On April 6, 2023, I had the privilege of speaking a special group of women in Houston, TX. Ranging in age from 22-60, they had all completed a 20-week course called “Getting Ahead in a Just Gettin’-By World” and had asked me to give a short address at their graduation.
“Getting Ahead” is designed for low-income families – those living in what is considered poverty. Participants learn the mental models of poverty, middle class, and wealth. They complete a self-assessment of their lives to fully understand their status and learn how to enhance their situation. From there, it helps people stabilize their situation and build resources to improve their lives and move to self-sufficiency.
Participants create their own plan and build resources, tools, and skills needed for stability. They also build healthy relationships with others, begin the process of writing their own future stories, and learn how to go from surviving to thriving.
The overall lesson is leadership; learning how to take the initiative to identify resources to enhance their lives and build their communities.
As I prepared my remarks for the evening, I got to thinking about my own “getting ahead” experiences. What were times of my life where I experienced great strides and broke out of a situation I had come to accept as normal?
That evening, I shared a story with the group that was pivotal in defining my future.
When I 13 and in the 8th grade, my math teacher kept me after class one day. “Angie, why are you getting a 'B' in my class?”
I looked at him dumbfounded. “A 'B' is a good grade,” I replied.
“A 'B' is a fine grade for an average student, but I’m asking why you’re getting a 'B'.”
“’B’ is above average,” I countered. “’C’ is average.”
“Fine,” he said, clearly irritated. “’B’ is slightly above average but you still haven’t answered my question. Why are you getting a “B”’?
I looked straight at him and without hesitation said simply, “Because I’m an average student.”
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My parents,” I replied.
“Really. Tell me more about that.”
I went on to explain that my brother was the gifted one, not me. I was a hard worker but not overly gifted at anything, and that was fine. I would make average grades, go to an average school, get an average job, live in an average house, get married to an average guy, have an average family, and live an averagely happy life.
When I finished, he lowered his head for a moment, as if deep in thought. I sat quietly and waited. When he raised his eyes to mine, he very calmly said, “You’re not average. You’re an 'A' student performing at a 'B' level. Get out of my classroom.”
Confused, I got up and silently walked out of the room, making my way to social studies.
I shared this story that evening because this was a special “aha” moment for me and I suspected it wasn’t entirely unlike the “aha” moments these Getting Ahead graduates had at some point during the course.
It was truly an honor to listen to each of their stories of awakening and growth and witness the transformation they each experienced over their 20-week journey.
As each gradate took their turn sharing their story with the group, I watched from the back of the classroom as they held one another up, cheered each other on, and offered compassion and grace.
The thing was, when I left the classroom that day, I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what kind of student I was. Was I a “B” student? An “A” student? I was thinking about this as I listened to one graduate, Antonia, speak. She said she didn’t know she lives in poverty until the book told her she did. She always had everything she needed. She had a home. A job. She raised her children - by herself. Who was this book to tell her she lived in “poverty” when her life was so full?
That’s the thing about living up to our potential. It has nothing to do with money and nothing to do with conventional success. It has to do with personal fulfillment - striving for something we once thought was either not meant for us or was beyond our reach.
When we’re in those "potential" moments, they are scary. They are intimidating. What if I fail? What if try and find out I’m not as good or as smart as I had hoped to be? What if people laugh at me and say, “I told you so?” Who am I to try to be so bold? Why isn’t what I have enough?
Those are all perfectly normal questions to think and feelings to have. When we want to push ourselves outside our comfort zone, it can be REALLY hard to muster the courage. But as the saying goes, a comfort zone is a beautiful place to be, but nothing ever grows there.
When you don’t yet believe in yourself, borrow someone else’s belief in you until you have your own.
I borrowed my teacher’s belief in me and I never got another “B.” At least, not for lack of trying (sometimes when you reach for the stars, you fall and land on a cloud; and a cloud is a pretty okay place to be).
I looked around the room that Thursday and I saw a group of women who REALLY believe in each other. They didn’t all have to be strong for themselves all the time. They could be strong for each other and lend that strength to one another. When you doubt yourself, borrow someone else’s belief in you until you find your own.
In reaching, you become resourceful. At age 13, I forced myself to make connections and learned to ask for help in pursuit of something I wanted to achieve for me. Not for anyone else. And every time I’ve done it since then, it got a little easier. I’ve learned my dreams may be crazy to others, but they are mine. And my relentless pursuit of them is all that matters.
I learned more about who I am, what’s important to me, and how I can use my gifts to inspire others to transformation. But I never would have known any of that if I hadn’t listened to those nine little words, “You’re an 'A' student performing at a 'B' level” and used them to inspire me to transform my life and behaviors.
Never underestimate the power of words. Take a moment to reflect on a positive or encouraging words someone once shared with you that have yet to leave you, even if you haven’t done anything with them yet. If those words lit a fire in you, hold on to them. And when someone - even if it’s a perfect stranger - imparts words of inspiration or motivation to you in the future, do not dismiss them. Hold on to them and let them rekindle your fire.