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…

17 October 2017

My Girl Hillary

I love Hillary Clinton. That's not a popular opinion, even among Democrats, but I proudly cop to it. I don't mean I voted for her or that I think she'd be a good president (though both those things are true). I mean I love her. I have a Funko Pop doll of her on my mantle (granted, it's in the basement, but still). I admire her. I think she's strong. I think she's smart. I think she's a bitch, but that's okay because, in the words of Tina Fey (another woman I love), "Bitches get shit done." Y'all, I love her.

Most of all, what I love about my girl, Hillary, is the fact she is unapologetically Hillary. She owns up to her mistakes, but she doesn't apologize for being strong, or opinionated, or doing what she thinks is right, even if it turns out to be wrong later. I truly believe one of the reasons so many people dislike Hillary is this very lack of apology. A lot of the criticism leveled at her is, in reality, dislike of the fact she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize. Because in the US, women apologize. For being loud, for being ambitious, for being assertive, and sometimes, just for taking up space. Study after study has shown that women apologize more than men, and often for relatively silly things. It's a cultural epidemic.

And in the past three months or so, I've been infected.

I admire women like Hillary who are unapologetically themselves, yet I find that lately, I'm apologizing. For everything. It's a relatively new development for me, so I find it profoundly uncomfortable. Suddenly, I'm constantly fighting the urge to apologize for being myself.

I somehow got locked into a cycle where I let other people's opinions and actions make me second guess everything about myself and my relationships. I started feeling guilty for mundane things like asking questions, sending a text, needing a friend... basically for taking up space in people's lives. These were people who claimed to want to be in my life--friends and family--so the sense of shame and insecurity was (and, if I am honest, is) unsettling. I felt ashamed of myself for trying to connect with people, for having emotions other people found inconvenient. I was embarrassed, too often, for being an imperfect person. So I started to apologize. And it's been a hard habit to break.

And let me just say, I used past tense a lot in that last paragraph. And maybe present tense is more accurate. But that's another post.

This weekend, I made a decision: I'm banishing the word "sorry" from my vocabulary. (Spoiler alert: I've already failed a few times.)There are just some things that I won't apologize for anymore. So I made a list (yeah, I'm that kind of person--I'm not sorry):
  1. Contacting or reaching out to people--I am allowed to take up mental and emotional space in someone's life. If someone chooses not to answer or to ignore me--if they refuse to give me that space--then I don't need to be in their life anymore; I need to learn to walk away, not apologize.
  2. Feeling whatever it is I am feeling in a moment, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people.
  3. Expressing what I am feeling, even if that feeling is inconvenient or uncomfortable for other people (notice a theme?)
  4. Failing to live up to other people's unrealistic expectations of me. Sometimes I am messy, and always I am imperfect. I'm okay with it. If other people aren't, again, I need to walk away.
I've caught myself starting to apologize multiple times. I've started a text to apologize when someone ignored a previous message for hours--but then I had to remind myself--there's nothing wrong with contacting someone. If they don't want to respond to my delightful banter, clearly there's something wrong with them, not me. And in all seriousness, ignoring someone is rude; guilt shouldn't lie with me but the person doing it. I have no reason to apologize. I've felt the urge to apologize when someone tried to police my language. I had an apology all crafted before I managed to stop myself, and remind myself that the person was being manipulative, and I didn't need to apologize for that. Sorry is a word that should be reserved for actual remorse, not as a crutch because other people are rude or seem to feel vaguely inconvenienced by me.

"I am allowed to take up space--whether emotional, mental, or physical" is my new mantra. I think it should be every woman's mantra. It's something we all need to be reminded of. It's so easy to forget.

But there is one person I feel I owe a huge apology to: me

For expecting myself to be all things to all people; for carrying around guilt and blame that weren't mine to shoulder; for caring more what other people thought about me than what I thought about myself. For somehow letting someone else make me feel I didn't deserve validation or acknowledgement.

But no more apologies. People make mistakes--me included--and I'll live with it. I've had to suppress a lot of natural instincts--"sorry it took me so long to get back to you," "sorry to bother you," "sorry to ask, but . . ." These are ingrained in my daily conversations. And they shouldn't be.

It's too early in my new campaign to tell if it's making a difference in my interactions. But I'm going to keep reminding myself Hillary has been blamed for a lot in this country that isn't her fault
--everything from her husband's infidelities to Weinstein's harassment of women--and she doesn't back down, and she doesn't apologize for what isn't her fault. The truth is, often, I'm not really sorry. I might feel insecure. Uncertain. Even angry. But none of those are reasons to apologize. Far too many times, I'm offering an apology when one is owed to me. And that, frankly, is fucked up.

And by the way: No, I'm not sorry for swearing.

15 October 2017

Cheat Codes and Free Will: What the Sims Taught Me About Life

Perhaps my worst kept secret is that, for years, I unabashedly loved the computer game The Sims. I was never a Sims City fan--that required far too much work and even at a young age I had no illusions that I should be, in anyway, in charge of running... well, anything. But The Sims was different. In the game, you built houses, decorated them, and then created families to move in and live there. The premise is your Sims need to build skills so they can get jobs, make money, and improve their houses. But y'all, Sims are stupid. Left to their own devices, they leave their babies outside in the snow because they wanted to watch TV; they don't go to work because the house is too dirty and it depressed them. And they never study. But there's a little switch in the settings of the game that makes all this a moot point: The free will button. See, you can turn free will off, and then your Sims can't do a damn thing unless you tell them to.

I mean, the ability to be totally in charge of someone's life? Sign me up.

I could play that game for hours. Oh, I'm sorry Mr. Sim--you want to watch TV? Tough. You burned toast last night and set the kitchen on fire; go read a book to improve your cooking skills. Mrs. Sims wants to sleep? Neat, but your baby is crying and the game comes with built in CPS, so suck it up buttercup and go sing some nursery rhymes. Oh, and there are bills to pay but neither of my Sims have jobs? Well, good thing the game also comes with a cheat code to get them unlimited money because I don't have time for work.

I mean.... I might have some control issues.

There is no clearer illustration in my life of my love of control than the way I played The Sims. I've always been particular about the way I want things to be done. I hate uncertainty. I need to have solid footing under me at all times, otherwise I go crazy--seriously, batshit crazy; I can give you names of people who have had to witness this. Uncertainty is, really, at the root of pretty much any fear and anxiety I've ever had. I need to know where I stand. I need to know what's going to happen and how and why. My control means that, in general, my life is organized and run well. But there are some things that elude my control. And those things tend to piss me off.

I've never been terribly adept at handling change and uncertainty, and the past few months have brought plenty of that. It's difficult for me to interact with people who try to control my emotions and interactions. I don't like have "rules" about what I can express or when. It's hard for me deal with situations and relationships when the ground keeps shifting beneath my feet.

Mostly I've just come to the conclusion that those situations and people who leave me feeling powerless are situations and people I have to avoid. I'm learning there's a difference between relinquishing control in a healthy way (#yolo) and someone wresting it from you against your will in an attempt to take advantage of you or manage your reactions (#ass). I've let too many people exert control over my life lately. Some have done it unwittingly--frustrating but forgivable. What's harder to accept is that there are a few who have done it purposefully--who have used my weaknesses against me. I'm working slowly to shut those people out of my life. Or, at the very least, to shut down situations where I find my words, reactions, and feelings being policed by them. I've decided I'm done feeling guilty, embarrassed, or out of control. To quote Maxine Waters, I'm reclaiming my time. Or my control, as the case may be.

Of course, I backslide a lot; for a control freak, I have shockingly little self- control, as anyone who has seen me crack open a bag of Doritos can attest to. But I'm working on it.

So the world isn't my personal game of The Sims, much to my dismay. Most days, I can handle it. I am, after all, slightly more adept at life than any of the Sims I've had to play on the computer. I've never left a baby in the snow, fallen asleep in a plate of burned spaghetti, or electrocuted myself fixing a toaster (seriously, if you don't play this game, you're missing out). So, I suppose I have to navigate this world, constantly bumping into those people whose free will keeps getting in my way. I'll just I have to live with that.

But, just saying, some cheat codes would be nice.

08 October 2017

Crotchety Old Bitch

In August, my husband and I adopted a dog named Ellie; then we immediately turned into insufferable millennials who talk about said dog way too much. It's amazing.

Ellie is a bundle of contradictions: She likes her own space, but she has to be in the same room I am. She's sweet and likes people, but only on her own terms. She's skittish around strangers and loathes kids. She gets cranky if she's not in bed by 8:30, hates to get up in the morning, and is relatively sweet until someone gets in her face, at which time she'll snarl, growl, and--in the case if my in-laws' dog--attack with teeth bared if you don't back up. She's sweet and cranky at the same time; cuddly and stand-offish; loves walks but gets winded after 6 blocks.

Y'all. Ellie is me.

Let's review:  Dislikes strangers, children, and exercise. Always wants to be in bed. Sweet, but will attack you right in the face if you tick her off.

Me.

We ended up adopting Ellie because her previous family--who had her for nearly ten years-- surrendered her. They had a toddler and another baby on the way; Ellie's penchant for snarling and snapping at kids when she gets scared meant she couldn't stay with them anymore. She needed a house without children or other pets. They loved her (I'm sure), but it just wasn't the right place for her.

Yet, as much as I love to ramble on about my dog, she's actually not quite the point here (though using her as a metaphor is a fantastic excuse to plaster her face all over this post). See, Ellie is perfect for us, and sometimes I'm sort of dumbfounded anyone could give her up. But she's not for everyone. She's not perfect and her family couldn't handle her issues. She is, in short, a crotchety old bitch.

Do I really need to say it again?

The past couple months haven't been the easiest for me. The past three weeks forced me to spend a lot of time thinking. One day, I hit a point where I was carrying around a lot of blame. I was angry at myself. And then a wonderful, intelligent woman I know (hi Sarah!) sent me a message and reminded me that sometimes we fit in people's lives, and other times we don't. Sometimes people don't appreciate us. Sometimes people find us annoying or messy. Sometimes we do the best we can, and it's still not right.

Sometimes, all of that just still means we're just fine the way we are.

See, Ellie isn't perfect, but she is who she is. All she needed was to find the right place--the right people--for that to be okay. Her previous family loved her, but they weren't that place so they let her go. And when I look at her sprawled out next to me on the couch, I remind myself I have my place too. I have my people. And sometimes I can care about people but still know those people aren't my people. That's not always an easy thing to accept. It's broken my heart in a million different ways, but it doesn't change that essential truth.

There are things about ourselves we will always be working on--I'm trying to be more patient, less judgemental, and more tolerant of middle-aged women (partly because I know I'm teetering awfully close to being one). But there are things about myself I just can't change: I will always be prone to emotional reactions and sentimentality, uncertainty will always make me crazy, and slow drivers in the left lane will always send me into a blind rage. I might not love all these things, but I no longer see them as weaknesses. They just are, just like Ellie--try as she might--just can't handle kids, other dogs, or staying up past 9:00 pm. The best I can ask for is to surround myself with people who can accept the good with the not-so-good, people who don't see those things as flaws but just part of who I am; people who are my people. Because they're out there. They're all around me.

So Ellie found her people. I'm learning to recognize mine. We've bonded over this shared journey, I think. And I think we're both at peace with it.

We'll be the first to admit--we're just a pair of crotchety old bitches.

But see, we're just okay with it now.