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The Day I Changed My Mind About Myself

By Chick Moorman

I wonder how Mrs. Axtell viewed the end of the school year in June of 1955. Did she give a big sigh of relief or feel a pang of sadness when her fifth graders exited her room for the final time that year? Did she skip down the hall high-fiving her colleagues in a jubilant expression of completion, or did she ponder what would become of these eleven-year-olds who had just been promoted to sixth grade? I wonder if Mrs. Axtell took the time to pat herself on the back for the successes she had achieved as a professional educator. Or did she do as many teachers do - worry about the one or two students who didn't demonstrate the level of responsibility or achievement that she had envisioned for them?

I suspect that Mrs. Axtell went home that summer to relax or pursue her professional training. My guess is that she didn't spend a lot of time thinking about that new kid from Chicago who'd arrived in the middle of the year. She really had no way of knowing the influence she had had or how she helped me change my mind about myself.

I was a middle-of-the-year transfer student because my parents moved from Chicago to Traverse City, Michigan, in order to raise children where fishing, swimming, skiing, and the outdoors called. As a result, I experienced only a half year with Mrs. Axtell - but it was plenty of time for a miracle worker to ply her trade.

I recall the principal of Oak Park Elementary School escorting me down the hall of my new school to meet the teacher and view the fifth-grade classroom for the first time. I was assigned a seat in the middle of the last row. It was necessary for me to pull my chair up close to another kid's desk because there were no extra desks in the classroom. There weren't enough books either, so I also had to share math and social studies books. It didn't matter. Mrs. Axtell didn't use books and chairs to fashion miracles. She did it with words and the way she chose to speak to children.

I entered Oak Park Elementary School carrying emotional baggage. My core belief had been firmly planted and was freely growing. Simply stated, it was this: "I am a troublemaker." That was what I believed about myself, what influenced my behaviors at that time in my life, and what I believed was my identity.

In second grade I had led a gang that hassled first graders on the playground. I bought ice cream from the Good Humor man at recess and stuffed it down other kids' shirts. In third grade I threw a snowball and accidentally hit a teacher in the face. (My parents were called to school to discuss that incident.) After every report card was issued, I simply took the card home, put it on the dining room table, and proceeded straight to my bedroom. I didn't need to be told I was grounded. It wasn't that my grades were so bad - it was the other side of the report card that was cause for concern. Teachers wrote comments that said, "Talks all the time," "Is abusive to materials," "Attitude needs improvement," "Messy work."

It was with this history and my core belief, "I am a troublemaker," that I entered Mrs. Axtell's fifth-grade room that day. Within two hours of my arrival, she created the incident that enabled me to change my mind about myself.

I have total recall of the incident and can bring it back to consciousness at will. It is one of those rare freeze-frame moments in my life. I can still smell the smells, hear the sounds, and see the sights.

Mrs. Axtell began a lesson on long division. She wore a yellow dress and black shoes. The clock over the drinking fountain revealed that it was 10:35 in the morning

"I'm going to put a problem on the board," she announced. "I haven't taught long division yet, so it's okay if you don't know how to do this."

(I had been taught long division the week before in Chicago at my old school. Be advised that it was not my habit to pay attention in school. I have no idea how I remembered the process of long division. But I did. Chalk it up as miracle number one.)

"I need a volunteer," Mrs. Axtell announced. "Who would be willing to take a risk with this problem? Just get it going and I'll help you finish it."

My hand shot immediately into the air.

(Miracle number two. It was not my normal practice to volunteer for things of this nature. I had long since learned that only bad things happened in school when I was called on. My mode of operation had always been to sit there and hope I wouldn't be noticed or called on to perform.)

Before I reined my hand in, Mrs. Axtell called my name.

"You put the number out front into the first two numbers under the division sign," I began. "I think it goes five times. You multiply the number out front by five and put it here. Subtract. Look to make sure the answer you get is lower than the number out front. If it is, bring down the next number. Then put the main number into this new number. I think it goes three times. Multiply and write it down. Subtract. Since the number I got after subtracting is lower than the number out front, that's the remainder. Write that up here with an R for 'remainder.'"

I nailed that problem! I didn't miss a step. The computation was accurate.

I'll never forget the look on Mrs. Axtell's face when I finished explaining how to solve that problem. First, her jaw dropped. Then she broke into a huge smile. It was at that moment that she uttered the words that helped me change my mind about myself: "Boys and girls," she said, "do we ever have somebody special here!"

Everybody turned to look at me. Thirty-seven faces were grinning and looking at me as if I was somebody special. I liked it. I remember thinking, "They don't know." And then I thought, "I'm not going to tell them." The positive attention felt good.

It was during that moment that I changed my core belief from "I am a troublemaker" to "I am special." Not "I am better than" or "I am special and you are not." We are all special in our own ways. It was in that instant that I first glimpsed the specialness that helps make me who and what I am as a unique human being.

When you believe "I am special," that belief changes how you think of yourself. It influences your behaviors. I liked the attention I got that day and I wanted more of it. I started paying attention. I raised my hand regularly. I read the assignments. I did homework. I experienced a new kind of attention, the attention you get from being a learner rather than a troublemaker.

I suspect Mrs. Axtell went home that summer not fully appreciating what she had done for me. I regret that I never went back to tell her. I tried to find her once, but she had long since retired. I hope she had a great summer that year. I hope she had a series of great summers.

Thank you, Mrs. Axtell, for touching my spirit, for being there for me in 1955. You showed up right on schedule, just when I needed you. I appreciate your efforts.