by Gary Smalley and John Trent
Sixth grade hadn’t been a banner year for Eric. Never very confident in school, he had a particular dread of mathematics. “A mental block,” one of the school’s counselors had told him.
Then, as if a mental math block wasn’t enough for an eleven-year-old kid to deal with, he came down with measles in the fall and had to stay out of school for two weeks. By the time he got back, his classmates were multiplying fractions. Eric was still trying to figure out what you got when you put a half pie with three-quarters of a pie…besides a lot of pie.
Eric’s teacher, Mrs. Gunther—loud, overweight, terrifying, and a year away from retirement—was unsympathetic. For the rest of the year she called him “Measly” in honor of his untimely spots and hounded him ceaselessly with makeup assignments. When his mental block prevented his progress in fractions, she would thunder at him in front of the class, “I don’t give a Continental for your excuses! You’d better straighten up, Measly. Them ain’t wings I hear flappin’!”
The mental block, once the size of a backyard fence, now loomed like the Great Wall of China. Eric despaired of ever catching up and even fell behind in subjects he’d been good at.
Then came a remarkable moment.
It happened in the middle of Mrs. Warwick’s ninth grade English class. To this day, some twenty-five years later, Eric still lights up as he recalls The Moment.
The fifth period class had been yawning through Mrs. Warwick’s attempts to spark discussion about a Mark Twain story. At some point in the lecture, something clicked in Eric’s mind. It was probably crazy, but it suddenly seemed like he understood something Twain had been driving at—something a little below the surface. Despite his fear of sounding foolish, Eric raised his hand and ventured an observation.
That led to the moment when Mrs. Warwick looked straight into Eric’s eyes, beamed with pleasure, and said, “Why, Eric…that was very perceptive of you!”
Perceptive. Perceptive? Perceptive!
The word echoed in Eric’s thoughts for the rest of the day—and then for the rest of his life. Perceptive? Me? Well, yeah. I guess that was perceptive. Maybe I am perceptive.
One word, one little positive word dropped at the right moment somehow tipped the balance in a teenager’s view of himself—and possibly changed the course of his life (even though he still can’t multiply fractions).
Eric went on to pursue a career in journalism and eventually became a book editor, working successfully with some of the top authors in America. His newfound confidence placed him on a path he might otherwise have never discovered and enjoyed.
All it took was a kind word at the right moment—and a teacher who was a bit perceptive herself.
The world can be a forbidding place for children, especially if they feel that they somehow don’t measure up. A relatively minor difficulty—such as Eric’s “mental block” with math—can easily develop into a crisis of confidence, particularly when a child must listen to constant reminders of his or her deficiencies.
I still recall my own thirteenth and fourteenth years, which were the most painful of my life. I found myself in a social cross fire that gave rise to intense feelings of inferiority and doubt. Yet I survived this period, and even gained several positive qualities from the experience. I was sustained, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, by the faith I had developed through my parents’ teaching and example. I believed in a loving God who valued me for the person I was, who—even though I was unworthy—sent His Son to die for me (John 3:16).
If your children understand in their hearts that the Creator of the universe loves them personally and has sacrificed His own Son on their behalf, they will enjoy a much healthier self-concept and be far better equipped to take on the trials of adolescence. We’ll talk more this week about the relationship between self-worth and your family’s faith.
- James C Dobson
“Perceptive” by Gary Smalley and John Trent. From Leaving the Light On by Gary Smalley and John Trent (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 1994). Used by permission.