Dismissiveness is cruel. Feeling incapable is mental imprisonment. Self-doubt cripples potential. Yet, even one of the most influential and praised women in the world once faced a cutting swipe when her ability to achieve her ambitions was categorised as unlikely. Despite being consistently successful at school, Michelle Obama wasn’t exempt from seemingly baseless assumptions that her potential had a limit. When she expressed her desire to attend Ivy League’s Princeton University, a school advisor, who did not know Michelle, quickly said that her goals were too high: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.”
“I wanted to achieve. Or maybe I didn’t want to be dismissed as incapable of achieving.”– Michelle Obama
My ability to succeed was questioned since the age of three, yet before sixth form I consistently achieved highly at school, working relentlessly to overcome dyslexia. When I catastrophically failed my first year of A-Levels, I was definitively written off as incapable by the head teachers: “You can’t do this”, “I don’t think that’s your thing.” Laughing amongst themselves while picking into my ‘inabilities’, I watched as the people who saw me grow from an 11-year-old ridicule a teenager in their care, while feeling an increasing sense of shame, embarrassment and neglect.
But even in that moment I knew I had potential – I just needed get out. I felt I was being treated as though I had reached the limit of my capabilities, and that the idea of rectification was absurd – an unattainable goal that I shouldn’t even imagine possible. Dishearteningly, my ‘inability’ followed me to my new school, where amongst being thrown into a class deemed for people who ‘aren’t very smart’, and demanding to switch to a subject that I knew would reflect my potential, I was told “I don’t think you are going to do well. You need to prepare to fail.”
“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result. It’s vulnerability that breeds with self-doubt and then is escalated, often deliberately, by fear.”– Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama studied Sociology at Princeton University and then Law at Harvard, going on to eventually become the First Lady of the United States. As I wait to attend university myself, the three A* A-Level grades I obtained encompass an achievement I’m proud of, and I am excited at the prospect of what my future holds. I was lucky to have been able to, when my ambitions were dismissed, in turn dismiss my doubters and power through. But the cloud of self-doubt has never entirely left me, and I feel compelled to highlight an issue that is poison within the very institutions which claim to support us.`
Making someone feel like they are, or will be, a failure before they have even had the chance to show their true capabilities, never mind to children, is a mind crippling exercise. It allows a sense of vulnerability to crawl through the minds of youths who trust the opinion of their mentors, even though some elicit long-term harm – planting seeds of self-doubt and limitations on success. These dismissive statements are testament to the fact that the human race can inflict confusing pain, which more often than not should be ignored. The power of nuanced comments and overt body language shouldn’t be discounted, as these are often cruel and always cowardly – people unable to state their criticisms clearly, yet deliberately failing to hide their judgement, and causing a fear of failure to breed in the people they tread upon. The message of ‘you are not good enough’ should never be a part of someone’s youth.
“Now that I’m an adult, I realise that kids know at a very young age when they’re being devalued, when adults aren’t invested enough to help them learn.”– Michelle Obama
If successful people’s capabilities can be written off so coldly, I can easily see this categorisation of inability being widespread within the school system. This is astonishing considering that the sole purpose of schools is to help a child reach their full potential, and many have the necessary resources to do so. However, you don’t need resources to be a kind and supportive mentor. Regardless, from here, we can can feel powerful – we can know that these comments are not personal nor saved for us solely, and I hope from the stories shared within this article, you can see that these acts of dismissiveness don’t have a defining impact on how successful you can be in any given field. Through dedication and hard work a dream can be fulfilled.
But, on a final note, what does success mean to you? Despite government officials and senior staff members giving speeches about schools developing well-rounded individuals, I can’t help but notice that these labels of incapability are counterintuitive in helping children become content, confident and academically triumphant young adults. In fact, they often prevent all three of the aforementioned, and it is essential we all fight to create a supportive environment where the youth of today can thrive.