Cynthia Kane has struggled with feelings of inadequacy since she was a young girl.
I was 7 the first time I realized I wasn’t like other children. In school, sitting at the round table with my classmates, I watched our teacher, Ms. Allen, scribble numbers and symbols on the chalkboard. A heavy textbook clutched in one hand, she drew an arrow from one box to another while the other students jotted notes busily. I looked down at my blank lined paper. What was everyone writing? Ms. Allen turned and scanned the busy hands before fixing her gaze on me. Her head lifted slightly, exposing the loose skin under her chin. I froze. Her eyebrows moved and she cocked her head a bit to the side. I looked to the girls on my left and right; their heads were down and pencils moving. Without hesitation, I picked up my pencil like I too understood what this number plus that number came out to and why. “Good, ladies,” which was Ms. Allen’s cue to stop what we were doing. “Does anyone have any questions?” I, along with the rest of the girls, shook my head no.
Each day at Columbus School for Girls confirmed that for me, learning was like standing in front of a firing squad. The fact that I had been plunged from a routine where I played on jungle gyms and took a midday nap to fielding mysterious questions about letters and numbers seemed desperately unfair. Shouldn’t someone have taught me to learn beforehand? Instead, all I was learning was that I didn’t understand why 2 + 2 = 4 and the other 40 girls in my grade did.
Before second grade, I was like everyone else. But as time went by, I realized I was different, slower. While the girls in my grade were getting checks on their homework I was getting X’s. And it wasn’t just addition that stumped me. Everyone else seemed to be reading books; I needed a tutor to simply sound out my vowels. Every night I studied for hours at home with my mom and every day I pretended like I understood.
Then, one day, something clicked. We had moved on to a new lesson, balancing equations, and as I watched Ms. Allen scribble numbers and boxes onto the chalkboard, I realized that what she was doing made sense to me. I wanted to stand up and throw my hands in the air, screaming, I get it, I get it, but instead, I looked down at my page and calmly copied what was on the board. We had been on the lesson for a week when Ms. Allen announced there would be a quiz.
On the day of the test, I took my seat at the brown table, confident that I knew the material. “When you’re done, please place your test in the tray before heading out for recess.” I proceeded to second-guess myself on every question, writing and erasing, changing my mind. It’s 8, Cynthia; the answer is 8. Wait, no. No it’s not, the answer is 7. Which one is it? My chest tightened. The inner battle went on until I was the last one in the room. Finally, I slowly walked to the tray by the door. “Don’t forget to write your name at the top,” Ms. Allen said, fumbling around at her desk. I leaned down to write my name when I saw Robin’s test, face up. Robin was one of the girls who got checks instead of x’s. I looked at it; her answers were different than mine. Without thinking, I grabbed her paper, erased her name and wrote Cynthia. Then I wrote Robin at the top of my test. I put them both in the tray and was 100% positive Ms. Allen didn’t see anything. Out in the hall, I knew what I had done was wrong, but all I wanted was to feel like everyone else for just a moment, to be smart.
On Monday, Ms. Allen placed our tests in front of us face down then motioned with her hand to flip them over. I sat stunned at what I saw. A 50% in bright red marker scribbled across the top of Robin’s test on a diagonal. My chest started aching. I looked over at my original test, which I knew from the handwriting, and saw a 90% and good job with a smiley face written in blue marker. My trick worked, except Robin screwed up the test. I raised my hand to be excused to the bathroom where I sat for the next five minutes and cried.
The feeling of inadequacy lingered. And although I was told over and over by my parents and friends that I wasn’t stupid, I still felt that way. I felt that way, because in my mind there was a right and wrong way to do something, and I didn’t rely on myself to get it right. In high school and in college I fought against this feeling of inadequacy. I judged myself, calling myself stupid, shaming myself for not understanding like my peers, not learning like everyone else. I should be getting better grades, I should be getting into these classes, I should look like that, I should and on and on it went.
Over the years I got so used to hearing this voice in my head, the one that constantly reminded me I should be better, that I wasn’t enough, that I stopped even noticing its presence. And then one day my best friend passed away and suddenly I needed to care for myself and nurture myself like I’d never done before.
All I wanted was to be good to myself, to eat well, to move my body. All I wanted was to feel good; I wanted to enjoy being alive but to do so I had to figure out what I, me, Cynthia, actually liked and believed. Where before I was always looking out, I started looking in. I spent more time alone with myself then many people would think sane and less time socializing, reading certain magazines, checking social media. The more I got to know myself on my own the more I liked myself. The more I focused on my own paper, the more self-assured I became. And it was then when I realized I could be doing what so and so was doing, but I was choosing to do what I wanted to do instead. I had the power to choose. I could let being slower than others make me feel stupid, or I could see that was just how I learned and there wasn’t anything wrong with that.
I have a silver jar on my desk, and any time I think I should be doing this or I should have done that, or I seep into comparing myself to others, I drop something into it. I do this to stay conscious of my wants and my needs, because it’s the only way for me to know that who I am is enough.
Cynthia Kane received her B.A. from Bard College and her M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in magazines, newspapers, and journals including: wandermelon.com, VegNews, Pregnancy, Yoga Journal, Bridal Guide, The Jerusalem Post, and more. She has published short stories as well as Take a Hike: The Best 50 Routes in the Community of Madrid (Ediciones la Liberia, May 2011).