20 February 2018

Moving Mountains and Burning Bridges: The Power of Words

Words can move mountains. That's what I tell my speech students--their words can change the world. They can hurt or heal, break or bond. They have power. I'm acutely aware of the fact that what we say to others lingers far after the words are said; words have a way of worming themselves into the very fabric of our being and becoming a part of us. When those words wound, we carry that pain far longer than even we suspect. Words are particularly insidious weapons because too often, we fail to recognize the myriad of ways they'll follow us. I try to be mindful of that. I try to remember, in my daily interactions, to keep my words kind--or as kind as I can in a situation. I admit I fail more often than I would like, but I do my best to make sure the words I leave behind me will make people feel powerful, important, heard, supported. At the worst of times, I try to leave behind words that at least won't do any damage.

Words can move mountains. But they can also burn bridges.

This weekend, I burned a bridge. It was one I would rather not have burned, but also one I had no plans to cross again, so perhaps it doesn't really matter. What matters is that, for the first time in a long time, I said things that I didn't--and don't--have any intention of fixing. I don't know how long those words will linger with the person I said them to; our words do the most damage to those who respect us and value our opinions, neither of which is true in this case.

But still.

This person and I have had a tumultuous relationship, at best. We've been friends, at times very close friends. I still believe, despite everything, that I know this person better than almost anyone, but in the end, that's just not enough. The relationship was marred by clashing communication styles, piles of hurts that were never healed or even addressed, and a fundamental difference in the ways we believe people should be treated. It turned toxic long ago. I first started thinking about the necessity of walking away in August. There were a couple false attempts--both of which felt genuine at the time but proved to be short-lived. Everyone in my life urged me to cut ties. I went into 2018 with the resolution that I was not going to let anyone make me feel unimportant, disposable, or less than. And this weekend, that resolution was put to the test.

There are some moments in our lives when we just have to say enough. And this weekend, standing in the Science Center at Harvard University, I had that moment when someone I cared about--someone I had supported and cheered for and helped for four years--looked me right in the eyes and told me I didn't matter. I wasn't important. I was disposable.

Despite the up and down of our friendship, I have never said anything to this person that was designed to hurt. Even at my worst, I kept what I thought to myself. When insults were hurled my way--when I was told I was a bad coach and teacher, that I was messy, annoying, stupid, petty, immature, overdramatic and weak--I still held my tongue. I carried those words with me and they did more damage than I care to admit. My struggles with anxiety over the fall stem from a lot of the pain  from that relationship. I gathered up that hurt and I dealt with it on my own. But I kept those words in. While I didn't want much of anything to do with this person going into this weekend, I wanted to end quietly. I wanted to gradually fade away. The friendship carried a lot of baggage, but it also carried a lot of really important memories, and I never wanted those tainted by anger or pain.

Well, that's not how it turned out. But some memories just aren't meant to be cherished, I suppose. I'll make new ones. Better ones. With better people.

I wasn't going to cross that bridge again. So I lit it on fire.

I still didn't say everything I wanted to say. I kept a lot that I think--the pettiest and cruelest--to myself. But I said enough. I told him he was mean, selfish and uncaring. I called out months of gaslighting, manipulation, avoidance, and selfishness. I told him he used people for his own gain. That he disregarded other people's opinions. That he was awful.

And then I blocked his phone number and walked away.

It feels weird and profoundly uncomfortable to me to leave those as the last words I say. But, if I am honest, I didn't say anything untrue. I didn't say anything that--in my opinion--wasn't deserved. And I didn't say a single word that, if given the chance, I would take back. Maybe someday it'll do some good and he'll change the way he treats people. That'd be nice, if unlikely. In any event, it felt good to finally stand up for myself. After months of being gaslighted and manipulated, it felt good to defend my own reality and not let him continue to deny it. It just felt good.

And that's the way words work. They burned a bridge this weekend. But at the same time, they moved mountains for me. There's no going back, but for the first time in a long time, I feel as though I can move forward easier. As if I can breathe easier. I moved a mountain off my chest this weekend. It doesn't change my fundamental belief that we need to be careful with our words, or that the kindest word is almost always the best word. But in that moment, it was more important to be kind to myself, even if that meant my words were cruel. Was I justified? I don't know, maybe not. Maybe I'll regret it someday. Maybe that will become a burden I'll have to carry.

But the bridge is burned.

So it's a mountain I'll just have to move.

28 December 2017

How Lyndon B. Johnson Ruined My Childhood.

When I was in elementary school, my absolute least favorite  activities involved the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. It was something President Johnson created in 1966 to ensure that generations of American school children were "physically fit" and dreaded gym class. I mean, seriously, fuck you Lyndon B. Johnson and your push-ups and curl-ups and sit-and-reaches and mile run. Want me to sit with my feet against a weird little wooden box and see how far I can stretch forward over my toes? Fine. Ask me to run a mile? Less cool, but I'll do it at a brisk walk. But demand that I pull myself over a metal bar in a curl up? Not going to happen. Even by the ripe old age of seven I knew upper body strength was never going to be my thing. Somewhere in my sixth grade year the tests were supplanted by the ominous climbing rope. The day that thing unfurled from the ceiling of our gym I lost a little faith in God. I don't remember ever climbing the rope. I don't remember even touching the rope. I'm sure my sadistic sixth grade teacher must've made me do it at some point, but apparently my brain has buried that trauma under the sweet fog of amnesia.

I wasn't strong. And I'm using the past tense pretty loosely there.

Thankfully, it turns out my adult life has had very little to do with climbing ropes or pulling myself up repeatedly over a metal bar. Go figure.

Adult life does, on the other hand, have a great deal to do with strength. It has a lot do with pulling yourself through things, with climbing and endurance. I might not be running around the lake by my high school, dodging goose poop, but I'm going to be honest--the metaphor is a pretty apt one for what it feels like to be a human in 2017, at least from this end.

At long last the year is drawing to a close and I've found myself thinking more and more about what it means to be strong. It's been on my mind mostly, I suppose, because this is a year in which I've felt incredibly weak. Things that normally wouldn't get to me somehow crushed me. Things I never struggled with became insurmountable. Habits I thought I'd kicked long ago resurfaced with startling intensity. And try as I might, I just couldn't get a handle on it all. There were days where I watched my life--and myself--spiral out of control and I was speechless. I watched myself make mistakes I knew would be disastrous. I watched myself do the very things I knew would push a person away, start a fight, or make me anxious. I did them anyway. Comments I normally would've brushed off--you're messy, you're over dramatic, you annoy me--I internalized. I let them break me. Instead of getting mad at other people, I got mad at myself. I apologized endlessly to everyone, often for reasons that were totally unclear in my mind. I was just sorry. All. the. time. For everything.

This year I disappointed people. I annoyed people. I lost the respect of people. And that sucks. But ultimately, what sucks more, is that I disappointed myself. I annoyed myself. I lost a lot of respect for myself.

This year I wasn't the person I wanted to be. I wasn't the person I've been in the past. And--I hope--I wasn't the person I am going to be next year. I've felt tired. Stupid. Weak.

So what I'm trying to tell myself as I stare down the last few days of 2017 is that I'm strong enough to start over and try again. I can't fix all the mistakes I made. I can't un-annoy people. I can't take back the one-too-many-texts, the comment that came out passive aggressive because I was in the middle of an anxiety attack, the long silences I inflicted on people who overwhelmed me. I can't fix those things. But I can stop carrying the guilt and shame of them. I can move forward and accept things happen that we regret but can't change. I can accept that maybe, just maybe, I'm strong enough to carry that burden and keep going anyway.

It's not a magic formula. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow and blithely be okay with all the mistakes. I'm not going to wake up tomorrow suddenly feel like a new person. I'm too old to think things work that way anymore. The truth is, I'll wake up tomorrow--and everyday for the foreseeable future--and feel a little heavier than I would like. I'll feel weaker than I would like. I'll carry more guilt than I would like, let my mind obsess more than it should, replay conversations that I could have salvaged but didn't. I'll beat myself up a little bit. But I'll keep going. I'll do better at reminding myself, as I told one of my students last week, that sometimes just surviving is enough. I'll do better at acknowledging the strength it takes to accept mistakes as a part of me without letting them become me. I'll just do better, day by day.

I'll keep doing my best. And sometimes, sadly, my best is pretty disappointing. Sometimes my best is hanging limply from the curl up bar, waiting impatiently for my teacher to recognize a lost cause and let me slink away. I'm strong enough to accept that my best, occasionally, isn't really all that great. And I'm strong enough to say that's okay. It takes a lot of guts to hang there helplessly in front of a crowd, weakness on display. It's not a type of strength that gets measured on the Presidential Test score sheet. It's not the type of strength that's going to win me accolades. Or friends.

Or forgiveness.

But it's strength. I'm embracing it because it's what I've got right now.

I still can't do a curl up. Or a push up. Or run for very long... or at all. And I will never, ever be able to climb that damn rope.

But I'm done calling myself weak.

24 December 2017

Bone Weary

I've been listening to Christmas music for a solid month now, and I've come to one very important realization: there are only actually about six Christmas songs and all of the good ones were written before 1962 (except for "Christmas Eve in Sarajevo," but that's okay because that one just replaced the super rape-y "Baby It's Cold Outside" so it's an even swap). And my all time favorite song is "O Holy Night." To be fair, "O Holy Night" doesn't really hold up the same way "Carol of the Bells" does, but it has one solitary, beautiful line in it that helps it secure the number one spot: "A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices/For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn."

"The weary world rejoices."

Y'all, let me tell you. I am weary this year.

2017 has, without a doubt, not been my year. Rehashing the myriad of ways people and circumstances have clobbered me this year isn't really the point, so let's just suffice it to say that I won't be sorry to see the back of 2017 in a week. I am tired all the way to my bones. Too often this year I was in survival mode--I was in "just get through this day" mode. I survived, but with far less grace and dignity than I would've liked. I suppose we can't have everything.

And also--I don't think it's a coincidence that this douche of a year coincided with Trump's first year in office. That guy ruins everything.

I woke up Christmas Eve after a fitful night sleep, eyes a little red from crying, chest tight, stomach knotted. It wasn't how I would have chosen to start my holiday. But as the year draws to a close, I'm forced to look around, accept that this is where I am, and start focusing on where I want to go. I'm weary and a little broken, but I'm ready to pick up the pieces and move forward. I've been spinning in place for too long. I've put off doing things that are hard, but that I know are right. I tried too hard to mend things that couldn't be mended, to please people who simply can never be pleased, and to live up to expectations that weren't my own. I've tried too hard to be who someone else wanted me to be, as a result, I failed both myself and them. 2017 definitely has brought me to my knees.

And that's what Christmas reminds me of--that's why I celebrate--because sometimes we need a reminder that we can be tired and still find joy. I'm not religious, so the reason for the season around here is family; hope in darkness; rejoicing in weariness. It's a lesson worth learning for me this year. Even in our darkest moments, there is light. There is hope that life can start all over again. That we can be better, stronger, and more resilient. It hasn't been an easy year, but it hasn't won. I'm still here, maybe a little bruised and battered, but whole and looking forward.

So I'm ready for 2018. I'm ready for a year of healing and positivity. I'm ready to find my strength again. I'm ready to laugh again. I'm ready to let go of things--people and feelings--I've held on to for too long. I'm ready to lay down the burdens I've been carrying, feel the weight in my chest finally loosen, and look forward to a new start. I know the world is wonderful. I'm ready to see that wonder once again. And Christmas--with its relentless lights and magic--reminds me that wonder is always around us. Beauty is always lurking. The days are getting longer now, a new start is just around the corner. It might take a few extra swipes of makeup to conceal the puffy eyes, and I might need to do a lot more yoga to lift the weight from my chest today, but I'm done clinging to the past, to things I can't fix anymore, to people that don't want me. I'm ready to let go and start again.

Some day I hope I can look back at 2017 and appreciate some of the good that happened because even in my current mindset, I see so much beauty. I spent a week in Birmingham with one of my all-time favorite students and watched her rise to tenth in the nation. I spent two weeks in Italy with my husband. I reconnected with friends that I'd missed too much. I survived.

I'm still here.

I'm weary, but I'm ready.

26 November 2017

The Stigma of Messiness or Yes I Do Have Anxiety Flashcards

I have never been under any illusions of being a "laid back" kind of gal. I admit that, at the best of times, the term "high strung" can accurately be applied to me. I like things done a certain way, at a certain time. This accounts for my neat-freak habits, my road rage, and my inarticulate rampages in crowds. But these have always been manageable. I get butterflies before my team competes at Sections, I can't sleep the night before we leave for a big vacation, and I recheck my alarm every night at least three to four times (let me tell you, I slept through it once and woke up 32 minutes before I was supposed to be teaching in my first hour an hour away--never again).

But six months or so ago, this transformed into something completely foreign to me: real, honest to goodness anxiety. I don't mean the anxiety you feel before starting a new job, moving, or even the first day of school. I mean the kind where my mind doesn't feel like my own anymore. Where my heart starts pounding, my stomach knots itself, and a weight settles on my chest, making it hard to breathe deeply--all in the middle of a Saturday afternoon for no real reason. Anxiety that made me lose 19 pounds because I couldn't eat over the summer. Anxiety that meant I could only sleep for a maximum of 2-3 hours at a time because my brain just couldn't shut itself off. Anxiety that made me certain--100% certain--that everyone I cared about was sick of me, hated me, and was planning to ghost on me.

That kind of anxiety.

And let me tell you, it's been a treat.

Here's something anxiety taught me--there's a lot of talk in our society about how to deal with mental illness. A lot of people give lip service to the necessity of breaking down barriers and ending the stigma around messiness. I hear it all the time. My experience, however, has been different. I've discovered our society that says we have to "be okay with not being okay" is absolutely, unequivocally not okay with people who are not okay. It's easy to talk about accepting that sometimes we have our messy moments, but it seems some people are less able to deal with someone actually having a moment.

I do not, like most people I know, withdraw or need to be alone when I'm anxious. In fact, weirdly for me, my anxiety tends to push me to the opposite. As someone who likes to read and be alone, I find anxiety particularly upsetting because I can't do those things. My brain starts cycling and I can't read or watch TV--I can't concentrate to follow a story line--and the quiet only allows the anxious thoughts to echo louder. I do better when I can talk to people--not about my anxiety but about anything; distraction helps. Tell me gossip. Talk about what you're reading. Send me a dumb tweet to make me laugh. Usually within a few minutes (seriously... this whole process can take two minutes), the anxiety passes and I'm just fine. But that's the catch. So far, I need someone else.

There are precious few people (Six--there are six. I've counted) I can handle when my anxiety peaks. Let's just say, not all people can handle me. That's why these six are precious. Some people, knowing or sensing I am anxious, retreat, either because they are under the impression I am looking to them to "fix" me or because they simply don't care enough about me--I can't bring myself to ask because the possible answers make me anxious. When my anxiety was at its worst, I was told I was messy and dramatic. I was told I was a burden. Annoying. Clingy. Not worth it.

My anxiety loved this--YES! (says my anthropomorphized anxiety) say all the things we secretly feared! Now, when I want to torment her, I don't have to invent anything! I can use real life words and rattle those around endlessly to remind her that everyone thinks it, even if only a few people had the guts to say it!

I try not to think about.

I think about it.

A lot.

It comes down to two basic issues: when people are struggling, they don't want to deal with someone else's struggles ("I have to take care of myself first"). And if people aren't struggling, they don't want to deal with anything that might drag them down ("I'm in a really good place right now"). But it all boils down to the same thing, doesn't it--no one wants to deal with it. Because messiness is stigmatized. We expect everyone to be okay. And if you aren't okay, for the love of god at least pretend. If you have anxiety, then okay--you can say that. But Jesus, don't let anyone see it. Act like you're fine. Keep it together. Keep it to yourself.

Our society is okay ending the stigma around "messiness" as long as we keep the mess hidden. It's fine if people know it's there, but no one wants to see it. A few weeks ago, my counselor suggested one way of dealing with negative thoughts was to write them all out on cards and then write "challenging" thoughts on the other side. I showed them (via Snap Chat) to a few people. They were shocked at the sheer number of cards I made. At what was on the cards. To see someone's anxiety written out can be a strange experience. And it was odd for me to lay all the thoughts bare for others. I showed them only to select people--a few I know struggle with their own negative thoughts, or who I knew would be supportive--but showing the deepest fears that trundle around my brain on bad days to anyone was terrifying.

But I was sick of hiding. And today, I'm sick of hiding again. Because today was a really bad day. The kind of bad day I haven't had for months. And my go-to people weren't around. It got ugly. I messed up. I alienated someone and potentially ruined a really important friendship. My dog got anxious for me and wouldn't eat. Finally I called my husband and tears, asking him to come home and take me somewhere--anywhere--to get me out of the house and out of my head.

It was ugly. And embarrassing. I'm ashamed. And lonely. And a little scared that I can't fix some of it. I know it'll pass, but right now... it's not great.

Here's what my anxiety looks like. The picture here? Those are my cards. Those are my darkest thoughts, everyone. It's terrifying, but it's also freeing. Because those thoughts have too much power when they're locked in my brain. When I expose them to the air, they seem silly and trivial. Let me tell you, they don't feel that way.

I carry the cards with me in case I have an attack, but I still try to hide the mess. I don't use them if other people are around. Even at home, I flip through them in the basement or an empty bedroom. I've hidden with them in a bathroom. Over Thanksgiving, I got anxious (and stupidly left the cards at home). Let's just say, my dog and I had to spend a lot of time in the guest bedroom Thursday, taking deep breaths and trying to keep mascara (mine mostly) from running too much. But I dread the day the anxiety hits when privacy isn't possible. I don't want to whip out my mess in the middle of an Applebee's.

I'm done pretending I'm always okay. The truth is, I'm okay most days. About once a week, depending on what's happening, I have a really bad day. This week some work stuff means I've had several bad days, which hasn't happened in a long time. Most of the time my bad day isn't noticeable to people. Even  my husband has a hard time telling unless I tell him (or unless it gets bad enough I cry... then the mascara is a dead giveaway). I'm working on it. I'm getting better (most of the time) at handling it. I've found people who I can talk to and who help (shout out to Emmy, Rachel, Timothy, and my big sister). I've found people who don't want to help. But I've decided they can either learn to deal or get out of my life. It's not my responsibility to make other people comfortable. To be clear, I don't expect anyone to "fix" me--I don't even usually want people to talk to me about my anxiety--it's my mess and it isn't fair to expect anyone else to clean it up. But I expect friends to support me, and I feel no need to protect people from the fact that some days are rough. If people find that inconvenient or annoying, well, guess what? Me too, bitch. We can start a club.

I'm done with lip service. Messiness happens. For me, it's general anxiety. For other people, it's depression. Panic attacks. Compulsions, fears, mood swings. Whatever it is, we're all doing our best. We're all quietly muddling through. If we want to end the stigma, we need to be okay not just acknowledging that these things exist. We need to be okay confronting what it looks like in person. We need to love the people who struggle, even when they're at their worst. We need to love ourselves, even at the times when we hate our brains as they spiral out of our control. We need to see that mental illness isn't the whole of a person. But it's also inseparable from who we are. I can't just leave it at home or put it back on the shelf when other people don't want to deal. We need to understand the mess happens, and while it isn't fun for anyone, it's okay. Life happens and we don't always have time to clean. Sometimes our shit is everywhere.

At some point, I'm going to have to take those cards out in the middle of an Applebee's.

And y'all are just going to have to deal with it.

13 November 2017

Fifth Grade Trust Issues

When I was in elementary school, there was a girl in my class everyone adored--let's call her Cassie. In retrospect, I'm not really sure why we coveted her friendship so much; to be completely honest, she was boring. But we all wanted to be her best friend, and it caused enough bitterness in the class that in fifth grade, all the girls were forced to stay inside at recess to "talk it out."  (Side note to all elementary school teachers: this does not work. It was just 35 minutes of brilliant passive aggressive mind-fuckery). But, by some stroke of luck, Cassie was my best friend. For whatever reason, she chose me.

And then one day I found out--Cassie was a bitch.

I was walking into the hall when I heard a bunch of girls in my class whispering outside the door. Apparently Cassie had told them I "made her" be my friend. She didn't actually like me, but I forced her to be friends. It was never clear to me how I was supposed to have done this--I assume through some ten-year-old girl version of Chinese water torture and blackmail--but I was shocked. And hurt. And indignant. I had never forced someone to be my friend. That didn't even sound possible. After that, Cassie and I didn't speak anymore and I was relieved to leave my private elementary school for a public school in seventh grade to get away from all of it. I couldn't fathom that a friend could be so duplicitous.

Cassie wasn't the last person who pretended to be my friend and turned out to be anything but--sophomore year in high school was particularly rage-inducing thanks to a group of girls. But for some reason, Cassie was the worst. I was five when Cassie and I became friends; I trusted her with the blind innocence of a child who is completely confident she is interesting and worthy. We were friends for five years before I found out what she really thought--or at least what she said. It was a betrayal that ten-year-old me had hardly been able imagine until it happened.

She's the reason I have trust issues.

To this day, I am guarded when it comes to people. I operate on the assumption that most people aren't going to be my friends and so I should keep them at a distance. I freely admit I am not an easy person to like--I am reserved but opinionated, quiet at first, but sarcastic and blunt. I cannot let something go--seriously, it's physically impossible--and while I can disappear for long periods of time, when I decide I want attention, I want it immediately. And while these are traits I tried to suppress in high school so people would like me, they're things I've accepted now and embrace. I don't care that I say what I think, or that I force people to deal with issues rather than ignore them. I'm 33--I'm too old to worry about making other people comfortable.

But I also realize that, apparently, the hurts of our childhood often follow us in ways that are unexpected as we get older. Lately, I've recognized my lessons in early friendships taught me to believe that your friends are never really your friends. Your friends can turn on you at any minute. Your friends might just be tolerating you--or pretending to--because they need something, or want something, or are just waiting for something better to come along. I realized that, really, I'm just standing in the hall, waiting to hear what everyone really thinks. There's a voice I whispering in my subconscious: they don't really like you, you know. And while I freely acknowledge this inner voice is an asshole, it's a persistent asshole.

It sounds a whole hell of a lot like Cassie.

I should clarify that I am not, despite what some have said recently, an insecure walking emotional disaster. Once I get to know someone--once we've been friends for a while--this all fades a bit. But there are some people who communicate or relate to people in ways that trigger all the doubts. For the past six or seven months I've been struggling.

While most people have been understanding, I've had people I trust and care about tell me I do, in fact, annoy them. I'm too much, too messy, trying too hard. And instead of being able to isolate those comments to the people who said them, I've applied them to almost everyone in my life. Because honestly, it is an annoying personality trait. Lately I find myself more than ever pulling away from people I care about, certain I'm annoying them. I find myself reaching out, but cursing myself because I'm sure there's no way people want to hear from me.I apologize if I feel like I've talked to someone too much, asked too many questions, talked too long. And I apologize incessantly (which, by the way, I've also been told is annoying). My experiences with a few people have started to define my relationships with almost everyone.

Because sure, they're my friends. But that doesn't mean they really like me, right?

So today I made a resolution to let go of the people who make me question myself. To let go of people who make me feel annoying, or like I'm too much to handle. To let go of anyone who thinks I'ma burden. Because here's the thing--I'm a goddamn treat, if I do say so myself. I find my sarcasm and mockery delightful. I give good advice and I'd do pretty much anything for someone I care about. If the fact I might send a text at an inconvenient time (or... you know... four of them) cancels all that out? Well, it's their loss, not mine. I'm walking away from the people who make me question myself, my friendships, everything I do. This is a hard decision for me, but it was a hard weekend and I woke up today knowing that I just can't do another one. I've made this resolution before and failed to walk away; it turns out I'm spectacularly bad at ghosting on people, no matter how poorly they treat me. But this time I know it has to be real. I've felt myself slipping into old patterns I thought I'd broken. And I just don't have the time for it. So here goes nothing.

Because Cassie wasn't worth it. And neither are they.

06 November 2017

More 90s Anthems, or Staying Power

Anyone who knows me knows I love Nelly's song "Air Force Ones." Once, when drunk, I completed a rhetorical analysis of the structure to prove its brilliance. I maintain that lyrics like, "I get to stomping in my Air Force Ones" and "If the shoe is on the shelf then you got one, man" are pure genius.

This is the hill I'm dying on, y'all.

I recently rediscovered my love of this classic late-90s ballad when I started listening to Nelly Radio on Pandora (okay... I'm so old, yes I still use Pandora). And as lyrical masterminds like Ludacris, Nelly, Chingy, Eminem and Chamillionaire started blaring out of my car stereo at 6am on the way to work, I discovered something disturbing: I know an alarming amount of offensive rap lyrics from the late 90s and early 2000s. I no longer remember most basic math, anything from a single science class I've ever taken, or even my sophomore English teacher's name, but the lyrics to D12's "Purple Pills?" Got 'em.

My memory is a blessing and a curse. I appreciate being able to rock out to "Big Poppa" with my commuting-buddy-slash-best-friend, but there are so many other things I wish I could remember. And most importantly, there are so many other things I wish I could forget. Our memories often seem designed to sabotage us, forgetting the things that could serve us well and holding on to useless--or even pain-inducing--information instead. Chuck Palahniuk wrote, "It is so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness."

Goddamn, Chuck. Right through the heart.

And that's something I'm struggling with lately--remembering pain I'd rather let go. Because lately, up in my brain right next to musical masterpieces like "Ridin' Dirty" and "Lose Yourself" are  crashing, cruel words I can't shake. I've always considered myself a forgiving person--I wrote a blog post about it recently--but now I'm wondering what exactly that forgiveness means. Have you really forgiven someone when you take their words--all the things they said that wounded you--and bind  them inextricably into your relationship? Into yourself? Is it forgiveness if you know there will be no forgetting? And, if so, what do you do with forgiveness when the remembering crowds in and temporarily knocks you off your feet for a bit?

Words have always mattered more to me than anything else. It's easier for me to forgive a cruel act than it is to forgive a cruel word. I think most people would say the opposite. Perhaps that's why I became an English teacher--because I believe, as Margaret Atwood said, that "a word after a word after a word is power." And people's words have always had a unique sort of power for me. This means that a kind word can work wonders. And a cruel one? A cruel one has a staying power that rivals any lyric by Luda.

For the past few months, I've struggled with words I can't shake free from. Apologies have been made. Relationships repaired. I'm happy and at peace. But memories haven't been wiped. And every once in a while, in quiet moments, the words will suddenly whip-crack through my brain and I find myself temporarily devastated. I find myself stunned at the words rattling around my brain. I find myself a little breathless at the weaknesses someone saw in me. At the faults. At the anger and hatred that spurred those observations into words. And I am, for the briefest of moments, shattered all over again.

Part of my problem is I don't believe in the phrase "I didn't mean it." That phrase reeks of insincerity. You may not have meant to say it, but that doesn't mean you didn't believe--even for a moment--the content of the message. After all, the words came from somewhere. Perhaps they came from the darkest, meanest part of your mind, perhaps from thoughts you would not normally give voice to, but they came from you. And you believed them, at least enough to put them out into the world to wreak their havoc. We've all said things we regret. We've all, at some point, gone after someone's weakest point--their most sensitive point. And too often we excuse it with a quick "I didn't mean that." 

But of course we did. Of course. Otherwise we would not have been able to identify the weak points. We wouldn't have known exactly how to break someone. We wouldn't have thought it. And we surely wouldn't have said it.

So then what? What do we do with the words we've been given that we don't want but can't get rid of? How do we move on from pain--from our scars--when the doctors have done all they can? What do we do when we're left with words that have forever changed how we feel about ourselves? Because that's the rub, isn't it? Once a word is unleashed, we've lost it. It no longer belongs to us. We can apologize--we can even mean it with our whole heart--but the words aren't ours anymore. They belong to the people we flung them at; they belong now to someone else's concept of self. And when our words are cruel, we can't deny we've done damage and there's no real repair. And on the receiving end? Well, we take the words and gather them up and hope some day they'll stop whispering to us in our weak moments. So often it works.

So often it does not.

It's hard to explain to someone that you can genuinely be not mad anymore and still be a little broken by something they said. That you can forgive without forgetting. That you can be okay, but still forever changed. Words change the way we see our world and ourselves. It can be devastating when someone's words make our world darker. Especially because, so often, no matter how many good words that come later, the painful ones are somehow always stronger. Louder. More insistent.

Perhaps because, as Palahnuik said, sweetness leaves no scars. But pain?


The best we can hope for, maybe, is that new phrases will eventually crowd out everything else. Perhaps those painful words will continue to rattle around in my brain, but I can hope that, over time, they rattle more quietly. Perhaps they'll be like the lyrics to "Hot in Herre" by Nelly--vaguely familiar, words I knew long ago but which escape me most days. Words that faded when masterpieces like "Air Force Ones" took over. Maybe given enough time, they'll fade. I've forgiven. And now I'd really like to forget.

But "Air Force Ones?" "Purple Pills?" "Ridin' Dirty?"

I've just accepted those masterpieces are for life.

26 October 2017

An Angry Email and the Beauty of Teaching

Six years ago, in the dark depths of December, when everyone—students and teachers alike—was desperately counting down the days until Winter Break, I got an email from one of my freshmen students. The email was sent at 11pm on a Tuesday night. We were in the middle of our unit on To Kill a Mockingbird, and the students had been assigned to read the chapters in which our mockingbird, Tom Robinson—a black man wrongfully convicted of the rape of a white woman—is shot and killed. In desperation, in a wild fit of hopelessness, he tries to flee prison and is killed, shot in the back 17 times. My student, enraged at the unfairness of it all, fired off an email ranting about the book, about injustice, about her absolute disgust at the unfairness of it all. In her 14 year old vernacular, she angrily accused me of lying—I told her that, in general, Mockingbird had a happy ending—and the world of being unfair.

See, when I tell people that I teach high school English, I get one of two responses: “Oh my god, I hated English” or “Oh my god, I hate teenagers.” And the truth is, I don’t really understand either perspective.
There are days--months, even occasionally entire years--where I know I'm less effective than I'd like to be as a teacher. I know I've let students down. I know I have students I never connected with meaningfully. I know I have many students who may have done better if I had been better. But I love my job. And today as I circulated my classroom during my sixth hour AP Lit class, feeling worn down and exhausted (it’s just been that kind of week), I was suddenly reminded forcefully of how very much I love not just my job, but my kids. I was powerfully aware of how lucky I am to do what I do, to have these people in my heart for the short time I get to know them. And it made me think back on the handful of moments that really define my ten years of teaching. There are beautiful moments in everyday, but the moments blend—to be honest, the faces and names start to get muddy. But there are some moments that even distance can’t cloud.
Sitting in semifinals at the National Speech and Debate Tournament, watching my student—watching a piece of my heart—give an impassioned speech with more talent, grace, and humor than she ever thought possible. Sitting in a desk watching a student practice her invisibility speech for AP Lit, listening to her say the words “I’m gay” out loud for the first time, honored because she trusted me enough to say them to me. Watching with trepidation as a student opened the email that told him he’d been accepted to his dream college, hugging him, proud but not surprised. Feeling the tears in my eyes when a student, walking off the stage after finding out she had qualified for the MSHSL state tournament, collapsed into me, crying and laughing at the same time. Hiding my surprise when, finally at the end of May, a student who had never voluntarily spoken in class cautiously raised his hand to explain why he thought Piggy's classes were so important in Lord of the Flies. Nodding helplessly as a student, heartbroken, told me his mom wouldn't say she loved him when he told her she was gay. Fighting tears in a quiet moment with a senior after State Finals, celebrating the end of a successful career, saying goodbye to an activity he loved, trying to put every overwhelming emotion we had into a hug in the middle of a crowded hallway.
And of course, an angry email from a beautiful soul who just so badly wanted the world to be fair.
These are moments that are forever in my heart. Many of them--maybe most of them--are moments my students quickly forget.  Their lives march on, carrying them outside of the walls of their old high school. They head out into the world and talk about how awful high school was, how glad they are to be gone, how small minded their hometown is. Meanwhile, I carry them with me in my heart everyday, fundamentally changed for having known them. I'll remember moments with them long after Hamlet or A Tale of Two Cities fade from their memories. They'll haunt my classroom years past the point where their high school English teacher or Speech coach crosses their mind. It's the nature of teaching--a constant push and pull between remembering and forgetting. They'll move on and forget about me and my classroom. New students will take up their places, settling into their old desks with no knowledge of the people who sat there before, claiming their space. Filling my heart.
And the cycle repeats.
I love my job because I love these people--these difficult, loud, moody people who fill my room for seven hours a day. Some days I am overwhelmed by how lucky I am, how profoundly special it is to be a part of these lives, whether for a semester, a year, or a high school career. How honored I am that a few students allow me in enough to send me emails, snaps, tweets, and texts long after they’ve left my room for the last time. Some days—more often than I would like—I’m disappointed in myself, for not doing more or being more for the amazing young people who walk through my doors. Some days I’m disappointed with my students—for not valuing their opportunities, for not wanting to work or grow or be the people I know they can be. But disappointment is a part of caring, so I’ll take it. There is far more pride and that’s what I’ll hold on to.
So some people can’t understand why I teach. They can’t understand why I would love these hormonal, whiny, beautiful people who fill my desks. Usually I just laugh it off. Usually I make some sarcastic comment and move on.
But next time… maybe next time I’ll tell them about this email I got once, about six years ago…