“Ooh, Ooh,” I moaned with my hand raised high, wishing for Mrs. Mishaw to call on me.
“Silence. I do not call on anyone who is making noise,” Mrs. Mishaw said in her snipped, stern tone. She was wearing a straight knit skirt, in brown, of course, a starched blue blouse with a peter pan collar with darker blue piping, and thick stockings with brown, medium-heeled pumps. The heels clicked on the over buffed wooden floors as she went up and down the aisles with her pointer. Always with her pointer.
She did not call on me. It was only when I didn’t raise my hand and hadn’t been paying attention that she called my name to shame me in front of the class. Like when we were talking about The Call of the Wild, a book I could barely get through. My interests and tastes as a third grader were more in line with biographies of Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt. I wasn’t moved by adventures. As I looked out the window at the moving clouds, while pulling my curls around my right index finger, I was brought back in the room by a loud, “Miss Dubin, what do you think?”
“I don’t know.” I said in a whisper.
“Speak up, Janet. Your classmates are waiting for your answer.”
My throat hurt, and tears were welling up at the corners of my eyes. Though it was hard to get out, I said, “I don’t know, Mrs. Mishaw.”
“That’s right you don’t know. And, do you know why you don’t know?” she asked. I knew enough at that moment to remain silent.
“You don’t know because you were not paying attention. Little girls who do not pay attention do not do well at school. Do you understand, Janet?” she asked, more as a threat than an inquiry.
Third grade was not an easy year. I respected her authority, but I hated going to school each day. I couldn’t stand someone, even of she was my teacher, who treated me and some other choice students with overt cruelty. After leaving Mrs. Mishaw’s class I became devoted to having the right answers when I needed them. I learned to show how smart I was. Even as an adult I will volunteer information so I can be admired for what I know. Though, it’s really more than that. I think I want to be acknowledged for mattering. Mrs. Mishaw taught me, wrongly, that I would only be acknowledged for what I know.
I now have to discipline myself to be curious. It is not easy to stop proving what I do know, but rather be open to what I can learn. As a psychotherapist, I have to balance being a knowledgeable professional with sitting and learning from my clients. My clients teach me this again and again.
They are the experts at being themselves. I can make interpretations, but I can’t know better than them. If I am arrogant enough to think I know better, as I sometimes can be, I am always humbled by my naiveté. When Louis came in and told me he cheated on his wife, my first assumption was that he had to repeat the behavior of his dad that caused his parent’s divorce. And, even, if in theory, that was perhaps true, it was not useful information for the session The truth that came out as I listened to Louis was he was afraid he couldn’t be loved. And, as far as he was concerned, his actions were proof of that. We had to work on separating his actions from his true self, so that he could forgive himself and face his marriage with honesty. We would never have been able to get there if we went with my assumption.
It was easy to size up Mandy analytically. Mandy was a 31-year-old binge eater, who felt lonely, and often rejected. Her mother was always putting Mandy on a diet, only complimenting her when Mandy had starved herself enough to lose weight. Mandy was certain that she had no personal redeeming qualities, given her size. I thought that she always felt rejected because she internalized her mother’s focus on her weight. But no one is that simple. In listening to her over the course of two years, I found her courage to endure daily bullying at school, and disapproval at home, both moving and inspiring. She developed a stalwart strength and a determination to get through adversity. Though lonely, she was able to find joy in doing things alone. She could have easily been bitter, but instead was moving forward in her life. Again, I learned so much from her, when I could have easily pigeonholed her, much as her mother had.
As I’ve learned, knowledge is a useful tool, but it’s no substitute for consciousness, culled by curiosity.