What is wrong with me?

Have you ever felt rejected because the thing you were good at was not valued, or worse – stigmatized?

“You’re related to Mrs. J, the Mathematics Division Coordinator, right?” my high school teacher asked. “Why can’t you answer the quadratic equation on the board? You are just good at public speaking.”

I stood for 1 minute. No, 2 minutes and 30 seconds. There was chaos inside me. I blamed myself. I felt small. Helpless. Someone raised his hand. Our math wizard. Her favorite. The superior being in a class of forty young and hopeful souls. I got everyone’s attention. And then I asked myself: “What is wrong with me?”

I knew it was coming. It also occurred to my classmate who had represented our district for creative story telling contest. A few weeks before, one of my classmates, who’s known as the best school paper writer, has been humiliated for getting the lowest score in our Algebra quiz. And the day before, another one, who has an inclination for the arts, overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, and inner turmoil cried in front of everyone else after being shouted at for failing to provide the solution to a word problem in Physics. Do these resonate with you?

We celebrate the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) geniuses in schools like gods in the heavens. We regard their achievements as more valuable than that of chess players, the athletes, the dancers, and the theater actors in our midst. We see excellence in creativity, sports, and arts to be inferior flashes of intelligence because they do not have comparable economic worth as dictated by capitalism and industrialism. But, is it sustainable?

Isn’t it true that most of the existing public education systems in the world have a hierarchy of subjects?

Creativity expert, educator, and author Ken Robinson said in his 2006 TED Talk: “But something strikes you when you move to America and travel around the world: Every education system on Earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one. Doesn’t matter where you go. You’d think it would be otherwise, but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on Earth. And in pretty much every system too, there’s a hierarchy within the arts. Art and music are normally given a higher status in schools than drama and dance. There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics.”

We have been introduced to an education system that embraces linearity, conformity, and batching. We have been told that whenever there’s a problem, there are choices to choose from; be it A, B, C, D, or sometimes E. We learned that there’s only one correct answer for every question. And so, just like machines, some of us became stiff, immovable, and unable to go beyond the grasp of their imagination.

It has been said that kids are born scientists and artists. We were curious, weren’t we? We were explorers of our world and in return, we discovered how to use our senses to have a better understanding of what’s going on around us. We learn. We commit mistakes. But as we grew older, we became more and more afraid to try something new and be deemed wrong. Some of our peers’ dreams have been crashed by some adults and educators in their lives – intentionally or unknowingly. They lost their creative capacity in the process. Some of our teachers, relatives and friends told to us to blend in because that’s what everyone has been doing. As a result, they suppress their real identity to the point that they can no longer recognize who they are.

We have seen some people around us go through their lives without having a real sense of what they are organically capable of doing. We see them endure their jobs rather than enjoy them. We became witnesses of some people from different generations posting sarcastic “Happy weekend!” with emojis and smileys as if they have become slaves during the workweek. If you’re passionate about your work, shouldn’t you feel misery instead of cheerfully declaring that you’re at last free to spend your well-deserved weekend? Isn’t that a bold sign that you’re not doing the work that you genuinely love?

If the current education systems are concrete, sure ways for literacy and success, how come some of the biggest names today never graduated from college? Steve Jobs left school and founded Apple with Steve Wozniak. Mark Zuckerburg, the chief executive officer and co-founder of Facebook did the same thing. Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest and widely recognized philanthropists, quit school and is the man behind the software I am using right now and the million others around the globe to pound their ideas into their computers.

About a year ago, Leonardo DiCaprio spoke about how real climate change is and the need to urgently work collectively together and stop procrastinating to solve “the most urgent threat facing our entire species” in his speech after finally winning an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. But, shouldn’t we also take a deeper look at the human ecology? Today, degrees do not matter that much anymore. Millions of fresh graduates are forced to spend their time not on harnessing their talents and abilities but on leveling up their characters in computer games. This simply tells us that there’s a great disconnect between what the job market needs and what the available supply has.

We have to revolutionize education to arm the coming generations for the future that they have to face and rethink existing principles that may be applicable for positive impact. We have no idea how challenging the world will look like in the years to come, but we can prepare them. We should stop treating ourselves the same way we treat machines in factories – for single purpose. We are too complex to be contained in a box.

And on the things they are good at? Let’s encourage them and be there to support them. Because it is only when they understand who they really are can they feel the comfort and security of being in their own skin and the essence of being alive. If we’ll do these, they’ll never doubt themselves and be more appreciative of the diversity and differences of human capacities. More importantly, they’ll never ask, “What is wrong with me?” but rather be more focused on the special and unique things that deeply lay in their core as key elements for human ecology to flourish.

Our talents and gifts have been stigmatized in one way or another. We should not let it happen again. For our children’s children and the generations to come.