My First D+

I noticed the the chill before I noticed the darkness. How long had I been sitting at the bottom of the staircase leading me back home? Hours must’ve passed between the heat of the afternoon and fall of night.

I received my first D+ in second grade. I had an odd sensation as the teacher handed back the tests, but a sly smirk rose upon my face as if somehow the truth was too much to bear thus could not be real. I caught a quick glance of the bright, bold red letter as I crammed it in my desk before anyone else, or even I, could see it. A quintessential latchkey kid, I naturally had time to figure out my next move; contemplate this disaster.

I think that’s my first memory of shame. There was a distinct feeling of lacking.

I knew at some point my parents would return home so I crammed the test at the bottom of the bag before trudging home. I imagined a worse case scenario being that my mom would find it and scream at me for hours. Terrifying. Or worse, give me the silent treatment. (How can one of her daughters be that incompetent.) My imagination did not know my mother very well, however, because she never asked me for the test or responded to the teacher meeting requests regarding my grades. There was no context or conversation around this experience.  It did not matter. And to my second grade self that meant I didn’t matter. There was a safety in that invisibility. It meant that though I would never be mistaken for being successful, I could never fail either. To fail would mean that I mattered.

My sister was immediately accepted into the gifted program at our elementary school and it took me until about third grade. I accepted by the time I was in 4th grade that I was not smart. That’s kind – I thought I was dumb. I was cute but that’s the only qualifiable aspect of my existence. The joke within my family about me was that “God made me pretty so they wouldn’t forget to feed me.” As with every joke, there is a harsh kernel of truth. Teachers and my parents simply compared my performance and ability to my sister’s at every step of the way until I finally met a teacher who had never taught my sister before. My sister had left to attend private school as soon as she was old enough to be admitted. In 6th grade, Ms. Tunick saw my curiosity for history and worked with my joy instead of chastise me for performance. She fed my voracious appetite for story (I was usually chapters ahead of the class) and used my success in our class book club to bolster my confidence in every other subject.  With words, I always had context. I had figured out a way to read fast enough so that even if the words didn’t necessary read correctly I could denote the meaning of the word within the context of the sentence. She bartered my love for reading for other scholastic tasks as if I had any negotiating powers.  I could’ve easily been another latchkey kid lost in the LAUSD system, one of the worst school systems in the country. It wasn’t until college that the possibility of dyslexia was a given to me to explain my difficulty with numbers and insatiable appetite for words. As I was not formally diagnosed, I was not given additional time or alternative ways to cope with this disability. By that point, though I didn’t identify with being smart, I felt capable and engaged. My joy around learning through reading released the hold of shame around my scholastic abilities. Purpose is a great motivator. Ironic how we tend to look at being motivated as the source of purpose, right?

As an Ivy League graduate lauded for my experience in marketing, branding, and corporate philanthropy, it would be so easy to bury the story. As an actor and writer now, it seems even more irrelevant. It’s not like I’m going to get an audition for having a higher GPA (Thank, God!). I’m not asking for sympathy, or even a pat on the back. To do so would be to disengage myself from owning my story fully.  So why am I telling you this now?

We sometimes carry parts of ourselves that brought us shame and allow those parts to get intertwined with the story we tell about ourselves, or let others tell about us, today. In some ways, this invisibility and disability was my superpower–my privilege.

Privilege carries a bounty of negative connotations. Many people cringe at the thought of privilege because it can mean separation and responsibility. It usually is something more innate than we’d like to admit such as ethnicity, wealth, status, education, gender, sexual orientation, etc.  Often a societal construct that you had no hand in creating or intention of perpetuating.  Yet it somehow is pressed upon us as who we are. We forget that privilege is often not something we have control of. When privilege comes with judgment instead of context, we create a fissure that is hard to mend both with others and within ourselves. Releasing shame around my experience allowed me to reframe it as my privilege. Not to be a point of contention but a source of bounty. Perhaps unwrapping privilege and shame is the pathway to authenticity, which we’ve become starved for.

As I leave you to ruminate over the idea of privilege, consider what your privileges may actually be.  In my next letter to you, I’ll connect how the seeds of challenge and struggle were likely the source of my joy and success.  Next up will be the Power of and in Privilege and the Myth of Scarcity.


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