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Off a Duck's Back

At our older child's parent-teacher conference recently, we were informed that Lowery had made some massive strides in reading and vocabulary. As proud parents, we were shocked to hear that massive strides could even be made. Was she not reading Don Quixote during recess?

Apparently, for a month or so, the teacher was concerned that our child didn't have confidence in her reading ability. What we were seeing at home wasn't translating into the classroom, and our daughter was apparently clamming up and claiming she couldn't read.

"But then I divided the class by reading level," the teacher further explained. "And once she was among readers at her same level, she blasted off to higher levels."

Jim and I looked at each other confused.

"I believe she was just intimidated by the kids who are doing better at reading," she smiled. "It was messing with her confidence."

Apparently, my six-year-old was feeling intimidated. An emotion I'm intimately acquainted with but didn't realize kids could feel. Much like humor. I remember being amazed at how my kids, as mere infants, found certain things funny. I just assumed senses of humor would develop, I dunno, in one's mid-twenties. Or, for some, never.

Anyway, my husband and I were now aware that my child had struggled, but now she wasn't, and it all came down to a mix of what the teacher diagnosed as high intimidation and low confidence.

This didn't feel exactly right. But isn't that the obvious reaction of any parent?

Since that parent/teacher conference, I've given a lot of thought to my own relationship with intimidation and confidence, as I'm now aware I have to coach my own child through it.

What is she physically feeling when she's intimidated? Is it nervous? Is it awe-struck? Is it panic? Paralysis? What, in her mind, is the worst case scenario? Stumbling? Stuttering? A booger?

For Lowery, it comes down to the simple fact that she doesn't like being in front of people. More specifically, she doesn't like people watching her. This comes as a shock to anyone who knows her because she also demands a lot of everyone's personal attention, and she always has a helluva lot to say. But she draws the line at having a crowd (or a classroom) of people look at her.

A few months ago she told me she would never get married. And as I've vowed to support any life my kids choose, I declared, with my arms in the air, "You do you!"

"And I won't have babies," she said, arms folded across her chest.

"Who needs 'em!" I yelled, high-fiving her.

Then I pulled Jim aside to confess I was concerned that perhaps there was something about our marriage or my parenting style that has turned her off from the idea of a family altogether. And, with the confidence only a man can possess, Jim said, "I doubt we're to blame."

Then he yelled up to Lowery from the bottom of the stairs: "Hey! Why don't you want to get married or have kids?"

She yelled back down: "Because I don't want people watching me during the wedding, or doctors looking at me in the hospital while I have a baby!"

Jim looked at me pointedly and said, "There you have it."

All this to say, this isn't a child who lacks confidence. This is a child who is fully aware of what intimidates her. What causes her discomfort. She's secure enough to know her desire to avoid weddings and births has no impact on her overall self worth. Dammit, I love that kid.

And to her credit, Lowery has participated in school plays, musical performances, has given presentations in class, and even read aloud from a Dr. Seuss book to the entire school during an assembly.

Oh, she can rally.

But she'd really rather not.

In my classroom, intimidation can run the show. Unintentionally, of course, but it can impact the way students carry themselves. Often, when I meet with prospective students, intimidation is top of mind. Usually this is confessed to me in the last few moments of our meeting.

"Um, it's been awhile since I've done school. Am I going to be the dumbest person in the room?"

To which I always respond, "Better than being the smartest."

There's something to being intimidated. I certainly don't want any students to come through the program who aren't the least bit threatened by the process. But I also don't want them crippled by fear. But, to be clear, every student who ever confessed to feeling intimidated by graduate school still enrolled.

Where the breakdown happens, and where I think the teacher may have misinterpreted Lowery's reading ability, is in thinking that intimidation is the opposite of confidence. That if you are feeling one, you clearly lack the other.

But actually, they are in cahoots.

Intimidation and confidence are like soap and water. You have to have a little bit of water to get the soap to even work. But then, when you're good and lathered, the water eliminates the soap all together.

So I think about the things that intimidate me. Obviously I loved having people watch me while I got married. And it was a more-the-merrier situation in the delivery room. But there are a few instances in which I feel wholly intimidated.

For instance, women who can make workout clothes look fashionable. Or people who keep their emotions hidden. Or Rachel Maddow. Or messy buns. Or technology, sadly, of any kind. Beyond that, I'm very low down on the very high totem pole of higher ed. And even though I've published a collection of essays that won some awards, my publisher still refers to me as an "unknown author." Point is, I can't pull off yoga pants and I'm no James Patterson.

But that's exactly as it should be. I gotta use a little confidence to lather up my intimidation so I can wash it away entirely.

Incoming students need to feel the pressure and intimidation of school so they can see how far they've come when they are coasting into graduation. My daughter needs to feel that lump in her throat before she's asked to read a book in front of her classmates so she can feel the confidence rush over her like a waterfall when she begins. And I've got to keep looking at women who wear their hair haphazardly up in a way that brings me down. Because one day, with enough hairspray and confidence, I'll master the look myself.

That's the cycle you want if you're lucky enough to find it. A small and constant trickle of confidence that's just enough to eventually wash away any feelings of intimidation.

But much like any daily ritual, you'll have to continually rinse and repeat.


Everything is Negotiable: The 5 Tactics to Get What You Want in Life, Love & Work drops November 6th!

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