Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Read the published version on Positively Positive!
I am the worst kind of people-pleaser. I’m a downright people-appeaser.
When I was in second grade, for example, I was so terrified of interrupting my teacher during story time that I refused to even ask if I could go to the bathroom, even though I had to go really, really badly. I held it for as long as I could, hoping the section of Charlotte’s Web she was reading would soon come to an end. But it dragged on and on (yeah, yeah, we get it: the spider has an impressive vocabulary), and eventually I felt a warm puddle beginning to form on my seat.
That wasn’t so bad, at first. But then it started to drip onto the floor, which made a sound like rain tapping against a window. And as luck would have it, despite living in one of the rainiest areas of the country (the Pacific Northwest), it wasn’t raining that day. The other kids started to look around. I tried to stop, but it was too late. The floodgates had opened and there was no holding it back.
“Ew!” said the boy sitting next to me. His name was Jake, but let’s call him Jerk, shall we?
“Shhh!” I put my finger to my lips, as if he, and not my public urination, were causing the disruption. I pointed to the teacher as if to say, “It’s story time, Jerk. Quit messing around.”
Mrs. Halverson, realizing that something was amiss, quickly wrapped things up and called a bathroom break. So close, I thought dejectedly, eyeing the moat of pee that was now surrounding my chair and frantically trying to come up with a believable story to cover my tracks.
“I spilled a pitcher of lemonade on my lap,” I told Mrs. H preemptively as she approached my desk with a concerned expression.
Jerk snorted incredulously and asked, “What happened to the pitcher?”
“Thank you, Jake, I’ll handle this,” said Mrs. H. “Why don’t you go out and play on the playground for a bit while we clean this up?” Jerk hesitated for a moment, but in the end could not resist the siren song of the swing set.
Mercifully, Mrs. H. never confronted me about the lemonade lie. She did ask me, though, as we were sopping up my pee with a roll of those pathetic, brown, industrial paper towels that are only slightly more absorbent than tree bark, why I didn’t simply raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom if I needed to that urgently.
I looked at her as if this were a trick question. “Because you don’t like it when we interrupt story time.” I mean. Duh.
She cocked her head, sighed, and said, “You are a very strange child.”
I mean. She wasn’t wrong.
“Where did you get the idea,” she continued, treading carefully, “that it isn’t okay to ask for what you need?”
I looked at the ground and shrugged. But I knew.
To be fair, my people-pleasing tendencies are probably innate. My mother tells me that even as a baby, when I was strapped to her back on a cradle board, I would gurgle and coo and make goo-goo eyes at anyone who crossed my path. But when Mrs. H. asked me that question, a very clear image came to my mind: the heavily-lined face of my first grade teacher, Mrs. McNeil.
Kindergarten had been paradise. I went to a free-play Montessori school which encouraged us to follow our natural curiosity. So, naturally, I memorized every single Disney recording in the place, start to finish, and most of the Dr. Seuss stuff too. I can still do most of “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Fox in Socks” by heart, complete with dialects. If anyone knows of a way to monetize this skill, I’d love to hear from you.
But I also followed my curiosity in other areas, like reading. One day I picked up a copy of The Wizard of Oz and in just a few days finished the entire book. My teachers were so impressed they made me a button that said, “I read a 24-chapter book!” It was my most prized possession.
I also got curious about math. I asked about the “x” on my sister’s homework, and after a brief explanation, figured out multiplication on an abacus. That tore it: as far as my parents were concerned, I was a mathematical genius.
My mother was so convinced that I was the next Emmy Noether that she decided I couldn’t be trusted to the public school system and announced to my father that she planned to homeschool me. He had no objections, but unfortunately the local government did. You see, we were living in North Carolina at the time, and due to concerns over low school enrollment numbers, homeschool had been outlawed in that state. So, reluctantly, Mom enrolled me in the local elementary school for first grade.
As soon as she got word about which teacher was to be mine, though, she went to pay Mrs. McNeil a visit.
“My daughter is very special,” my well-meaning mother began.
“Let me stop you right there,” Mrs. McNeil stood up and leaned over her desk. She was only five feet tall, but she was broad enough across the shoulders to be physically imposing in that position. “Every. Child. Is. Special,” she told my mother, over-enunciating every word as if she were addressing a room full of first graders. “Please leave my office.”
Of course, I didn’t know about that conversation until many years later. All I knew was that Mrs. McNeil seemed to have it in for me, and I had no idea why.
On my very first day of elementary school, I was, understandably, a little nervous. And when I get nervous, my intestines get a bit… iffy. Not wanting to gas my new classmates right off the bat, I asked my new teacher where to find the restroom. With an exasperated expression, as if this were the tenth time I had asked her and not the first, Mrs. McNeil pointed and snapped, “It’s over there.” I wandered over in the direction she had pointed, but still didn’t manage to locate it.
I came back and asked again. This time she rolled her eyes and, muttering under her breath “Oh this one’s special alright,” picked me up under one pale, vein-flecked arm, and carried me to a single-stall toilet that was semi-hidden by a mobile chalk board in the back of the classroom. Once there, she dropped me, walked out, and slammed the door behind her.
Overwhelmed with shame and confusion, I started to cry. I sat there on the toilet, crying, for a few minutes. Then Mrs. McNeil returned, flinging open the door and yelling, “This is the wee-wee room, not the waa-waa room. Hurry it up, Girlie.”
From that day forward, I made it my mission to appease Mrs. McNeil. I brought her a bouquet of daisies I had picked at recess. She said she was allergic and threw them away. I drew her a picture.
She looked at it askance, “What the heck is this supposed to be?” she exclaimed, nice and loud for the whole class to hear, then quickly followed up with, “You know what, it doesn’t matter. If I can’t tell what it’s supposed to be then it doesn’t matter what you meant it to be, now does it?”
I was crestfallen. How was this woman so completely immune to my charms? What had I done to offend her? And most urgently: how could I convince her I was not the hopeless clot she apparently thought I was? She would soon be assigning levels and I desperately wanted to be included in the advanced group. How could I show her I belonged there?
Finally, I got an idea I thought was fool-proof. If I brought in the button my Kindergarten teachers had made for me for show and tell, Mrs. McNeil would be forced to acknowledge in front of the class that I was not, in fact, an idiot-child with no redeeming talents.
The big day came, and I sat listening to Mrs. McNeil praising the contributions of child after child, getting more and more anxious for it to be my turn. My maiden name started with a “W,” so it took a while. When at last she got to me, I strode up to the front of the class with my button on, and told them all what I had gotten it for, though I was mostly addressing Mrs. McNeil. I finished up by summarizing the plot of The Wizard of Oz and recommending it as a great read.
When I was done, I looked over at Mrs. McNeil, desperate for any sign that she had changed her opinion about me. “Can I see that?” she asked. Overjoyed, I bounced right over to her desk and proudly handed her the button.
“Bragging is the calling card of the feeble-minded,” she said, tossing the button into the top drawer of her desk. “Go sit down.”
After that, I did nothing but plot ways to get my button back.
During recess, I watched the classroom like a hawk, waiting for my chance. Finally, Mrs. McNeil headed down the hallway toward the teacher’s lounge, and I pounced. I ran into the classroom, and went straight for her desk. I quickly retrieved my treasure, put it in my desk, and ran back out again.
Victory! I was elated.
When the final bell rang, I reached into my desk. It was empty.
I looked at Mrs. McNeil. She was looking right at me. I turned beet red. She sat back, as if daring me to come and ask her what had happened to my button.
I weighed my options. Obviously, stealing it back was not a viable plan. She was onto me and probably had it hidden someplace I would never think to look. So, I could go up and simply ask for my button back, which would give her a perfect opening to confront me about having taken it from her desk during recess. Or I could say nothing, and risk never seeing my prized possession again.
OR I could wait a couple of days, give her time to cool off a bit, and then bring it up.
I went for option 3.
Days went by. Every day at the end of class I would screw up my courage and try to talk myself into walking up to her desk and asking if I could please have my button back. And every day, I would chicken out.
Then one day, Mrs. McNeil made an announcement: as promised, she had been evaluating our work, and had split the class into three levels so that she could appropriately address our individual needs. She had written the names of the three levels on the board, and asked us to go stand under the assigned level when she called our name. I looked up at the board. Sure enough, there they were in large block letters:
STANDARD | ADVANCED | REMEDIAL
I watched as she called each child by name. “Jennifer Abrahms: standard. Peter Applebaum: advanced,” and so forth. I listened to the squeals of delight and dejected sighs as each child walked up and took their place in one of the three groups.
Finally, it was my turn.
“Adrienne Weil: remedial.”
I was so shocked that for a moment, I didn’t move. I just stood there, eyes wide. She sighed that signature exasperated sigh of hers. “Do you need me to read them out loud for you?”
The class giggled. Mortified, I ran over to the remedial group and did my best not to give her the satisfaction of seeing me dissolve into tears yet again.
Fueled by rage and grief, knowing I had nothing left to lose, I waited until class ended and the other kids had left, and then I walked up to her desk. “Mrs. McNeil,” I said, with more confidence than I felt, “I would like my button back, please.”
“Would you now? Well see now that’s a tough one, because I just can’t seem to lay hands on it. Last time I saw it, it was in my desk drawer. But then it just up and disappeared. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
I bit my lip and looked at my feet.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Please?” I was starting to lose the battle against the flood of tears that was welling up behind my eyes.
“Sorry, Little Miss Big Impression. Your brag badge has flown the coop.”
I started to bawl in earnest. She mimicked my crying, saying, “Oh boo hoo hoo, I’m not as smart as my mommy thinks I am!” in a shrill, whiny voice. Then she dropped the affect and told me to put my hands on her desk.
Still hiccuping with sobs, I did as she asked. “Pride cometh before a fall,” she chided as she pulled a wooden ruler out of her drawer. Never having been exposed to physical discipline before, I had no idea what was coming. But let me tell you, after that ruler hit my little bird-boned hands, I never, ever forgot.
Tragically, though, I did eventually forget that “remedial” was a simply a label Mrs. McNeil had slapped on me out of spite. I came to accept it as the natural order of things and soon gave up on even trying to advance. I avoided doing my homework, since it would inevitably get a low mark, regardless. And I got very, very good at faking illness.
And just like a lab rat whose cage had been marked “dumb,” I was treated accordingly for the remainder of my years at school. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that a teacher just as kind as Mrs. McNeil was cruel stepped in and set me straight. But that’s another story.
The most damaging habit I picked up in First Grade, though, was a pathological need to please and appease others, particularly those who judge me lacking in some way. This has played out in many times and many ways over the course of my life, from the aforementioned floor-peeing to an abusive marriage from which I barely escaped with my life. With time, awareness, and multiple forms of therapy, however, I have managed to learn the fine art of giving way less of a fuck what the haters think of me.
By way of an example, here’s a little epilogue to my opening anecdote:
Recently, I moved back to the small town where I lived in 2nd grade: Issaquah, Washington. Though it’s since ballooned into an overcrowded Seattle suburb, I still occasionally run into people I knew way back when. One day as I was out running some errands, I heard a nauseatingly familiar voice call out behind me, “Oh my god! It’s you!”
I turned to find myself face to face with a now grown-up Jerk. “Hi Jake,” I said in my feigned-friendly voice, “It’s been a while.”
“It sure has,” Jerk smirked, folding his arms. “What was your name again?”
“Adrienne, that’s right.” He cocked his head, and delivered his punch-line: “You’re the girl who peed herself.”
My body clicked directly into fight-or-flight mode. But slapping him across the face seemed like overkill, and fleeing the scene was just too Drama Queen, even for me. So instead, I thought about the advice I had recently given my 7 year old daughter in dealing with bullies, and made my move.
I started laughing. Hard. “Oh my god, yes!!! That’s so hilarious that you remember that. What a weirdo, amirite?”
He seemed confused, but not displeased by my response. “Total weirdo,” he agreed.
“You know what’s even weirder though?” I asked, wiping a tear from my cheek.
“The fact that you chose to bring that up, out of nowhere, decades after the fact. I guess we’re both pretty weird, huh?”
Without waiting for a response, I made my exit.