I can remember the very first moment I knew I had talents inside me. I was in first grade. One day my teacher, Miss Jonah, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come to her desk to speak with her about a story I had written. In the story, I described a place populated by numbers instead of people. In this land, only eight varieties of beings existed, the numbers 1 through 8. I described each number’s personality in relationship to its shape. In my story, the 8s were supreme and had achieved perfection. They represented what all the other numbers strived to become: perfect in their roundness and complete in their shape, an infinite flow. This made the 8s the leaders in the Land of Numbers. Meanwhile, the 1s, 7s and 4s’ having achieved no roundness’were the members of the lower class, furthest from the ideal. Of that group, the 4s were the least outcast because they had managed to close the top part of their figures. I wrote a rather lengthy story for a first grader, yet I recall feeling it was incomplete because I had not explained why the 7s, who should have evolved from what looked like an obvious progression from the 4s, 5s and 6s, nevertheless took a step backward. They had lost all the momentum toward becoming an 8. Perfect form was a result of effort, and lack of effort resulted in exile. At the time, I had little idea that this was the meaning of my story. I do recall having some anxiety that the teacher would chastise me for treating the 7s so brutally. Miss Jonah asked me if I would please read my story to the eighth grade class. To a first grader, the eighth-grade classroom, situated down a long hallway on the second floor of the school, seemed to me as far-off a place as the Land of Numbers. I was simultaneously surprised, nervous, and thrilled to accept her assignment. Miss Jonah walked with me up the stairs to their classroom. I will never forget the feeling of facing those twenty-five eighth-grade students. Standing before Bobby Hackett, a big red-headed kid who once ran past me so carelessly on the playground that he knocked me down and didn’t even notice, and Nell Jennings, a girl with shiny blond hair that reached down past her hips, I couldn’t help but tremble. I read my story, stopping every now and then to hold up a page and show the little illustrations I had drawn in the margin. They laughed when I read the part about the 3s and the 6s ganging up to confront the unruly 7s. At the end of my story, they burst into applause, and at that very moment, a puff of strength blew through me. I discovered the power of my imagination. It was then that I began to believe I had something worthwhile, even creative,to say to others. I began my education convinced that there was something extraordinary about me. Despite my having received a D in penmanship in the second grade and a C− in spelling in the fourth grade, I nonetheless believed that I had a talent for communicating ideas in writing and proceeded to live my life as though that were so. By the time I left grammar school, I had developed a strong set of skills in most academic subjects. I enrolled in the prep school where generations of my family had been educated. I was fourteen years old. The self-confidence I developed over eight years of grammar school took just five months to crumble into self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. As vividly as I can recall the moment when I first experienced the swell of my own strengths, I can recall the moment when I no longer cared about developing them. As social beings, the worst thing humans can experience is the act of betrayal. In most communities, the consequence for an act of betrayal is exile. This principle is at work in such simple situations as a group of girls no longer speaking to the one who broke their confidence, or a wife divorcing her husband for cheating on her. In profound instances, societies isolate prisoners who fail to comply, and for the grandest act of betrayal, humans reserve the right to employ the ultimate form of exile: the death penalty. Regardless of the circumstance, betrayal always constitutes a deep breach of the social contract. In 1975, I spent day after day in my algebra class with my hand thrust in the air hoping the teacher would call on me. Mr. Hayes was a longtime, well-loved veteran of the school. My father was proud of the fact that I went to the same school he did and took math with the same teacher who taught him. My father is a well-respected, very successful man, so I assumed that Mr. Hayes was the absolute best as a math teacher. Naturally, I wanted to be successful at math. I remember hoping Mr. Hayes would call on me and value my contribution to class. When Mr. Hayes wrote 6x + 5x = 33 on the board and asked us to solve for x, my hand shot into the air. ‘I don’t understand what x means,’ I said. He answered my question by demonstrating how to work the problem. When he finished solving the problem on the board for all to see, he asked me, ‘Now do you see?’ I told him I didn’t. I explained that I understood what he’d done, but I still did not understand what x meant. He turned to the rest of the class and asked them as a group, ‘Do you understand?’ They all nodded their heads in agreement, and he said, ‘Well, let’s move on then.’ This was the way the math class went for most of the first half of the year. Initially, my difficulty was not with solving the problems, although this is what it became; instead, I struggled at first to understand the way one might think mathematically. Up to that point, I had thought in words and visual images. I grappled with understanding how people thought in symbols. I had the same experience learning music. I couldn’t understand how a musician envisioned notes and music. To me, learning a math problem without understanding the overarching framework was like learning to read music without ever having listened to a song. Until I had some grasp on that understanding, solving the problems didn’t make sense to me. At fourteen I wasn’t able to articulate this struggle, and I asked many questions. Mr. Hayes thought I asked questions to intentionally distract the class from learning. His mounting frustration eventually led him to ignore me when my hand went up. He moved my seat to the back of the room, and I began to fail my quizzes as he moved on to the next problem and the next section, leaving me behind. This was the first time I felt betrayed by a teacher’a betrayal that plumbed so deep that I feel prickles of anger in dredging up its memory even today. In response to my teacher’s betrayal, I unconsciously exiled him in that I no longer cared about math. My grades began to reinforce this exile. After that, my self-confidence was the first to go; next was my respect for school as a place where good things happen. I then lost my motivation, and eventually I turned my strengths elsewhere. Adolescents with low self esteem and undirected strengths in leadership will become leaders in negative places. When they begin down this road, we label them ‘at risk.’ When it was clear I was not going to succeed in any arena, I left the independent school by my own choice. A switch to the public school the following year did little to improve my feelings. I hated the sound of the banging lockers and that the teachers didn’t know if I was in class or not. I hated that kids smoked pot in the bathrooms and that teachers never even came by to kick them out. I took only the classes I needed to graduate from high school. In my senior year, I was enrolled in geometry, which I recall liking, but I attended only the minimum number of times needed to pass. My journey through high school had more low points than high ones. Month after month, year by year, the overall experience threatened to suck all the life and enthusiasm right out of me. I actually think my father ended up bribing the geometry teacher in the end to pass me with a D so I could finish high school. This is how my story began. The details are unique, but the general themes are becoming more commonplace each day. I write this book with the hope that it can offer a clear and well-lit path to a new way of teaching and raising children. This book is written with the conviction that if we can retell the story of schools and homes as places that revel in the strengths of the individual, and recast the characters as people who have intuitive knowledge of the activities that cultivate their potential, then we will truly create a society where no child is left behind. The anecdote you just read began in frustration, but my discovery of personal strengths, as you will see, takes my story somewhere quite different. In 1979, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a state-funded school, guaranteed admission to almost every high school graduate who could afford to enroll. With my life’s belongings stuffed into large brown trash bags, I boarded the Badger Bus for the ninety-minute ride to Madison in search of the strong person I had left so far behind in the first grade. At the time, course registration at the University of Wisconsin was like an initiation ceremony. This involved following an unclear map across several miles of campus that had over one hundred buildings. It led to various rooms where one waited in long lines and, at the end, received a stamp on a schedule, granting permission to enroll in your chosen course. Students had to prepare several schedules based on the possibility that when they fi - nally found the registration room and suffered through the line, the course might already be full’or, worse, the class meeting time changed to the same time as the class for which you registered two miles, forty buildings, and a thirty-five-minute waiting line earlier. Due to my dismal performance in high school math, I had to enroll in a course called Math 99-100. In order to earn an undergraduate degree in English, I needed to pass this, and only this, math class. It was the last math class I would ever take, and it would take two attempts to pass. By the time I found my way to the Helen C. White Library to register for an English class, the one subject I looked forward to taking, all the courses I had circled in the registration booklet had filled up. The only class that was still available was an advanced-level course in Nineteenth-Century British Literature taught by a professor who at first glance seemed crustier than burned toast. His name was Standish Henning. I couldn’t believe that after all the trouble, this was all that was left. I could just picture Standish Henning and my former high school math teacher, Mr. Hayes, sipping hot toddies and sharing a chuckle over whether or not Matthew Arnold understood how to solve quadratic equations. Nearly two months into the academic term, I admitted I was wrong about Standish Henning. As it turned out, he was a very funny, extremely personable man. Despite my having been the only undergraduate in the class, Professor Henning always called on me during the discussion. I answered his questions with hesitation, uncertain if what I was saying made any sense. Students much older than me cited examples of literary criticism when they answered Professor Henning’s questions, whereas I, unfamiliar with their examples, stuck to interpreting the text. One day after class, I approached Professor Henning and told him I felt very uncomfortable in his class and that I considered dropping it. He looked at me quizzically and told me I couldn’t drop it, since the drop date had passed; I would receive an F if I didn’t complete the course. I told him I didn’t care, that I was going to flunk Math 99-100 anyway, so it really wouldn’t make much difference, since my grade point average was already sunk. Then he said something that changed the course of my life. ’But, Jenifer,’ he said, ‘why would you want to get an F in a class in which you are the top student?’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I figured he was flattering me. On the other hand, maybe he was trying to pick me up; I’d heard of that happening in universities. I asked him how that could be when the others in the class obviously knew so much more than I. ’They may have acquired intellectual knowledge, which you can acquire, too. You just have to read the same books. But you have something that they do not all have, and they cannot get it from reading books. You have intuitive intelligence. A lot of it, I might add. If you trust it and follow it, it will work very well for you.’ The minute Professor Henning said that to me, I knew on a visceral level that what he was saying was true. Between the moment when Miss Jonah had asked me to read my story for the eighth grade and the moment when Professor Henning pointed out that I had intuition, I had received many sincere compliments. Even though I didn’t like school, I nevertheless had some minor successes and knew there were things I could do well. So what was it about those two events that so deeply impressed my memory and directed my life? It was that those two teachers recognized two strengths inside me, and when they pointed them out, I knew they were true. Sister Jonah and Standish Henning did not fill me with strength. They did not give these things to me. What was so powerful was that they recognized something that was a real part of me, a part that, once named, I could follow. Once I became aware of my strengths, I began to practice them. I started to trust my intuition. I sought out places to apply my imagination. I stayed in the class and received a fine grade. Even after my conversation with Professor Henning, I didn’t fully believe the things he said to me. I never thought I was stupid (I always felt there was something wrong with the school, not me), but it never occurred to me that I might be smart. I thought back on my high school experience and was overwhelmed with disbelief: ‘You mean to tell me I may have been one of the brightest kids in the class and nobody could even see that?’ This realization defined a mission for my life. I would devote my energies to preventing this kind of oversight in the lives and educations of as many kids as possible. I decided to become a teacher. Where others saw weakness, I would search out strength. I became a champion of the underdog, believing with all my heart that through identifying strengths, the underdog could become top dog.