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The Lesson

A few weeks ago, I attended a volunteer orientation session for the San Francisco Education Foundation. I am volunteering to speak at schools in San Francisco for Career Days. The session was on a Wednesday evening and after a long day at work it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. One slide in a blurred presentation, however, did capture my attention. The presenter noted that going back to school could trigger memories about school for us and then asked us to share some of our memories, good and bad.

Everyone had something to share. Seated in the back, head down, I refrained. In the weeks since, I've often wondered why. I didn’t have much time to reflect, however, as before I knew it my turn in front of the classroom was upon me.

This morning I gave my first Career Day talk to the International Studies Academy High School in Potrero Hill. I was so nervous my leg started to shake. What could I possibly say that they would care about? Would I have an effect at all?

The students squirmed, checked cell phones, did each other’s hair, hit each other and shouted out remarks while I spoke. It was like trying to explain architecture to a pack of wild animals. Their kinetic energy was palpable and unpredictable even while they feigned indifference. I started by introducing myself and my company. When I got to the part where I shared my personal story, they got quiet; you could hear a pin drop. It was so sudden a shift that I paused and stammered a bit. When I went back to speaking about business, they went back to picking at each other; they couldn’t care less anymore. They were a living, breathing litmus test of what matters.

I have to admit that after the experience I was shook. I had forgotten what it’s like being that age and in high school, just beginning to put together your story. As I walked up one of those lovely Potrero Hills to my car, I realized how much my school memories have been writing my story.

My first school memory is of winning a spelling bee in the 2nd grade. The winner received a paper mache Popeye and I wanted that sucker. What I didn’t expect was the resulting accolades. My victory was so lauded that a picture was taken of me with the Popeye in the backyard.

Something must have fused in my brain at that moment because from then on I was all about doing well in school. If you check my report cards from the 1st grade, you will see that I was pretty much a jovial slob who liked to entertain folks with my creative writing. Literally, my first grade teacher wrote on the back of a report card that was filled with Us (U for unsatisfactory) in cleanliness and cooperation: "We all enjoy Alicia’s creative writing efforts."

Of course, I didn’t discover that was written there until decades later. I only remembered that I could set a goal and achieve it and if I got it, I would be loved. So you must know where this is going. After that 2nd grade success I pretty much never brought home anything less than an A.

The next chapter of my story was formed by the 5th Grade: there was a teacher in the school that all the girls adored. I will call her Miss. C. She had blonde hair, blue eyes and was petite. She was also enticingly young. Everyone liked her and all the girls wanted to be her. She was, unfortunately, not my teacher. I was in Mr. G’s class. Still, I admired Miss. C from afar.

Well then you can imagine my excitement when I learned that she took her favorite students to McDonald's. McDonald's was the ultimate and the thought of Miss. C taking me to McDonald's put me over the moon. She just had to take me – never mind that I was not her student or that she didn’t even know my name.

At about the same time, all the 5th grade classes were about to enter a science section. I loved science and was a regular viewer of Nova on PBS. One night I tuned in and saw that Nova was running a program, called the "Miracle of Life." It was a special on how babies are made. I started watching and thought to myself, well this is wonderful; it should be taught! Who could I tell about this? I decided that Miss. C was going to be the recipient of my great find. So I scrambled to my feet, found my tape recorder and started taping the show. We didn’t have a Betamax or VHS recorder so the tape recorder was all I had. I was careful to flip the tape when it started to run out on one side and tried my best to block out any extraneous noise. When I was done, I packaged up the cassette tape in a big yellow envelope and took it to school.

The next day, I saw Miss. C in a breezeway talking to a gaggle of fawning students and marched right up to her and thrust the package into her arms. "This is about the miracle of reproduction," I said. "I think you should use this in your class for the science section." I kid you not. That is what I said.

She, of course, was completely bewildered and a bit horrified. She took my package and walked away without saying a word. She didn’t even say thank you. She never approached me after or even acknowledged what I had done. I was humiliated. For years it made me cringe to recall how my nerdy, awkward 11 year-old self tried to forge a connection.

There are so many more examples. Like in the 6th grade: I had a teacher who told me I was not good at math and he wouldn’t let me sit for a test that would allow me to take algebra in the 7th grade. I tracked down the 7th grade teacher and asked her if I could take it. She let me; I passed and got admitted to algebra in the 7th grade. Only to get caught cheating on a test in 7th grade algebra. Why was I cheating? I thought I wasn’t good at math.

Or my sophomore year of high school: my biology teacher was talking about eye color when I commented that mine were boring because they were brown. She looked down at me at my desk and said, "You have the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen." I really do like my eyes.

Or even my calculus teacher telling me that I always got to the right answer but my proofs never looked like anybody else’s. I never was sure what to take away from that comment.

From the days when I sat in a semi-circle of children listening to a teacher read me a story to this morning when I stood at the front of that high school to tell my story, the thread is undeniable. I can almost plot the points on a graph – those teachable moments that somehow stuck.

I won a Popeye and told myself I was good at school. A teacher missed an opportunity to connect with me and I told myself I was bad at connecting. It goes on and on. Do you know that it wasn’t until my second year of extensive financial modeling at The Carlyle Group that I revised my story and told myself I was good at math?

My worry today shouldn’t have been will they hear me or will it have an effect, but what would they hear and how will it affect them. Seemingly throwaway comments from teachers deeply affected me; as did comments from lots of other folks or "teachers" growing up. What I heard I often adopted and made a part of my story. I can see now that when it’s easy for even teachers to forget their impact, how hard it is for the rest of us to understand that we’re all teachers, too.

What we say has an effect – good or bad. Even the stories we tell ourselves. The key, I suppose is to realize when we’re teaching and when we’re telling stories.


You can reach Alicia at