Monday, March 12, 2007

Letting off a little self-esteem

A few weeks ago, a story came out over the wire about a survey reporting that college students (and presumably) young workers just starting out on their careers suffered from an excess of self-esteem. They were, survey said, narcissistic and self-centered.

From an AP article (reported by MSNBC), we learn that, in 2006, 2/3's of college students surveyed scored above average on something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory - up by 30 points over the Mother Teresa's of 1982. (Proving, once again, that there are places like Lake Woebegone, where all the children - or at least 2/3's of them - are above average.)

One can imagine how this could play out in the workplace. They won't be team players. They won't want to pay their dues. They think that they're too good for entry-level lackey work and pay. They won't be able to accept any criticism, however constructive. All in all, they will have self-confidence that isn't backed up by their qualities and capabilities.

Reading about this was quite interesting to me, coming as I do from a long ago time and far away place where promoting self-esteem in children, instilling in them any concept of their value and worth, just didn't exist. Which may explain a lot of the over-reacting that baby-boomer parents have done making sure that their kids feel good about themselves, however beyond reason and reality those feelings may be. And certainly makes me somewhat sympathetic to the plight of young people who suffer the results of an over-dose of self-esteem.

Frankly, I'm a bit envious of them.

When it comes to self-esteem, I'm something of a graduate of the school of hard knocks. Oh, it wasn't called that, but my grammar school certainly excelled sure kids didn't feel any too good about themselves.

For starters, there was the generally accepted seating arrangement: smart row girls, smart row boys; average row girls, average row boys; dumb row girls, dumb row boys. Dumb, of course, wasn't the official term, but it's the word that all the kids (including the dumb-row kids) used, in our brutal and tactless way. Of course, I now realize, those dumb row kids may not have been dumb at all. They may have been learning at a different pace, they may have had learning disabilities, they may just have been bored out of their minds.

There were variations on the theme of categorizing kids by ability. In first grade, the smart kids were Our Lady's reading group, the average kids were in St. Joseph's, and the dumb kids were in Guardian Angels. To this day, my mental image of St. Joseph is that of a kind of a C-grade, somewhat dull plodder; and I think of angels as mindless.

Perhaps because I was a smart row girl, I never questioned the justice of these seating arrangements and the rank categorization of kids. But even as a kid I questioned a couple of the other practices of the school.

One was the Reading of the Report Cards, which occurred four times a year. Monsignor Lynch, the stern and scary pastor of our church, would come to each classroom and read everyone's grades out loud. All of them. Bad grades were read out in an especially loud voice. Even as a second grader, I remember feeling bad for my friends who were embarrassed by a poor grade.

Worse, still, was the annual ritual of moving on to the next grade. On the last day of school, we would all march into the next year's classroom. That is, all of us would march in except for the kids who were being kept back. Those of us who were getting promoted would leave our classroom, trying not to look at the kids who were staying behind, crying at their desks. When we got to our new classroom, we made the same attempts not to look too closely at the kids already sitting there - although I will admit we were always curious to see who would be joining us next year.

The parish I grew up in was a mix of blue collar and lower-middle class, with a smattering of families who were quite poor. Almost every kid who was kept back - and some kids were kept back multiple times - was from one of those poor families. I don't recall one kid from any of the higher-end families - those like mine who were relatively prosperous, and who were active in the church and school - being kept back.

Late in my grammar school career, someone or other - a more enlightened and humane nun, or an enraged parent - decided to put and end to the last day of school rite. Kids who were being held back didn't have to come to school for the last day.

If Our Lady of the Angels was death to the self-esteem of its slower students, it was not exactly nirvana for the rest of us.

Being a smart row denizen could be particularly hazardous to your mental health - especially if you were one of those uppity bright kids who liked to ask challenging questions. Smart row kids were quick to learn that asking a question was risky business.

So was finishing a test more quickly than the allotted time. There was no "read a book" or "do some additional work" if you got the test done. Nope. If a test was supposed to take 30 minutes, you had to spend thirty minutes staring at the test paper that you'd completed in 5 minutes. If you were lucky, it was a test that let you use scrap paper that would not be collected. As long as the scrap paper wasn't going to be collected, you could doodle a picture of Gerald McBoing-Boing or write down the words to the "Quick Draw McGraw" theme song. It was a little risky - if sister was patrolling the aisles she might spot the doodling - but it was worth it. If the scrap paper was going to be collected, you were stuck. But you could use your eraser to write things on your desk that you could cover with your arm, or get rid of entirely with the application of a little spit and elbow grease.

I don't believe that my grammar school had a motto, but it probably would have been "Who do you think you are?"

This was the general response to anyone who asked a question (see above), anyone who demonstrated any pride whatsoever in their academic accomplishments, or who was, at anytime or for any reason having to do with academic performance, an outlier in the positive direction. (The question was not typically applied to bad-behavior troublemakers. Instead of being asked anything, troublemakers were told: you are a disgrace to your family-school-religion, a bold and brazen stump, a bad apple who will come to no good.)

I remember feeling particularly whip-sawed about the academic pride "thing". On the one hand, the school sometimes held a party for the kids who made honor roll. On party day, you didn't have to wear your uniform, and you got to go to the school auditorium and get a Hoodsie Cup. On the other hand, you weren't allowed to go to the party more than once a year. And on that third hand that was so sneakily hidden, if you at all mentioned your delight at being on the honor roll, let alone bragged about it, you were told that it had nothing to do with you. It had everything to do with your parents and your God-given brains.

"Nothing to do with you" was, like "who do you think you are?", an all purpose swipe at academic achievers. When my sister Kathleen won a scholarship to the high-falutin' Catholic girls high school in town, she was told that the win had nothing to do with her. The credit went to our parents and the school. (At least she got to win the scholarship. There was a rumor that the smartest boy in her class was up for a scholarship to the high-falutin' Catholic boys high school in town, but that the nun refused to recommend him because of his 'attitude.')

Fifth grade was a particular annus horriblis for me.

I wasn't generally teacher's pet material, but I was enough of a goody-two-shoes that I was not usually actively disliked by any teacher.

Not so that year.

For some reason, Sister Saint W loathed me from Day One. (She must have been a mind-reader.) At any rate, she plunked me and my friend Bernadette in the average row boys - double the humiliation. She also declared herself a "hard grader", and marked all my grades down from in the 90's to in the 80's. (I frankly don't remember if this was purely personal or across the boards. I'll have to ask my smart row girls cousin, who Sister Saint W also hated.) Given that virtually every test we took was multiple-choice or some other "only one right answer", nothing subjective about it, sort of exam, I don't know how she justified these grades. It's not like I didn't try for class participation. I couldn't help it if she ignored my raised hand.

One of the things we had to do in fifth grade was fill in a notebook with the title, author, and brief synopsis of each book we read. I read 6-10 books a week, which was no great feat given that they were Nancy Drew mysteries and the like. It wasn't like I was plowing through Victor Hugo. Still, I knew that Sister Saint W wouldn't believe me, so I left every other page my notebook blank, hoping she wouldn't notice that I was so many books ahead of the pace that she had declared acceptable.

Of course, she caught right on, ripped the pages out of the book and accused me of being a liar and a sneak.

A while later, she accused me of cheating on a standardized test because I had the highest score in the class. I knew enough not to challenge her logic on this - if I got the highest score, who, exactly, was a cheating from? Someone in the dumb row boys?

In eighth grade, I won the same scholarship my sister had won two years before. On the last day of school, the nun handed out a few prizes. Mine was the last one she announced.

Sister Mary F looked out the window and in a flat voice said, "The girl who won the scholarship." I walked to the front of the class, humiliated and confused that she could not even bring herself to use my name. (I know that she had wanted another girl to win.) I got to her desk, and without giving me a glance, she tossed a set of lavender glass rosary beads at me.

I know, of course, that given the size of our classes - up to 50 kids in one classroom, and some of them (in retrospect) with substantial learning disabilities or emotional problems - there was little time for special attention for anyone. Smart. Dumb. Dumb. Smart. Didn't matter. The focus was on the middle, with enough slaps at the outliers to keep them from causing too much trouble.

Was it all unrelieved torture? No, of course not. There were actually some teachers who were able to overcome the classroom challenges, treat kids decently and instill a love of learning. Monsignor Lynch, he of the read-out-loud report cards, hired a Spanish teacher so that the smart row boys and smart row girls in seventh and eighth grade could take after school language lessons. And he gave out prizes to the kids who did the best. (And, yes, I was a winner: a book about Maryknoll Missionaries and a very nice marble statue of the Blessed Mother.)

But, gee, I really wished there'd been a few more teachers who'd let me know that it was actually okay, and maybe even a good thing, to be smart.

So, as I said, I'm a bit sympathetic for these twenty-somethings exuding all that unwarranted self-esteem. They may need, and deserve, to get taken down a peg or two before it's too late. They may have difficulty accommodating the businss world, where no one will think of them as all that special until they prove themselves by working hard and getting results. But at least when someone asks them "Who do you think you are?" they'll have an answer.

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I had originally seen a reference to the self-esteem study flying by me on Comcast News, but I didn't pick up on it until I saw a post about it on Inside the Cubicle.

3 comments:

Marcia, Your Confidence Coach said...

i found the survey inflamatory and misleading. people's attitudes relflect the culture they live in. the 50's was repressive so there was repression and conformity. the 60's was open and optimistic. people felt they could make a difference. the 70's was work and fun in balance. the 80's was over the top. the 90's was i have it but i won't flaunt it. 2000 is deceit and the ends justifies the means. so here comes "narcissistic people". big shock.

Fan O'Maureen said...

Marcia, Marcia ... you may be a confidence coach but I think you missed the point(s). You do sound confident, for sure, but not like much fun ... well... like one of Maureen's ruler-wielding nun vixens. I was so busy laughing out loud -- and also aching something for the truth of it all -- that I'd forgotten about the survey until I ran smack into your confidence. Let's compromise -- you'll agree that the glass is half full, and I'll agree that someone probably spat in it. Deal?

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