When I was in the 7th grade, I this pair of shorts that were, well, embarrassing. They were way too short. They were pleated. They were plaid. They were everything you were not supposed to wear if you didn’t want to get beat up. But I wore them anyway because my grandma had made them for me and it felt like a betrayal not to wear them.
One day, this boy named Mike, who was one of the most popular kids at school, showed up with nearly identical shorts. At first, I thought it was cool. Maybe my clothing wasn’t so bad. Maybe I wasn’t so uncool after all. I mean, this popular kid had adopted my style.
But then five minutes later I noticed a sign from the student council. It read, “Spirit week: wear your nerdiest clothes on Monday.”
It was Nerd Day and he was dressed up as me.
The truth is, I was a nerd. I loved reading Michael Crichton books and watching Star Trek TNG. I thought Data was an amazing character. I geeked out on old baseball stadiums and built models of them at home.
I was a nerd.
I know things have changed since then, but back in the 80’s being a nerd wasn’t a good thing. Characters like Screech and Erkel were tropes to be tolerated rather than characters to be loved. In the 80’s and 90’s the nerd had to remain an outsider, merely tolerated with eye rolls and laughter.
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So, when I first read Harry Potter, I cringed at Neville. I saw so much of myself in him. Nervous. Socially awkward. Earnest. Excited about learning. Another nerd mocked in children’s literature and pop culture.
But that’s not what happened. Neville grew fearless and became one of the most beloved characters in the entire Harry Potter universe. And he does so without ever losing his nerdiness.
None of this would have happened without Professor Sprout. From an instructional standpoint, Sprout is one of the best professors at Hogwarts. Her approach is hands-on, problem-based, and highly engaging. But there’s something deeper. It’s one thing to mentor the chosen one. It’s another to empower the most maligned kid int he school.
Sprout is able to see something in nerdy Neville that others don’t. And instead of offering pity, she creates a refuge for him where he grows in confidence. Then something happens. This confidence becomes courage — which is why the tired and injured Neville is able to stumble forward, amidst the mockery of every Death Eater, and challenge Voldemort.
You don’t see her in the frame and you hardly see her in the movie, but you get the sense that she’s there watching, unsurprised and un-astonished by what she’s seeing — because she’s seen Neville’s potential all along. From day one she always saw him as more than just a nerd.
And that’s what great teachers do. They believe things about their students that even the students can’t believe about themselves.
For me, this was Mrs. Smoot. She was my History Day advisor in the 8th grade. She encouraged me to speak up and to share my work with the world when I was absolutely terrified. I had just recorded my script and heard my voice for the first time.
“I’m not doing this. I’m not going to let anyone hear it,” I told her.
“I won’t let you get away that,” she responded. “Your voice matters. When you don’t share your work with others, you rob the world of your creativity.”
She was my Professor Sprout.
So . . .
Who was that Professor Sprout in your life? Share your comment below or in the YouTube video.
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