearing fancy clothes. Believe me, parents who don’t care, don’t bother doing things like this.

Second, you’ve had access to a rigorous and high-performing school system. I know this because my own children attend these schools and I know what’s expected of them, and how great their teachers and administrative officials are.

And finally—and this is the biggest reason for my seething envy—you’re all in possession of the world’s most powerful and astonishing tool. No, it’s not an iPad, or something low-tech like a hammer. Or even a cordless power screwdriver, though, you’ve got to admit that’s a pretty fantastic invention.

It’s the grey stuff that’s located between your ears and under your skull. Each and every one of you has a glorious, splendid brain capable of excellence.

So why exactly am I jealous? Well, when I was a scrawny 8th grader, I didn’t have a snowball’s chance at the beach of being inducted into the National Junior Honors Society. You remember that trifecta I just mentioned? Let’s just say I wasn’t even a contender in that race.

I didn’t learn to read until the third grade. Now there are a lot of reasons for that. First, I had the misfortune of starting out in a poor-performing school system where grades were low but the expectations for students were even lower.

Next, while my parents weren’t exactly disinterested, they were…distracted. My mother was chronically ill, my father worked two jobs and there were three other kids to worry about. They simply didn’t have the energy to be proactive in finding out why I wasn’t achieving my potential.

Plus it was the mid-to-late 70s. Back then, no one talked about or recognized that there was such a thing as attention deficit disorder (ADD). We knew about hyperactivity, but that diagnosis was usually reserved for the most extreme cases. Like, for instance, the boy who lived down the street from me who literally bounced off the walls…and the ceiling…and the floor. Or the kid who jumped out our second floor math class in high school.  But that’s a whole other story.

Anyway, don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t exactly a dummy in school, but when I finally got into a good school system and learned to read, I still faced other challenges because I started out from behind. For example, you can’t learn subtraction if you still don’t know your addition facts. You can’t divide if you don’t know your multiplication tables. And, let’s not even talk about algebra. Basically I struggled with any class that began with the letters Science and Math. Unfortunately that sad pattern repeated for a majority of my schooling, probably because on top of all the other stuff, I’m pretty sure I had a touch of ADD that I didn’t grow out of until I was in college.

And yet…I worked my bottom off and did get into college. And then graduate school. And I managed to have a very successful decade-and-a-half long career in health policy research—I was even published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which for people in the health care industry, is a really big deal. And now I’m a published author in young adult fiction with a three book series and a ton of crazy ideas in my head that will also be books one day.

Through sheer grit and determination, I plowed ahead, doing my very best with what I had because I wasn’t content with mediocrity. I wanted to be something special.

So, what does all that have to do with you, exceptional young people? Well, despite your high scores in the academic trifecta so far, I promise you, one day you’ll encounter your own version of my algebra dilemma. It might occur in chemistry, calculus, English or history, or even advanced underwater basket weaving, but it will come. Suddenly, school won’t be easy. You’ll find yourself staring at your teacher or professor, your brow crinkled and mouth agape wondering, What the heck is that guy talking about? You’ll read and re-read your textbook and both times it won’t make a lick of sense.

When that happens I want you to remember what I said about that brain of yours. You’re brilliant. You can do it. You just have to work hard and apply yourself. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for mediocrity. I guarantee you’ll get it.

Because if a scrawny kid who couldn’t read until she was in the third grade can become a success, so can you!