It's OK not to know

A young girl was brought to me because she was failing in math. Her parents were concerned that she wouldn’t get admitted to the competitive middle school to which she was applying. And there was also another potential problem: the interview. The girl, I’ll call her Amy, tended to shut down with strangers.

Sure enough, she wouldn’t talk to me.

OK, I thought, now what? I saw Amy eyeing a set of colored markers

I have on the floor in my home-office and I asked her if she liked to draw. She nodded. Rather than get into a tug-of-war over her not talking (of course, she would win), I said, “We don’t have to talk. You can draw if you’d like.” She started drawing and got very absorbed in an intricate picture of a group of lizards. When she was done I asked her if she would tell me something about it. All she said was, “It’s a family.”

In the second session she started drawing again, almost immediately. Again, lizards. The identical family as last time. They were in varying sizes and from the expressions on their faces (anger, fear, blankness) was obviously some story behind the picture. I asked Amy if she would tell me the story and she said, “In this family there is a father, a mother, a brother and a sister.”

Of course this corresponded directly to her own family configuration, and the story, as it wound out over several sessions, came clearer: the parent lizards didn’t think the little daughter lizard was as smart as the older brother lizard One day, as Amy was drawing I casually asked her, “So what’s the problem with math?” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t understand it.” I asked her if she told anyone that and she shook her head, “No.”

Immediately a light shone for me on her whole situation: here was a child who didn’t understand the teacher but was afraid to say so for fear of that she’d be seen as not being smart. I asked her if this were so. Again, she nodded.

With Amy’s knowledge I spoke with her parents and teacher. I explained to them that it had to be safe for Amy to say, “I don’t understand this,” and that they needed to check in with her about it during or after class and when she was doing homework. I also trained Amy to say these simple words right away, “I don’t understand this.” When she saw it was safe to say it, she did.

Our work together ended several weeks before the math qualifying test and the interview. Her mother called one day and said, “Amy passed the math test and couldn’t’ stop talking at the interview.” She was accepted into the school.

What can we take away from Amy’s story? First, it’s all right not to know, and second it’s necessary to speak up, to confide it to someone who will be accepting. There’s an ancient expression, “He who thinks he knows not, knows; he who thinks he knows, knows not.” While this has deep spiritual implication, the bottom line is that not knowing is a natural, expected and an excellent place to start, provided you have a safe environment to express it.

When you are studying or preparing for a test and you don’t know something, recognize that. Rather than beat yourself up about it, say it—to yourself, and to someone who can help you. This is the first step on a path to building your confidence: it’s OK to not know.

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