Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A personal story of individuality and leaning in

Recently there's been a lot of talk about "leaning in" since Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, published Lean InI find myself thinking about times when I've leaned in and remembering my 9th-grade Civics class. 

There's also been a lot of talk about face-to-face teamwork since Marissa Mayer infamously brought all the telecommuters back to the office at Yahoo. Today this terrific article by Froma Harrop questioned the link between creativity and teamwork, and reminded me again of my Civics class.

The Civics class was a toxic mix of political correctness and American jingoism, taught by an ex-marine. The school administrators thought it would give the wrong message to divide the Civics classes by ability, so we were all mixed in together, honors students with juvenile delinquents, future business leaders with future drug addicts, me thrown into the same class with my twin brother who had recently been kicked out of Benedictine boarding school. 

The photo shows us about that time, with our siblings. I'm in the middle. My twin brother is at the top left. My younger brother is at the bottom right. Note that he's looking angelic. Don't believe it for a minute! He was no more angelic than my twin brother, just better at not getting caught. :-) 

Our Civics teacher didn't like me. Now I admit this might have had something to do with the “Spiro Who?” t-shirt I wore, making fun of our illustrious American Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, who later resigned in disgrace after he was charged with tax evasion. 

The Civics teacher disliked my twin brother even more, though. My brother often came to class stoned, which didn't help. He also had a little mechanical frog that he liked to hop across the wooden floor, causing everyone, even the good students like me, to giggle. In addition, he had a tendency to argue with the teacher every chance he got, somehow weaving Marxism or Malcolm X or Muslim theology into discussions that the teacher had expected to simply extol the virtues of American culture. My brother may have been a stoner, but he was also very smart.

When the time came for our final project in the Civics class, the teacher divided the class into three groups. One group would work on team projects doing things like writing scripts for a movie, composing patriotic songs, building papier-mâché cities, anything that in the teacher's mind didn't require too much intellectual ability. Another group would visit the local prison and do a group presentation on their experience. Finally, the individuals in the crème de la crème group, mostly made up of honors students, would each write a research paper on a topic of their choice.

The Civics teacher had been talking about this final project the entire semester. I had already developed a topic and started researching it: “A Hero's Journey: Comparing WW II veterans with Homer's Odysseus.” As you can probably tell, my favorite class was AP English (although my English teacher would be surprised to hear that, considering how much grief I gave her when she made us read “Romeo and Juliet” multiple times, each time using a different literary criticism technique. I loved “Romeo and Juliet,” actually, but my reaction to it at the age of 15 was heartfelt, not analytical.)  

Well, you can guess what happened in the Civics class. The teacher assigned me to a team project of all girls. Our job was to write a movie script about the Women Air-Force Service Pilots (WASPs)He didn't even give us a choice. He assumed we would be interested in the WASPs, which none of us were, especially since the boys made fun of us whenever the topic came up. (I am more interested in the WASPs today, but back then, no.) 

My brother had been placed in the top group, the group that got to write individual research papers. How unfair was that!? The teacher must have recognized that my brother was more capable than he let on, but then took out his irritation with “the twins” on me anyway. Either that or he simply assumed I wasn't smart because I was usually very quiet, despite the occasional giggles at my brother's antics.

At home, my Mother encouraged me to go talk to the teacher. I didn't want to, but I also didn't want to do the team project. My Mother said I should write a project proposal for my research paper. I hesitated, but then she brought out the big guns. She pulled out her favorite books from the bookshelf, books by Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, Hermann Hesse. The proposal turned into a professional-looking 5-page paper with references!

The next day, I brought in my proposal. The teacher was shocked at first but then thrilled! He let me do the project and I got an A. I leaned in and showed that I could work as an individual, all while ignoring my brother's increasingly bizarre behavior as he partied more than he studied, eventually writing his own paper on how LSD could revolutionize American politics. 

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