Build Your Own Table

I just stared.

There they gathered – same time, same place – each and every day. They had their own special table. They had their own special laughter. They were the special people. Everybody knew it. I just stared.

Who were they?

They were the advanced reading group in my third grade class – the “Passports” kids. Where was I? I was with Amy and Eugene in “Windchimes”.  We were the slow reading group.

Take a moment to think about the potential brutality of labels and categories. “Passports” – you are going places.  “Windchimes” – you are content with just hanging around being buffeted by the forces of nature. Indeed, you are so content with your station in life that you make pretty sounds when forces outside of your control push you around.

I wanted a seat at the “Passports” table. I would get a seat at the “Passports” table. How? I cheated.

Every day, Mrs. Hoffman would assign each reading group a short chapter to review. She would then follow up with a written quiz. Given that we were responsible for grading our own quizzes, I just started giving myself perfect scores.

I cheated and I cheated and I cheated until I was invited to take a seat at the “Passports” table.

When I got the invitation, it was glorious. I was in. I was no longer on the outside. However, there was one tiny problem with my scheme that I did not plan for – the verbal quiz.

We were reading a chapter about trains. Mrs. Hoffman started quizzing each of us. She turned to me and asked “Shawn, what is a time-table?” I looked up at her and answered with all manner of confidence “A table with a built-in clock, of course.” Mrs. Hoffman was stunned. She started peppering me with questions in front of the group. I did not get any of them right. She got up out of her chair, walked away from the table and over to my desk, pulled out all of my past quizzes, and started grading them in front of everyone. “You have been cheating!” she yelled.

The gig was up.

The worst part was not being embarrassed in front of my peers nor the fact that I disappointed her. The worst part was that parent-teacher conferences were that night. Mrs. Hoffman pointed her finger at me, shook her head, and said “You better tell your parents what you have done or I will tell them tonight.”

Did I tell them?

Hell, no.

That night my mom and I walked into Mrs. Hoffman’s room. While they exchanged pleasantries, I just kept my head down not daring to look up but listening to every single syllable of every single word. I was asked to wait outside so they could talk.  I was beyond nervous. My back was pressed so hard against the wooden chair that it created indentations. My palms were sweating. My stomach was churning. My mind was running.

Would Mrs. Hoffman rat me out?


Mrs. Hoffman was no snitch! However, the next day, I rejoined Amy and Eugene in disgrace.

A seat at the table. What does it do?

It screams to the rest of the world that you made it. It screams that you passed the test. It screams that you got permission to sit.

You know what. I am tired of accumulating the skills and knowledge that others deem valuable. I am tired of displaying the dress, tastes, and mannerisms that others deem appropriate. I am tired of preparing for and taking someone else’s test, measuring up to their standards, and conforming to their norms. I am tired of waiting for the gatekeepers to tell me whether or not I passed. I am tired of seeking permission from others to sit.

I think it is time that we all start building our own tables. I know I am. My table comes with a built-in clock!

PS Dear parents, I cheated in third grade. I know it was wrong. I am sorry.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my Halftime Speeches monthly email.

Thanks. – shawn