First of all, I’m not really stupid. And second, you can’t really call 53 old. But lately I have been feeling very stupid, and being the oldest in my class makes me feel very old. But perhaps there is some benefit to all of this.

I haven’t felt so stupid since I was 10 years old and my family moved from the upper-lower class Chicago neighborhood where I fit in, to the upper-middle-class neighborhood where I did not. I felt pretty smart at my old grammar school. But when I transferred to the new one, I seemed to be the dumbest in the class. It was a tremendous blow to my self-esteem, especially since both my sisters were honor students.

I got through grammar and high school, but I dropped out of college and chose instead to apprentice at a film company, where I eventually learned a lucrative trade and then went on to develop a career. I even received a college degree at the age of 32. I am married, with some very nice children.

So, self-esteem-wise I recovered. Until I moved to Israel and started going to ulpan to learn Hebrew.

I am the oldest and the dumbest in my class. I’m having a terrible time learning Hebrew. I can’t remember any of the words, no matter how often I hear them or look them up in my English/Hebrew dictionary. Verb conjugation is beyond me. And trying to form a sentence just to answer a question, let alone express a thought, causes my throat to tighten involuntarily. I am embarrassed by my incompetence among the other students. I sit in dread of being called on by the instructor, a very kind, middle-aged woman who, I can tell, takes pity on me. She calls on me rarely, and even when I make mistakes, she treats me kindly and pretends I gave sort of the right answer. Fortunately, it is an adult class, so people don’t make fun of me; at most, they treat my erroneous responses with compassionate sickly grins, and then look away quickly. At break time I grab a cup of coffee and stand by myself, hoping no one will come up to me and try to start a conversation in Hebrew.

I sit in class with a terrible pressure in my chest, difficulty breathing, and with a constant running diatribe at myself: You’re so stupid! How come everyone else gets it, and you don’t? Why are you so shy? Why can’t you just speak up and make your mistakes, and practice? Why have you put yourself in this position? Why didn’t you just stay in America, where at least you could speak?

There seems to be this downward spiral of thoughts leading to a dark cavern of negativity that feels old and familiar, more connected to my childhood than to my reality.

By the time the class is over, I feel terrible. Like a loser. And I dread the next class.

On the train ride home, I try to console myself. “Look, it’s just a class. You’re the public relations director for one of the largest organizations in Israel. You speak and write English better than most. You have a lovely wife and beautiful children . . .”

But it doesn’t help.

Fortunately, I have a wife who I can talk to, and when I express all this to her, she makes me laugh and I feel better.

But today she didn’t laugh. Today she said to me: “Can you imagine what it’s like for a young child to sit in a class and feel the way you do? Or what it must be like for someone who is learning disabled? Or for the Goldsteins’ daughter, who is failing miserably in school and wants to drop out?”

“No wonder she wants to drop out!” I said. “And maybe she should!” I continued, surprising even myself. “Maybe she can at least salvage her self-esteem, if she doesn’t have to sit in a classroom feeling like a dummy.”

I had just returned from a particularly difficult day in my Hebrew class, and so I had no difficulty doing the imagining my wife suggested.

What if, I thought, I were 10 years old instead of 53? What if I didn’t have any professional success to counter the stupidity I was feeling in class? What if I didn’t have a lovely, understanding wife to talk to, but rather two demanding parents who were embarrassed at my failures? What if the teacher was not so kind, and instead mocked and embarrassed me when I made mistakes? What if my fellow students were other 10-year-old brats who enjoyed teasing and giggling when I goofed up? And what if these little cruel monsters were the only kids I knew? And what if I was so embarrassed by my stupidity that I avoided other children and had no friends? And what if—and this is the big one—I spent not just three hours a day three days a week in a Hebrew class feeling dumb, but six hours a day every day of the week in school feeling this bad? And then, to top it all off, when school was over, I went home to face my parents with my poor grades or a note from the teacher?

What if I were the Goldsteins’ daughter, who is now 17 years old, and has probably been feeling like this, hour by hour, minute by minute, for the past 12 years, since she was 5 years old and entered kindergarten?

Yes, I thought, drop out! Save your life! Stop the torture immediately and save your self-esteem! It’s more important than math and science. Save your pride and go on with your life!

Feeling stupid is awful—at any age. And no one should be made to feel this way. It’s damaging and will only lead a person, like my friend’s daughter, to a series of bad choices just to avoid the terrible feeling. To survive, they’ll find some place, some group of people where they don’t feel stupid. Maybe other dropouts, maybe drugs, maybe just boys looking to give a pretty runaway girl a place to stay and some kind words to make her feel attractive rather than stupid.

But, there is one benefit in feeling stupid, at least when you’re old: compassion. Hopefully, a little more patience and kindness with my own children. More diligence in rooting out the source of their problems at school. Making more time to advocate for them with their teachers. More encouragement and recognition of their successes.

Every person has his strengths and his talents. And it is up to us, parents and teachers, to find them and nurture them. It could be a good sense of humor, or the ability to sing, vacuum the rug or set the table for dinner. It may even be as simple as being pretty. Fostering self-esteem in any area is better than destroying it, even when a child does not live up to our expectations. In the long run, it is this sense of self-esteem and confidence that will yield the courage to learn, explore and succeed far more than any knowledge.

I hope I’ll hang in there at Hebrew class. But I’m not sure. After each class of feeling stupid, I find it harder to get up on time in the morning of my next class. Other responsibilities seem to be more urgent than learning Hebrew, and the distraction of reading or playing with the cat at night after a long day’s work seems more important than struggling with my Hebrew homework.

But I’m an adult, and hopefully the importance of learning the language of the new country in which I live will keep me plugging away. After all, I’m not 10 years old, or even 17; I’m 53, and should have learned how to handle these feelings by now, don’t you think?

In truth, I don’t know if I would really encourage the Goldsteins’ daughter to drop out of school. That’s a tough decision with many serious consequences. But, I tell you, before feeling this stupid in my Hebrew class, I never would have understood how it could be a consideration for her at all. Now I do.