Anticipation

Having dealt with chronic illness for the last 8 or 9 years, one of the messiest mental mud holes I needed to dig myself out from existed in a very simple sentence starter…which existed in variations of itself but always lead to the same deleterious effects. It always went  something like this: “Back when I  could…” or “The old me could have…” or “There was a time in my life when _____ was possible”. The trouble with these statements emanates from their constant glance backwards which blinded me to my current truth. And maybe that was my mind’s ulterior motive. If I was always idolizing and gazing back at the “old me”, then the current version of myself was only a temporary imposter. I didn’t have to accept this new human with her new limitations, in her new situation. She was a lesser version of old me and I didn’t really like her very much. Her life seemed less than the one I had been working so hard for so long to create. I wanted more. I wanted what I felt I deserved.  I looked to every outlet that might offer healing because this would not  (NOT) be what defined my existence for the rest of my life. This was a “right now” scenario and I would fix what people told me could not be fixed. I tried acupuncture,  chiropractors, physical  therapy,  vestibular  rehab, essential oils, neuro-otologists, audiologists, oral  surgeons, dentists (this list  goes on for a while, you get the picture). And while I might find relief, no one held the cure…the magic potion that would restore old me and extinguish new me. I felt I had tried everything to heal myself.

But sometimes…

…we have to look within first.

One day, in a moment of defensiveness, I told a friend,  “I have a neurological and inner ear disorder; I am hearing impaired. So what?!”  And it was one of the most freeing moments of my entire life.

I had said it.

Out loud.

In the world.

For someone else to hear.

I had spoken the truth that I had been working so furiously to deny and to walk away from. In that moment, I began to nurture acceptance rather than denial. In that moment, I began to slowly and steadfastly heal myself rather than futilely and frantically try to eradicate my disorder. The path toward acceptance possesses an inordinate number of thorns and there is no map to navigate it well. It requires resilience and dedication and also, as I came to learn, anticipation of who I was becoming rather than disappointment over who I had lost. I did not need to mourn that girl who could do some stupid number of burpees in two minutes…I did not need to mourn the adventures she would never seek (because let’s face it, “adventure” was never really my thing anyway)…I did not need to mourn any of it because she was still a part of me and together, we were becoming someone stronger, someone more beautiful, someone who despite limitations still had plenty to give to this world.

And so in anticipation of who I was becoming, I fought harder.

As 2020 wears on and I feel like so much in this world is changing and shifting, I once again find myself gazing backward. “Remember when we could…” “Remember when we didn’t have to…” “Remember the days before…” Of course we all remember all these things, they are a part of us and our stories. And for a substantial piece of our lives they dictated our narratives for us. They are not lost forever, though, just in a holding pattern of sorts…wrapped in bright paper waiting for us to unwrap them again when it is safe and maybe with the newfound gratitude we are all bound to feel for what was once just the everyday.

I  find myself making this note in my notebook at school regularly: “Anticipate who you are becoming in all of this”  It is a necessary reminder when the work of reimagining school on a regular basis grows exhausting and frustrating. It is a necessary reminder when I decide how I will  react or respond to those around me at work, at home, in my community. It is a necessary reminder that this is my story and I am not a static character. I am dynamic. I am changing. And I can shape that change and my attitude about it.

Opening my mind and my heart to accepting myself, presented some of the toughest work I’ve faced…and that work doesn’t end, maybe not ever. Some days issue considerable challenges while others tender feelings of accomplishment and joy. Regardless, all the days are situated in anticipation of who I will become on the other side of the struggle and what work I can do in the moment to make that person a better one than she is today.

Neither a neurological disorder nor pandemic can change that…unless I allow for it.

empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

mindset

My 11 year old has had some rough mornings this week. He is stressed and tired and a bit under the weather…and, you know, as human beings tend to do, is taking it out on the rest of us. Yesterday, he texted me at work that he had been having a difficult time.

(I have to interrupt here to note that I am optimistic to a faulty degree. I can see a silver lining in just about any moment of difficulty and if you come to me hoping that I will get angry about something with you, chances are I will end up pointing out how we can make it better instead. People don’t always love this about me. I get it.)

So, when he texted, I immediately replied that his day would get better. Being the anxiety ridden realist that he is, he texted back “How do you know it will get better? It doesn’t feel like it will.” Ouch. It is hard enough making this transition to being at work and not at home in the mornings with my boys most days of the week. But on a day like this, when he really just needs a hug from his mom, and I’m not there to give him one, it is even tougher. All I could do was text back “I don’t know but I am hopeful that it will. You can make it better—just decide.”

His thoughts on that advice? “That doesn’t help.”

Double ouch.

Except not so much because I am a deep believer in that advice. I honestly trust that no matter how bad the day is, how we react to it is always within our control. Sure, some days are harder than others, but you know what makes that worse? Sinking in to the difficulty and suffering, languishing beneath the weight of it. I just can’t do that. It feels like a waste–of time, energy, life. Does that mean that all my days are glorious meadows of joy? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. It simply means that my mindset gazes above the negativity with a hopeful heart rather than one resigned to mere misery. This focus is a conscious effort and I often have to remind myself to see beyond the moment, but doing so allows me to more fully participate in the world around me, in my own life.

So, much to his dismay, I will continue to preach this message to him–that he can make it better if he just decides to–because I think it applies in this situation and in so many others. When we feel out of control in situations like this, we become victims of our own selves and our own mentality and anxiety. We become helpless. That is the last thing I want for him or for anyone, really. I want him to know that he has the power to improve his own frame of mind–his own heart, the power to improve the world around him. He needs to know that he can make a difference, but if he can’t make a difference in his own day, how will he ever be able to come to the aid of others?  He needs to own the power of a positive mindset, and he needs to fight for it.

Because all that negativity will only doom him to frustration and stagnation, and that is no way to truly live this life he has been given.

(Day 26!)

 

Sometimes it’s the moments that make the movement

The most important moment in my high school career had nothing to do with grades, awards, or really school itself. And I guess, if I’m honest, it was more of a realization than a precise moment. In my memory though, it feels like a decisive point in time.

Somewhere in my sophomore year, a determination settled in my heart: I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I was going to be myself and if that wasn’t enough, then I didn’t need the weight of that judgment in my life. And in return I would quit (or try my best to quit) judging other people.

It wasn’t defiance or some kind of a front or a wall that I was putting up—it was the truth of my heart. It was me making peace with myself.

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I’ll never forget the look on his face. He walked into my classroom exhausted and distraught and ready to fall into pieces. He looked at me and said, “I’m here because I knew I wouldn’t be judged and I need to talk.”

My heart was ready to carry the weight it would receive. I was ready to listen and accept whatever it was he needed to share.

I had already accepted him and nothing could change that. Thankfully, somehow, he knew that.

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“I’m a non-writer and a struggling reader.”

Those were the first words she spoke to me as she entered my classroom on the first day of school. I had never heard a 15 year old identify herself in these terms before this moment. She introduced herself this way almost as if this information, that she believed so intently, was more important than her name.

I told her, “Well, we will see about that.” I gave her a smile and made a note that her first reading and writing goals would be nothing more than to work on her confidence.

Doubting the possibility of any kind of growth, she was skeptical.

I knew better. I could see what she couldn’t about herself.

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It was May 2014 and I had just become a Heinemann Fellow. I had no idea what that meant exactly and when people asked I am pretty sure my answer was some variation of “I think I will do some research and maybe write a little bit and I know I get some free books.”

I never even really expected to be chosen—I just wanted to try for it. I had never written professionally. I knew I liked to write, but I didn’t think any of my writing was very good.  I didn’t consider myself a writer for sure. A teacher of writing, yes. But a writer, no way.

So, there I was at the Heinemann reception at the ILA conference in New Orleans. I didn’t know a soul in the room, but I was totally awestruck because so many of the teacher authors I admired were present. That whole high school confidence “I don’t care what people think” thing was out the window…I was nervous! I wanted to impress, to fit in and I couldn’t see a way that I could ever measure up.

But I was in a room full of teachers and, you know, teachers have this sensibility about them, a certain kindness.

I was introduced to Ellin Keene early in the evening. She would be “in charge” of the Fellows—we were her babiesJShe had been one of the readers of my application. Upon finding this out, I immediately began to summon up an apology for not having submitted professional writing, only a creative personal piece. Before the words could exit my lips, Ellin said, “You are a writer, you know that, right?” and proceeded to talk about how my piece had moved her.

I was a writer? I was certain she was thinking of the wrong person, but she knew my work. It had stayed with her. It had meant something to her. I was a writer.

Confidence restored. I haven’t looked back.

The power of a teacher.

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We all have stories to tell. Stories of our interactions with a text…stories of our experience in the world…stories that help us figure out who we really are…stories that help us heal…stories of endless variation. This includes our students. Grades and fears of judgment/fitting in and getting into college should not limit the possibilities and potential of those stories.

I think sometimes, as high school teachers, we forget that we teach kids. That is not to diminish their intelligence or to challenge their maturity or the value of their voice. I am awestruck by high school students every single day. I think they are brilliant and funny and worthy of being heard in this world. That is why I teach them. That is why I have agreed to work in an administrative role in addition to my teaching duties–because I think so highly of high school students.

But at the same time, we get caught up in material and in testing and in expectations and we forget. And our students have this uncanny ability to appear so grown up on the outside that it becomes easy to overlook the fact that on the inside they are still just kids trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world. And they are trying to accomplish this in the midst of enormous pressures from the outside. Our kids, our students, are faced with impossible expectation for what it means to succeed, to fit in, to be smart, to be normal, to be accepted.  The last thing they need is another grown up in power proving to them that they will never measure up.

Our students sit in front of us—a composition of a whole lifetime of stories and experiences that have shaped their literacy lives as well as the person they have become over time. They are still growing and still determining the person they want to be. They need a little extra grace and some positive words from their teachers. They need us to be able to see beyond the facade of the moment and understand that there is so much more complexity to them. They need us to consider them—not as students or as a job, but as human beings…even when it is hard…even when they skillfully deliver attitude or appear entirely apathetic…they need us to see beyond the show.  They need to be accepted.

Is that always easy? Does that mean we don’t usher them towards any kind of growth? Absolutely not. Accepting people for who they are, as they are, is never easy.

There are so many ways to grant those positive words though—I’ve written before about writers notebooks, but they extend a gorgeous means for kids to figure out who they are, how they feel, and to begin to accept themselves (they are pretty handy for adults too…just saying…) But also, as teachers, we can name kids as readers and writers without negativity and be able to speak specifically to each about why. We can write small notes of response and reflection on their work that extend the insight they don’t have into their own work instead of simply marking a rubric or issuing a grade, We can ask about how they felt as they were reading and writing and then we can reassure them along the way. We talk to them sincerely about the unique gifts they bring to writing (and to reading and to the world at large)—to let them know that not everyone else can do what they can.

It takes a little time. But these are the words they will carry with them. The time it takes us to offer this encouragement is worth the lifetime of effect that encouragement could have.

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I think Mary Oliver’s “Roses” had it right…

“Forgive us,”

they said. “But as you can see, we are

just now entirely busy being roses.”

(http://www.stmarksbuderim.org.au/poem-of-the-week-roses-by-mary-oliver/)

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Having finally recovered from six months of debilitating vertigo, I finally had the chance last week to sit down with my youngest son and watch The Greatest Showman. My kids absolutely adore this movie and this soundtrack so it was fun to get to watch it with him.

We were sitting together on the couch when the song “This is Me” (written by Benj Paskek, Justin Paul) was performed and I got a little teary eyed. He was worried for me. He said, “Mom, why are you crying? This is everyone’s favorite song! You should love it!”

I did love it.  It was perfect. We paused the movie so I could explain that all I could ever want in this world is for him and his brother and every kid I teach to feel this way:

“But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me”

I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m just a sap who cries at weird places in movies, but sometimes it’s the small moments that create the movement.  Felt worth the conversation to me.