Practical Hope from Grandmom

Good afternoon from Westminster, MD!

Last time we left off asking the question, “Why does practical hope make a difference?” We continue that discussion today with a story from my life.

When I was around eleven years old, my family moved from Columbia, Maryland back to the town in which I was born, Reisterstown, Maryland. This move meant a change of school systems. I was also moving from elementary school to middle school. This was a pretty traumatic move for a young, “husky”, self-conscious kid. I may have cried a time of two – or every day – at school for the first couple of months, but that is a different story.

School to this point had been full of ups and downs for me. I can still remember when my first-grade teacher told my parents that I was not a good student, basically insinuating that I was not very smart. Having been told this, I did not really see myself as someone who was exceptional at learning, although I did okay in school. My memories are not super vivid, but I do know that I saw myself as a mediocre student who just had to try to make it through school. I would never be one of the smart kids.

Going into middle school, the subject with which I struggled the most was English, specifically vocabulary, reading, and writing. The irony that I am now writing this does not escape me. In addition to seeing myself as an average student at best, I was also set back by the fact that the school system I came from was significantly behind in their English curriculum compared to my new school. To say that this did not help my self-confidence is an understatement. It seemed that I was destined to be a “dumb kid” (is that not PC? Oh well), a term mercilessly used by middle school kids.

It is amazing what experiences and thoughts like this can do to a person, especially a young person. I sometimes wonder why people who grow up in a caste system such as the one present in India just accept their “place” or “lot” in life. If the system says that they are worthless and below everyone else because of who their parents are, and their parents’ parents and so on, they never challenge that reality. The mindset, “I am who I am and will never be anything else” takes over. It is remarkable what the words and beliefs of others can do to our view of ourselves, both good and bad.

While I can in no way relate to a person who grows up in such an oppressive society, I can appreciate the impact being “slotted” has on a person. I was below my classmates and that was just who I was.

Thankfully, my parents and grandparents did not see things that way. Instead of accepting that I was destined to be a poor student, my parents decided I just need a little coaching. They saw me as worth the investment. This investment started with sending me to testing to determine how behind I actually was. After testing, not my favorite thing at the time, it was determined that I needed intensive tutoring from an English teacher. Fortunately, my parents knew just the person, my grandmother.

Betty Jean Belt, or Grandmom to me, had been an English teacher for many years before retiring to focus on a number of social projects. Grandmom was a strong woman who was up to the task of coaching a punk pre-teenager who thought he was destined to a life of “less than”. On a side note, if you had the opportunity to meet my grandfather you would know how strong and patient my grandmother truly was. People often say I inherited some of his personality. I guess it is good that my wife, Jen, has a lot in common with my Grandmom.

As you can imagine, I was not super excited about spending my afternoons studying the English language. I am still haunted by the strange plastic-like lamination smell that emanated from the flashcards in the back of the book. That did not discourage my grandmother. She believed in me and my ability to lean, and was committed to showing me that I should believe in myself.

Off we went- through more of those smelly flashcards than seems possible and enough workbooks to fill a bookshelf meant to hold a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Day after day, my grandmother invested in me and my future. Slowly but surely, I began to respond to her astute teaching. Our hard work began to pay off at school as I began to catch up to my fellow students. I began to realize that I was not destined to a life of being uneducated.

That does not mean it did not take a few years to fully take root. I was a bit of a terror in middle school, which was in part fed by my belief about who I was. However, I was at the beginning of a journey with a much different perspective as to the potential ending.

This change in perspective was challenged a number of times, but the most memorable came from my college professor. We will pick up with that story next time.

– James Belt 

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