“People grow when they are loved well. If you want to help others heal, love them without an agenda.” ~Mike McHargue
I learned some of my biggest life lessons in grade 5.
I was an average student leaning to below average in my early elementary years. I came home with a steady flow of B’s, C’s and the occasional E’s in second language subjects. I was told that I wasn’t applying myself and, as every report card I ever brought home clearly stated, I talked too much.
At least that was the narrative as I came to understand it.
I didn’t write when I was supposed to write. I talked to peers while the teacher was giving instructions. That I could recite what she had said to the class while I was talking was not helpful because I was disruptive to my classmates’ learning.
So I regularly brought home disappointing report cards.
My parents and my teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Punishments didn’t seem to work. Rewards didn’t seem to either. And, frankly, I don’t think I knew what I could do to “apply myself.” And I certainly didn’t know how to not enjoy talking with my classmates! What I knew was that I talked too much and so I lived this narrative like a badge of honor.
Until grade 5.
That fall, we had an abrupt change in teachers as our elderly teacher took a medical leave. In his place, a young substitute arrived—Mrs. Royal. She looked like she was freshly out of university and seemed too young to be cast in the role of being responsible for a class of tween, but there she was, charged with a lively group, and me.
I don’t remember many details of that year—funny how that works—except for two. One memory is locked in because I have a photo of Mrs. Royal and me. It was taken on the playground. She was behind me with her arms around my shoulders, hands clasped on my chest. Both of us were smiling. I was wearing a pink floral dress, so I suspect it was school photo day.
The second memory is the afternoon I got my first report card from her.
She handed out the report cards right after afternoon recess and invited us to look them over. Then she let us know that we could all talk quietly amongst ourselves while she called each student up one at a time, in alphabetical order, to discuss our report cards with her.
I looked over my report card, anticipating the usual feedback. I read it closely and double-checked in case I had missed anything. I made sure it was definitely my report card and not someone else’s. Even though we had been given permission to talk amongst ourselves, I had very little to say to friends as I waited anxiously for her to call my name.
When it was my turn, she began with a warm smile, “So, Judith, do you have any questions for me?”
I remember looking at her, glancing down at my report card and then placing it on the desk between us as I said, “I don’t understand.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“I don’t’ get A’s, let alone straight A’s,” I remember blurting. “And, besides, nowhere on here does it say that I talk too much.”
I watched her closely in these moments and saw her bite her lip and then clear her throat.
“Well, Judith,” she began, “I figured you already knew that you talked too much, so I thought I could tell you some things that you might not have known, so I wrote those things down. As for the grades, you earned the A’s, so I gave them to you.”
“Oh,” I said and then looked blankly down at the report card in front of me. “Thank you.”
I didn’t have any other questions. What else could I have asked?
In her reply, she confirmed that this was in fact my report card and that there was no mistake in what I read.
I don’t even remember what my parents had to say when I took it home to them.
From that day on, something changed. I took on the narrative of someone who was capable of “straight A’s” and could have traits other than that of a student who talks too much in class.
The trend of “straight A’s” continued. In grade 7, I recall my then best friend and I were held up as the model “quiet students” on the bus.
Getting good grades became just something I did as I moved forward in my academic career. With allowances for first year university organic chemistry, of course!
But, it wasn’t until years later—not until my early thirties—that I came to truly appreciate the gift that was Mrs. Royal. I was a mother of a young pre-schooler at this point and began contemplating what my daughter’s school life might be like since she was like me in many ways.
It was then that I reflected on that report card. I pulled it out from the box of childhood memorabilia and re-read it.
I wondered whether or not Mrs. Royal had been following a particular teaching paradigm when she wrote this. In my therapist lingo, that report card reflected a “strengths based” approach. She pointed out all the positive personal qualities and resources I could lean into to achieve learning outcomes.
And just like that, in a few comments placed in a document that held some significance in my life, she changed me. My outlook. My attitude. My self-concept. My behavior. Without a behavior plan. Without any proverbial carrots and sticks. Without any sticker charts or money jars. She changed me when she saw me. Warts and all. And loved me anyway.
In the process, I learned three important life lessons, and none were covered in the grade 5 curriculum.
First, I learned that the stories we are told by the important people in our life matter. They shape us and form us for better or worse. As a result, I have been careful to tell others I care about stories that are based on their strengths and abilities, even as I acknowledge their struggles and weaknesses.
Second, the quality of our relationships matter. Mrs. Royal wasn’t just tolerating me. I knew in my heart that she genuinely cared about me. Because it wasn’t just what she said to me, it was how she said it. With warmth, kindness, and respect.
Her unconditional positive regard created endless possibilities for me. She respected me. And I respected her. This understanding has been foundational in my life and work with children. Respect is foundational to safety and trust.
And finally, in grade 5, I learned the most important lesson of my life. It has been the lesson that has sustained and focused my practice as a children’s therapist. It sustains my passion for working with parents and caregivers to help them see the potential in their children. It sustains me in my role as a mother.
I learned that real change and growth doesn’t have to take years. It doesn’t even have to take months. Change—real change—can happen in a moment. The moment someone is able to see, hear, and acknowledge you. Your strengths. Your worth. Your dignity. And honor you despite your weaknesses and failings.
To be truly seen, heard, and understood, and be loved anyway—that is real agent of change and the basis for all meaningful growth and development. It certainly was for me.