The Power of Prophecy

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As a teacher one of the things that I hated to hear from a student was, “I’m no good at math.” Even worse was hearing such a sentiment reinforced by a parent who insisted that nobody in the family had ever done well with numbers. I knew that such thinking created a self-fulfilling prophecy whose hold on the mind of the student was difficult to undo.

If we or someone who knows us convinces us that something, whether good or bad, is true about us we tend to react in ways that reinforce the thinking. In education it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect. Researchers consistently have found that it is possible to affect outcomes merely by continually making particular comments to individuals or groups. If that happens to be about a lack of math skills, for example, it becomes more and more likely that mediocre success or even total failure will result. As humans we tend to give up trying when we believe that our efforts are futile.

I have a grandson who is doing quite well at Texas A&M University where he is studying computing in the engineering department. His classes are quite challenging but when I recently asked him how he was doing he immediately stated that his expectation was to make all A’s and perhaps one B in his courses. I was pleased to hear that he has set up a positive challenge for himself which he believes that he has the capability of achieving. Even if he sent a curve he understands that he has what it takes to nonetheless be ultimately successful. Because all of the people around him also believe in him, his faith in his abilities is reinforced. The interesting thing is that success bears the fruit of more success and the prophecy comes true.

Most of the time I encountered just the opposite effect with far too many of my students. Somewhere along the way the teachers and other adults in their lives had convinced them that they were academically doomed. They would relate stories of educators who had called them lazy and insisted that they would be lucky to graduate from high school much less a college. By the time I got ahold of them they were beaten down and unwilling to believe that I might help them. I had to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not just about academics. We are capable of convincing ourselves that we are klutzes or even that we are unloveable. I had a friend who became certain that she was only attractive to abusive men, and so she quit dating altogether after a few tries at meeting men seemed to prove her point. Someone who is told that he/she is ugly eventually gazes into the mirror and sees only horror. I’ve heard parents telling their children that they were losers, and then they wondered what had happened when those same kids began to exhibit defeated behaviors. We are the product of all that we hear and think about ourselves. If the negativity is repeated often enough it becomes the insight that we use to judge our personalities, our appearance, our intelligence and even the way the rest of the world sees us.

For these reasons it is critically important for all adults to monitor the things that they say to young people. If an entire class is told again and again how lazy and lacking they are, they might just give up and play the role of which they have been accused. If a young person makes a mistake he/she feels bad enough, but when those blunders are brought up again and again by the people who are supposed to care, a whole new personality of defeat begins to form.

When I was in middle school I was not yet five feet tall. I remember a PE teacher setting up the equipment for track. She brought out hurdles and measured distances for running. The first time she asked me to perform a task it was to jump over the obstacle. In reality I was no doubt too small to leap as high as I needed to be to clear the bar. Instead I slammed into the frame, toppling the entire apparatus and slamming my face into the dirt. The teacher’s reaction was not to coach me or demonstrate how I might do  better next time. Instead she simply barked that I was the most nonathletic, uncoordinated person she had ever encountered and shook her head in disgust.

Hers was a prophecy that went into effect immediately. From that day forward I avoided athletic pursuits like the plague. I explained to anyone who would listen that I was an blundering klutz and every time I was chosen last for teams my feelings were summarily reinforced. It was not until college when a kindly coach kept me after class for private lessons in every imaginable sport that I realized that all I had ever needed was for someone to show me what to do. I never became an athletic star, but I at least felt less subconscious of my abilities. I did fine until I joined a volleyball team at a school where I was teaching, and in a competition one evening one of the members of our group yelled at me just like the middle school coach had done and all of the old angst came flooding back. It paralyzed me with fear of any kind of participation in a sport. Old prophecies are difficult to overcome without help and understanding.

It is important that we see development for what it is, a gradual progression that moves at different paces for different individuals. We are all fully capable of learning how to succeed at most things, but our rate of improvement will vary widely depending on the totality of our genetic makeup and the environments in which we live. If we are surrounded by adults who understand such things and then provide us with optimism and expectations that we will ultimately succeed we are likely to reach our goals.

Life is a combination of nature, nurture, hard work, and beliefs. The thoughts that we have and that we hear are perhaps the most powerful forces in determining our ultimate fates. For that reason it would behoove every single adult who is in contact with others, not just the young, to think before speaking. Those words and attitudes will either create genius or destroy potential. We have to always remember that making mistakes is as much a part of learning as mastery. When someone falls it is up to us to let them know that we still have faith that they will one day overcome. The prophecies that we speak should always be filled with optimism and positive expectations even when progress is slow.

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It’s Never Too Late

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Back in 1988, he headed off to college. At some point on his way to earning a degree things got complicated and he quietly dropped out of school. He moved to Chicago, enrolled in the Police Academy and became a cop. The years passed by and in the interim he raised a family and made a nice life for himself, but he knew that something was missing. Not long ago he retired from the police force with a pension that gave him enough income to follow a dream that had never really left his mind. He applied for admission to college and when the acceptance letter came he proudly announced that he was going back to school to pursue a major in engineering, undaunted by the fact that he is only a year or so away from turning fifty.

I did not know this man very well, but when I heard his story I wanted to jump for joy. I admire his willingness to keep learning and to make sacrifices to enrich his life. All too often I hear adults bemoaning the trajectory of their lives and blaming all sorts of people and situations for their plight. Whenever anyone suggests steps that they might take to improve their lot in life they are filled with excuses of why it is simply not possible to make changes. They note that educational programs cost too much or take up too much of their time, and yet they prefer being miserable for the long run rather than making sacrifices for the moment.

Again and again I see examples of people who take charge of their lives and push themselves just a bit harder to make changes and reach goals that may at first glance appear to be unattainable. I recall a woman who got married and began having children right out of high school. She and her husband barely got by as they worked at a series of low paying and dead end jobs. In their late twenties it seemed as though they would always struggle just to make ends meet. Neither of them had high school transcripts worthy of even the mid range universities and they wondered how it would be possible to pay the tuition and fees even if some institution accepted them. Nonetheless they agreed one evening that they had to redirect their destinies and they applied to every sort of program imaginable. Their journey began in a local junior college where they took courses one or two at a time while working all day and managing a family.

Before long they had both earned associate degrees with honors. This one step allowed them to get better jobs, but they were not yet done. Eventually the woman became a registered nurse and the man earned a law degree. By the time they were nearing their forties they were able to purchase a nice home and treat themselves to vacations and luxuries like nice furniture. They had so inspired their children that the kids were excelling in high school and headed for some of the best universities in the country. To all the world they appeared to be a power couple. Few realized how far they had come.

I could go on and on about people who reclaimed their lives with a willingness to work hard to bring about the changes that would help them to escape the debilitating grind of the mistakes of their youth. Instead of wallowing in self recriminations or envy they did something positive to make changes. They went back to school and worked in the wee hours of the night and on weekends to master skills and write papers. At times they were exhausted and worried that they might never recoup all of the money that they spent for courses. It was a slow and demanding process, but they never surrendered to the little voices that tempted them to throw in the towel. In every case that I heard of they were victorious, standing out as exceptional students and the kind of employees that any organization dreams of having.

I tell people that no one need ever feel stuck in a rut. I think of the bookkeeper who earned a degree in accounting, became a CPA, and opened her own firm. I remember the man who was miserable in his job who attended night school to become certified to be a teacher. I applaud the friend who graduated at the top of her law class when she was almost fifty years old. I have witnessed brave souls who demonstrated with their determination that where there is a will there is a way to control destiny rather than being ruled by it. All it takes is a willingness to divert the energy wasted complaining and parlay it into tangible efforts to learn and grow.

There are countless opportunities for anyone of any age. It is never too late for any of us to become the person that we have always wished to be. If we wait for privileges to suddenly appear or lottery tickets to pay dividends we will be sorely disappointed. For most of us it will take time and money and effort and no excuses. 

I hope that the man who is embarking on earning a degree for a second career will find the success that he seeks. His is an admirable goal, and even before his journey is done he has inspired those of us who have heard of his courage. He reminds us that it is never too late.

Finding My Way

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I spent the first seventeen years of my life in a kind of bubble. I lived in a neighborhood that I rarely left for anything other than visits to the homes of my grandparents and aunts and uncles. I walked to my school and had classes all the way through the twelfth grade with many of the same friends that I had known since the first and second grades. My life revolved around a regular routine that was carefully orchestrated by my mother. I felt safe, secure and loved, but frustrated by how little I knew of the world beyond the borders of the small area of southeast Houston where I lived.

My single parent family had no extra money to send me and my brothers to college, so it was up to us to find ways to pay for tuition and such. I worked hard in high school and graduated with enough honors to be recruited by a number of private universities including some that were rather prestigious, but most of the scholarship offers would still have left me scrambling for funds and wondering how I would manage to get from Houston to distant towns. When it came time to choose a university I felt that I needed to be in an environment far different from the one that had nurtured me in my youth. Somehow the University of Houston appeared to be the perfect solution, and as it turned out I was correct.

I found myself surrounded by a of diversity of people and ideas unlike anything that I had ever before experienced from the first moment that I stepped onto the University of Houston campus. It was a bit frightening and exhilarating at one and the same time. Even though the school was only a short drive from the place where I had lived for most of my life, it was a world away in culture. With its massive student body I literally became a number which I had to memorize to identify myself in the system. I was little more than a face in a crowd as I learned how to navigate the brutal registration process and the routes from one class to another. I had to grow up fast and toughen myself just to survive. It was exactly the kind of experience that I needed.

I soon learned that nobody was going to coddle me at UH and that I would have to use my own voice to make myself known to my professors. I overcame the shyness behind which I had hidden myself for so long. I had to develop a willingness to be an advocate by stepping forward and speaking up. I found it to be a glorious experience, and a way to become the person that I truly wanted to be. I may have returned to my mother’s home each evening, but during the day I was exerting my independence and finding delight in meeting people from all over the world. It was an exciting time that was transforming me at warp speed. I was quite proud to know that I was capable of paying my own way and choosing the direction of my life without adults hovering over me. At the same time I realized that I was receiving an excellent education as well.

In the beginning I tended to assess the students with whom I attended classes with the very narrow lens of the restricted environment in which I had spent my childhood and teen years. Suddenly I encountered people of different races, religions, and socio-economic status on a regular basis. I found that it was a mistake to categorize them according to my preconceived stereotypes.

I particularly recall one of my first classes in which the professor paired me with a girl whom I would never have chosen to approach. She literally exuded beauty, wealth and confidence with her perfectly coiffed hair, manicured nails, and expensive clothing. I had noticed her when she first walked into the room and I had felt somewhat in awe of her commanding presence. I had thoughts of dropping the class when I learned that my fate was to be tied to her for the entire semester. I assumed that she would feel the same about being with me, but I was so wrong. In fact, she became a dear friend, someone in whom I was able to comfortably confide my deepest thoughts. We not only worked together in class, but spent time riding around in the sports car that had been a graduation gift from her parents. She was open and kind and unspoiled. She taught me the important lesson of getting to know a person before making judgements about character.

I certainly recall the knowledge that I gained during my time at the University of Houston, but it was the experience of growing up that had the most impact in molding who I am today. I suspect that the process might have been less encompassing in another place. The sink or swim atmosphere was exactly what I needed even though it was sometimes daunting. I would eventually realize that there were people just waiting to help me if only I took the time to elicit their support. I learned the importance of reaching out to my professors, getting to know them so that they would know me. I began to network and expand my horizons into an ever more expanding circle.

By the time I was thrown into the real world I was both knowledgeable and capable. Virtually every aspect of my talents and character were ready for whatever I might encounter. The best part was that my own confidence and way of viewing the world had grown in ways that might never have happened had I not chosen the University of Houston. By paying my own way and mixing it up in a place akin to a small city I had toughened up and become a true citizen of the world in a very short space of time.

My life would be challenged before I even turned twenty one. I would have to be an advocate not only for myself but for my mother and brothers as well. Luckily I was prepared. Without going more than a few miles I had managed to ventured far away from home into an exciting world in which I became my own person.

The original charter of the University of Houston indicated that it would be a place of learning for the children of the working people of the city. It has sometimes been said that the school is best represented with by a set of blistered hands with the grime of hard labor under its fingernails. It is a no nonsense place in which none of the “isms” really matter. There are no walls at UH on which to grow ivy. It is a living breathing microcosm of the world as it really is. I suppose that’s why studying there meant so much to me.

The Power of Thankfulness

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I rarely ask other people for favors. I have a tendency to just gut out difficult situations on my own. I suppose I’ve always been that way. Perhaps I picked up that trait from my mom who was an exceedingly independent woman. Amazingly I save any requests that I may have for God. In fact, I suppose if my prayers were recorded they would sound a bit too much like a wish list. Mostly my supplications are for people that I know who are sick or suffering in some way. I never actually mention things that I need. Still, I recently realized my heavy reliance on favors from the Lord when a friend posted a meditation suggesting that we all spend one day simply thanking God for the blessings that He showers on us. I decided to accept the challenge and it was truly life changing.

I happened to be in Colorado taking a mini-vacation when I set out to notice my bounty rather than to focus on my wants, so it was rather easy to find wondrous moments of appreciation. I began with a thank you just for waking up on that day. Then I expressed my gratitude for being in the company of my loving husband, my best friend. Suddenly I the idea really caught hold and I was feeling joyful over having nice warm clothes to wear and fresh food to eat for breakfast. I was on a roll before I ever left our hotel room for which I also felt great cheer because I knew that there were homeless folk on the streets of downtown Denver who might have been thrilled to stay in such luxury.

And so it went all day long. I thanked God for the gloriously magnificent mountains that provided a majestic view. I was happy for the sun and the blue sky. I began to notice all sorts of tiny things that I might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted, like the smiles that people exchanged with me. I began to see the glory of the world around me with new eyes. It was as though I was a newborn child experiencing life for the first time. I can’t even begin to describe how calm it made me feel. My normal tendencies toward anxiety melted away and I felt a happiness that was pure and without any conditions. Not even little irritations that might normally have made me a bit irate were able to touch me.

I have to admit that I even found myself feeling particularly thankful for the friend, Paula, who posts daily prayers and meditations that I scan but too often don’t take fully to heart. I was so glad that her passage for that day had somehow caught my attention just enough that I had decided to take the challenge. It provided me with the kind of awakening that I genuinely needed in that moment. It also taught me to take the time each day to be as fully aware of the bounty of my life as I am of the problems that I must face. I have literally changed my approach to God and to each day and found that it feels so good.

I suppose that it is only human to dwell on worries and concerns. There are even times when the world crowds in on us with such force that it is difficult to ignore the tragedies and horrors that come our way. In those moments we need help from God and any person who is willing to step forward, and we should not hesitate to reach out for any assistance that we might find. Nonetheless, we still would do well to take note of our blessings even in the most terrible of times. Focusing only on what we need rather than taking stock of what we already have can leave us feeling depressed and incapable. When we take the time to notice the gifts that we have, we realize that many of the tools that we need to survive are already in our hands.

My mother was always filled with joy and gratitude. She cherished the most utterly simple moments and didn’t seem to notice how much she lacked in material wealth. If I took her to visit her sister she was as happy as if I had given her on a grand vacation. She thought that a glass of milk and a few vanilla wafers was an extravagance. She constantly insisted that she was one of the most blessed individuals in the world even though she was a widow with bipolar disorder and an income so low that it barely covered her expenses. She read her Bible every single day and never failed to point out how generous God had been to her.

I sometimes felt irritated that she was so childlike in her appreciation for life. It seemed almost nonsensical that anyone with the challenges that she had should be so happy. I suppose that I did not truly understand the power of being thankful for the most basic blessings that we enjoy. I thought of her on the day that I was purposely looking for good things and realized that such optimism is incredibly up lifting. I knew then that it had been the secret to my mom’s ability to survive. It was the key to her selflessness and contentment.

I’ve been more and more careful to spend my days celebrating the glory of my life. It has completely changed my outlook for the better. When something bad happens I find myself looking for the silver lining. When I feel overwhelmed I take a deep breath and feel thankful that I am alive enough to still be in the race. Instead of feeling sorry for myself because so many that I have loved have died, I speak of how lucky I have been to have known them. My world is now filled with more rainbows than dark clouds. I have more energy for dealing with the inevitable worries and tragedies that come my way.

I still know that I can petition God for favors if need be. I understand that my requests may not always be fulfilled in the ways that I had hoped. I have learned over a lifetime that I don’t always get what I want, but sometimes I get what I need. I thank God just for being around to hear my complaints and my pleas. Then I move forward with thankfulness. 

Anyone Can Do It!

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In all of my years of teaching mathematics the refrain that heard most often was, “I’m no good at math.” My job became to convince my students that anybody has the ability to learn the algorithms and fundamentals of math given a willingness to invest time and effort.

We all know someone who has a natural ability with all things mathematical. In my own case it wasn’t me. It was my brother. I had to go home from school each evening with my math book and my notes and work through problems until a light bulb lit up inside my brain. Sometimes that took just a few minutes and other times it took a couple of hours, but in the end I mastered one concept after another.

Most of my students have insisted that it is impossible to study for a math test. They are accustomed to memorizing facts for their liberal arts classes and they tell me that one will never know what problems will be on the quiz. Therefore they assume that working sample problems is fruitless, but I insist that it really helps. Just as doing reps in the various sports generally brings about improvement in muscle memory, so too does practicing mathematical ideas help imprint problem solving methods on the mind.

It took me several years before I understood the value of homework in math. I used to grudgingly do the problems as quickly as possible and I was unwilling to ask questions about things that I did not comprehend lest I be regarded as being not so bright. I was literally in college before I understood the value of asking my professors for help. I not only became more enlightened, but I also became known by them which was a big plus in my large university. I encourage anyone who is struggling with anything, particularly mathematics, to take full advantage of tutoring opportunities with teachers. It is one of the keys to mastering skills that may at first seem far too difficult.

I like to think that my own struggles with mathematics in my early years led me to being a better and more understanding teacher. I know how it feels to read a word problem and draw a complete blank. I recall tearful sessions with my mother after school when I would insist that I was never going to be good at solving problems. She taught me how to first work with the words, taking them apart enough to discover what I was being asked, and then applying the knowledge that I had learned. With pictures, highlighters and diagrams I now find that I am able to tackle any challenge, but it wasn’t so until I followed my mom’s advice.

I have a granddaughter who used to think of herself as being a bit slow on the uptake when it came to math. It bothered her that her brother never seems to have a problem to immediately understand even the most difficult concepts. She and I talked for a long while about my own struggles when I was her age, and she took my advice regarding the value of hard work in mastering her math lessons. Last year she was anxious about the end of course Algebra I exam that she would have to take. She spent hours studying definitions, processes and different types of problems. Whenever she came up with an incorrect answer she found out why and then worked dozens more until she was consistently getting the correct answers. In the end she received one of the highest scores in her class, but more importantly she learned that it is not only possible to study mathematics, but preferable indeed.

Confidence is usually the element that is missing whenever a student who is bright in every other way does poorly in math. At some point in time he/she has become convinced that it is useless to even try. Such students truly believe that they are missing some gene that would allow them to do better. They take tests feeling defeated before they have even lifted their pencils. It’s up to their parents and teachers to help them to find the good feelings that they need to do well with mathematics, and to show them how to work hard to get there. That means eschewing a temptation to tell the young ones that they come by their dread of mathematics naturally because difficulty with math runs in the family. There is little worse than instilling such fear.

We have to be certain not to create self fulfilling prophecies in our young. It is possible to master mathematics slowly but surely and often with a great deal of work. It is no different than practicing a butterfly stroke or learning a new techniques for drawing. It takes patience and determination in some cases, but it can be done. I have watched hundreds of my students become adept in a subject that had previously been terrifying for them. My job was not to trick them, but to show them the way.

The best mathematics teachers that I have known all rejoice when someone who has struggled finds the light. There is no better feeling. If I were able to accomplish one thing in my lifetime it would be to replace comments like “This is too hard. I can’t do it. I’ve always been terrible in math.” with ideas that speak to the value of practice, asking questions and being positive. One day I hope to hear more of “I don’t get it now, but I know I will. I know that anyone can do it.”