I was recently asked why I became a psychologist. For a number of reasons I decided to tell the story in third person. Here’s a picture of me to help set the scene. You might think how could this dorky, smiling girl have a dark side? (And what’s with the tie?)
It was the first day Tara was placed in the higher-level class for 6th grade math. She was 11 years old. Agonizingly shy in school, Tara’s demeanor was mistaken for a lack of motivation or sometimes, intelligence. She even failed the chorus audition because the judges couldn’t hear her sing, which meant she’d have to suffer through Music Appreciation class in middle school with the boys. So, the recognition of her math ability and subsequent transfer into the smart kids’ class was a big deal.
Up until then, Tara had been routinely visiting with the Barlow Mountain Elementary School guidance counselor, Dr. Moe, because things at home were chaotic. She preferred to stay at home to keep watch on things. She refused to get on the bus. She had to be dragged kicking and screaming from her mother’s car in the morning. She fought tooth and nail to avoid school and saved her temper (AKA her “fighting spirit”) for after school.
This was the behavior that prompted meetings with Dr. Moe starting in the 3rd grade. At the time, Tara was one of the rare students to have divorced parents. In reality, she didn’t know a single kid in her school who had divorced parents. As such, her parents’ split was a source of shame, compounded by the fact of having an exotic mother – both beautiful and with a strange accent – from Germany. When fitting in is all that matters, anything out to the ordinary is a source of harassment. Tara had to deal with the schoolyard “Nazi” taunts before she even knew what the word meant. Her dad? Eventually, he took off and left nothing but debt.
On this particular day she arrived nervously to math class with the smart kids, only to find out there was a test. She didn’t know the material and her new teacher, Mrs. Dulfur, looked at her with utter disdain.
Tara raised her hand and timidly whispered, “I don’t know this math yet. I don’t think I should have to take the test.”
“What did you say?” demanded Mrs. Dulfur.
Tara repeated her request.
“I can’t hear you. What did you say?” egged the teacher.
Tara mustered more courage and repeated her request. Mrs. Dulfur, not more that 4 feet 10 inches and at least 200 pounds, waddled over and pulled the top of Tara’s hair, lifting Tara to her toes.
”Don’t. You. Dare. Ever. Raise. Your. Voice. In this class. Again,” she said through her teeth.
Seconds seemed like hours. Not a sound was heard except the rush of adrenaline in her own body. The other kids looked away uncomfortably. This was not a good start with the smart kids. Not at all. Tara just wanted to disappear. Mrs. Dulfur released her grip. When Tara could feel her feet back on the ground – humiliated and with a burning scalp – she fled the classroom to seek out Dr. Moe.
When he heard the story amidst Tara’s tears of red-hot embarrassment, he said, “Well now, Tara. Are you sure you didn’t raise your voice?”
At that very moment Tara felt that all the adults in her world had utterly failed her: her parents, teachers and helpers. No one really listened. No one believed her. No one showed kindness. And no one seemed to show genuine interest in her feelings.
Instantly, Tara thought, “I can do a better job than you, Dr. Moe.” And in that moment of failed empathy, she decided she was going to be a therapist.
She never went back to see him. Math was forever a burning subject, but Tara charged forth with her secret mission to help misunderstood kids.
* * *
There is a postscript to this story, of course.
After that “I’ll show you” moment, Tara had a true purpose. The path wasn’t easy. Struggle paved the way just about every step. Yet, she never deterred.
A psychoanalyst might say Tara “identified with the aggressor;” a strengths-based therapist might comment that she used her anger productively; a Jungian might suggest the mythic archetypes of hero, rebel or caregiver were ignited; and an energy healer would see this as a moment of clarity and divine life purpose. Whatever the lens, a narrative took hold.
Six years later, as a senior in high school, Tara came face to face with Dr. Moe once more. In an irony only the universe can arrange, Dr. Moe was transferred to the high school. Tara was directed to Dr. Moe for help with college applications. It was with the same feeling of shame – from a history better left forgotten – from which she had to muster courage to speak with him.
When she read his letter of recommendation about her resilience and ability to overcome odds, she was stunned. A new sort of embarrassment took hold, one mixed with recognition, humility and gratitude. Maybe the world was never against her after all.
Yes, it would take another nine years to complete her plan. But a course was set in a single defiant moment.
They say revenge is sweet. Sometimes, it really is.