Without Honors

This was an essay I submitted to Real Simple's Annual Life Lessons essay contest. It didn't win, so I'm publishing it here now. The prompt asked the writer to write about a life choice s/he made that she regrets or would do differently now. I can't remember the exact wording but it was along those lines...

It was a delicate balance with Mr. Murray. On the one hand, you didn’t want to attract his attention. Attention from Mr. Murray was almost always a bad thing. On the other hand, you wanted to volunteer answers just often enough to let him know you were interested, you were understanding, you weren’t a slouch.

And you definitely didn’t want to be late.

For the first semester of my Sophomore year in high school, I was careful to leave the lunch room ten minutes before the bell rang. I’d spend that ten minutes seated on the ground, midway down the first floor corridor where Mr. Murray’s Honors Algebra 3-4 classroom sat, darkened, like a sad dungeon awaiting its victims. Cross-legged with my head down in the corridor’s low light (my school seemed ahead of its time when it came to energy conservation), I’d double check homework answers and try to calm my heartbeat through futile deep-breathing exercises.

About 3-4 minutes before the 4th period bell rang, Mr. Murray would round the corner from the school’s main hallway, cutting an imposing, 6’3”, one and one-half-legged silhouette, the rhythm of his crutches/leg/crutches/leg hitting the ground in a menacing call-and-response, announcing the commencement of 53 minutes of terror.

Once the class had filed in, Murray would begin sniffing out offenders, randomly calling on kids to give homework answers and belittling anybody who answered wrong or who (woe to him or her!) dared not have an answer altogether. His method of motivation was to humiliate, to degrade, to bet kids they couldn’t meet the demands of whatever was on the table.

I spent every moment of the semester attempting to strike a perfect balance of invisible presence, of low-maintenance aptitude. It worked somehow. I can’t even be sure Murray knew my name, which was a very, very good thing.


There was just one problem. Due to some rearrangements made when I was in the 4th grade (basically, I was bored in my 4th/5th combination class and they decided the solution was to scoot me over to the 5th grade side), from the age of ten I was in the same grade as my brother Kris. We were in classes together occasionally through middle school and high school, Mr. Murray’s class among them.

Kris, while not being exactly opposite of me in terms of study habits, definitely showed marked differences. He was artistic, curious about dozens of things outside the realm of school, disinterested in the judgments of others, at times rebellious.

And I’m not sure he could have possibly been less concerned with Algebra 3-4 or the consequences of anything done or not done therein. At least once a week he was under fire for something, being reprimanded in front of the class. Murray had a way of calling Kris by our last name--Konrad--and making it sound like an insult in and of itself.

I would cringe, not sure if I was more angry at Murray for being a cranky and mean man, or at Kris for knowing this about Murray and bringing the man’s wrath upon himself.

Mostly though, I just hated to see my brother and best friend so easily summed up and dismissed, especially when I knew what he was actually made of and capable of.

At some point toward the end of the semester, Kris decided to drop the Honors class and take regular Algebra 3-4 instead. By the time finals rolled around, I’d decided to do the same.


You know how you know you’ve made the wrong decision instantly? Sometimes, 
of course, you can’t know if a decision is wrong or right until the consequences of that decision play themselves out. But sometimes you know right away. And you know because those are the decisions you’re unwilling to tell people about. You may tell them what you’ve done, in a sugar-coated version all interlaced with clever rationalizations, but you won’t tell them the real reasons for your actions because you know them to be, well, ridiculous. If you’re lucky, the people you’ve told will quietly absorb your explanation and you can lie to yourself…

…for a time anyway.

So here’s what I told my parents when I decided to drop Mr. Murray’s class:

1) It was hard! (True, though I had a B+ in the class when I dropped it. It was nothing I couldn’t handle)

2) The teacher was mean! (True, though I didn’t tell them he wasn’t mean to me, specifically)

And here, a full 20 years later, is the truth:

1) I’d always felt guilty for skipping into my brother’s grade. I’d felt like I crashed his party, and anything I did that seemed as though I was trying to compete with him on his own level exacerbated that feeling.

2) Whether or not Kris actually cared about math or how he did in Murray’s class, I couldn’t let myself succeed where he’d come up short.

I ended up bored to tears in the class I transferred into. The teacher was doing such a poor job that when kids complained they didn’t understand her lessons and she dared individual students to go ahead and teach it to the class themselves, they DID. And the class understood the students’ lessons better than hers! Being in that class was challenging, yes, though only in the most obnoxious of ways.

But that’s not what stands out about that particular bad decision. The real reason I knew it was the wrong choice was because I didn’t tell a soul my real motives, which was doubly misguided because I knew they’d try to talk me out of it (with good reason) if they’d known the truth. There is no way my brother would have wanted me to drop that class if he knew it had anything to do with him. He didn’t, in fact, care about math or get any personal gratification from the idea of succeeding in an Honors course (especially one whose teaching methods he didn’t respect. Kris was deeply principled, even from a young age). He had always wanted the best for me. He had always been proud of my accomplishments, rooting for my success.

And if my brother felt that way, I knew my parents both felt similarly, exponentially. If I’d told them the truth, they would have reminded me that Kris’s life and his decisions were his own and that mine should not depend upon them. If they’d been religious (or farmers), there might have been talk of reaping, of sowing.

And against my then-instincts to shrink and to downplay, I might have been forced to shine.


When I was in my early twenties, my Mom lent me a book by Marianne Williamson 
in which the author wrote “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others won’t feel insecure around you.” I recognized that I was indeed guilty of this “playing small” tendency.

It was from that same tendency that I forewent an amazing study abroad opportunity in college so that my then-boyfriend wouldn’t worry about my leaving him for another (a French) man. From that same tendency I withdrew my name from a promotion opportunity so that my receiving it wouldn’t mean my good friend, also applying for the same position, would lose out.

And somewhere in that realization it occurred to me that I’d been standing knee-deep the fertile, swampy grounds that give birth to martyrdom, to resentments, to 450,000 convenient excuses and people to blame for not having become everything I’d once known myself capable of becoming.

I was definitely raised better than that. The deeper part of me knew and had known all along that the talents I was born with were meant to be honored, honed, shared. The opportunities that arise, if they had will, would want to be swept in upon and taken full advantage of. The best, biggest version of myself is the one the people who love me most want most to see.

I suspect that even Mr. Murray, though he may have had a very strange way of showing it, wanted to see that version of all his students. He wanted us to hear his challenge and trip over each other, so eager to pick up the gauntlet he’d thrown down.

A part of me will always wish I’d owned the spot I’d earned in that class, bumped that B+ up to an A, and left Mr. Murray with an amused smile on his face, knowing at least one young student was on her way to a big, bright, wonderful future.

And I wonder what that version of me could have achieved by now.

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