Fourth Grade: On Learning Confidence

an essay by Melanie Thompson

When people tell you that you are gifted from a young age, you are inclined to believe them. When I was a kid, I had a chorus of positive affirmations singing in my ear: “You’re so smart!” “You’re so pretty!” “You’re so skilled!” I took it all in. 

I was particularly recognized for writing, which I had been doing for as long as I could remember. My sister and I illustrated epic adventures of super-powered girls fighting monsters. I plotted movies in my head and acted them out with McDonalds Happy Meal toys in the bathtub. During recess, I dug up worms and gave them names, spouses, conflict. Storytelling became my refuge from a world I wasn’t sure how to fit into, and I held tightly to a gut feeling it would always be my thing.

By the first day of fourth grade, things were changing. While I was still acing reading and writing, math steadily became harder. I watched other kids surpass me for the first time. My mom insisted that I was pretty, but after glasses, braces, and the worst haircut of my life, my reflection did not support her claims. And my best friend Sarah, who I was inseparable from since the first grade, wasn’t talking to me. It was my first fight ever, and without my other half I felt even more intimidated and alone. 

Storytelling became my refuge from a world I wasn’t sure how to fit into, and I held tightly to a gut feeling it would always be my thing.

At least I still had my stories. Epics about princes and princesses from medieval times, gritty tales of single moms working in dingy diners, fantasies of kids with magic powers living in an orphanage—they stayed with me as I ambled into the bright fluorescent lights of our new classroom, walked past the desk where Sarah sat with her back to me, and landed at mine on the opposite side of the room. I glanced around. Our new teacher, Mr. Gottlieb, posted a banner above the blackboard that said “Attitude Is Everything” and stood beneath it silently observing the students meander in with an ear-to-ear grin. I could tell he would be a character: He was young, eager, and overflowing with positivity that was at once boundless and grounded. He asked us all to rise. Chair legs screeched against the floor. 

“I want you to repeat after me,” Mr. Gottlieb said, his eyes twinkling as he looked around the class. “I. Am. Somebody.”

My classmates mechanically recited the words back to him, confused. I mumbled them as well.

“You can do better than that!” he challenged, still smiling. “I am somebody!”

“I am somebody!” we chanted, our enthusiasm growing.

“I am somebody!”

“I AM somebody!”

Energy swept across the classroom as it clicked in our heads. I felt electricity in my fingertips. That same leap in my heart when people told me “You’re so smart! You’re so pretty! You’re so skilled!” began to palpitate. Mr. Gottlieb caught my eye as I repeated, “I am somebody!” with extra fervor, and he nodded to me knowingly.

Mr. Gottlieb was fair, equitable, and kind to all the students, but I felt that we had a special understanding of each other (in the most non-creepy way, I feel it’s necessary to state). He knew I loved Star Wars and that I won the most medals on Field Day. He knew I played soccer on weekends and that my favorite color was purple. Most importantly, he knew I loved to write.

One day when the bell rang for lunch Mr. Gottlieb held me and Sarah back as the rest of the students ran out the door. My stomach dropped and I began to imagine what I did wrong. We were studying Aesop’s Fables, and I listened attentively and answered two questions correctly. I never got in trouble. And what was Sarah doing here?

“I have a special assignment for you two,” Mr. Gottlieb said to us. “I want you each to write a fable, like Aesop. Except we’re going to make it a play and perform it for the class. Is that something you girls would like to do?”

I beamed. I think I may have jumped up and down. I think I may have felt better than I had ever felt up to that point in my life. I have been commissioned to write something by a teacher who recognized that I was good, that I was special. Sarah looked excited, too, and we exchanged a warm smile.

After several hours, I emerged from my bedroom with a tale of a young bear cub named Ashley, who lied to prevent her parents from finding out that she had cheated on a test at bear cub school. I read and re-read my work and was convinced of its brilliance. Mr. Gottlieb was going to love it.

I brought it in the next day. “Finished already?” Mr. Gottlieb asked. I nodded and handed him my ten-paged manuscript. His eyes widened in surprise and I giggled all the way back to my desk.

Several days passed as I eagerly awaited feedback. Meanwhile, Sarah asked me how my writing was going, and we sat together at lunch for the first time that year. Things are going to be all right, I thought. 

When Mr. Gottleib held the two of us back again, I struggled to mask a burgeoning, anticipating smile.

“Great work, you two,” he began. “Sarah, I love your story. Start thinking about who should play the roles of the brother and sister.” He handed back her paper, and I noticed a few scribbled notes in red ink. I craned my neck, expecting mine to be returned edit-free.

“Melanie,” Mr. Gottlieb said gently, “I like the idea behind your story. But I went ahead and changed it a little so it will work better as a play to do in class. Ok?”

My breath caught in my throat. I blinked and swallowed hard.

He handed me pages I had never seen in my life. They were typed, not handwritten. This is not what I had turned in. 

“Give it a read and let me know what you think.” He patted me on the back as he stood and walked back toward his desk. “Why don’t you two catch up with your friends and head to lunch?”

Sarah walked ahead of me to the cafeteria, but I dipped into the nearest girl’s room and locked myself in a stall. There I read a completely different story than the one I had written: the bear cubs were now humans, the crime was changed from cheating on the test to lying about the grade, and most of my original dialogue was gone. My play had gone from ten to three pages and updated from a fantasy world where animals could talk to a modern-day after school special. The only thing that was similar to mine was that it was a work of fiction.  

But the thing that hurt more than the indignity of disregarding the work I had done was a deep, knowing feeling in my gut: the new version was better. Looking back, my story was convoluted and long-winded. I had tried too hard to be clever. Everything I touched did not turn to gold, I realized, and as the rough taste of failure quickly turned bitter in my mouth, I looked for someone to blame.

Everyone from my mother to my great aunt to my soccer coach to my teachers hyped up my potential, and, I now believed, every one of them had lied. “Chase your dreams,” they told me. “You’re special.” No wonder I didn’t think the rules applied to me. I had a special sense of purpose on the inside. A feeling that maybe I was a bit better than the rest. That I could do no wrong. This failure shattered that illusion and sent the artist in me retreating inwards, lying in the fetal position deep in the back of my heart. 

This failure shattered that illusion and sent the artist in me retreating inwards, lying in the fetal position deep in the back of my heart. 

After I ran home that Friday and cried hysterically to my bewildered mother, I reigned in my feelings of shame and returned on Monday to tell Mr. Gottlieb that yes, we should move forward with his version of my play. But I still had to fight a feeling of shame. For years I refused to show anyone else my creative writing. 

During late nights in high school, instead of sneaking alcohol like many of my fellow students, I wrote screenplays long hand on yellow legal pads that I’d stash under my bed. But show anyone? Dear God, no. I couldn’t shake the need for validation and the fear that I would not receive it. My work would have to be perfect before I shared it, I decided, and since nothing I wrote came anywhere close to perfection, I never had to. 

This, of course, is where art goes to die. I knew this deep down, too, but it took years since that moment in the girl’s bathroom to accept that criticism is an unavoidable, and one of the scariest, part of the process, and one I knew I must learn to embrace. 

Mr. Gottlieb had given me a gift. Instead of glossing over my mistakes and praising me for something mediocre, he forced me to confront the fact that I wouldn’t always be good. It would have been easier for him to say, “You’re talented! You’re pretty! You’re skilled!” and send me off with a sticker, but he challenged me to seek something deeper than compliments. 

Twenty years later, I wrote a short film loosely based on my latest failed relationship off the urgings of a friend who kept saying, “You’re a writer, right? So write!” We had recruited actors, a reliable crew, and started an Indiegogo campaign to fund the project. Finally, as our shoot dates approached, I held a table read of my script in my friend’s apartment recreation room. I was terrified. We sat in a circle and, for the first time ever, I heard actors read aloud the words I had written. It wasn’t a perfect script; I knew I might have to make more changes; someone might make a remark about a line they found poorly written, or maybe there’s a confusing character. But it was my story, and I was sharing it. Right then and there that was enough. 

Perhaps, I thought as I surveyed the engaged faces of the actors and my production team, they might be enjoying it. Perhaps — do I dare to dream? — they were even moved by my words.

This feels good, I thought to myself. Why haven’t I done this sooner?

Melanie Thompson is a writer, actor and director. A proud native of the Washington DC area, Melanie graduated with a BFA in Acting from Emerson College before moving to Los Angeles, where she currently resides. She has been featured in a number of films and commercials, and she wrote, produced and directed the short film Charlie, which premiered at local festivals.

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