Starting Over (on my teaching philosophy)

The new school year is starting, and before I walk through those beautiful purple doors, I want to be ready. Not ready with a handful of lesson plans, curriculum, premade IEP due date calendars (though, admittedly, I’ve already completed the latter) — no. Ready with something much more important.

I need to know what I believe.

I’ve spent my past two years in the classroom turning theories, philosophies, and ideas over in my head. I came into teaching with a clear idea of what I believed — but it was shallow. How could I possibly understand what I believed about teaching, about children, without ever having stood in front of a room full of them and felt my heart fall out through my ribs?

This is a statement of my teaching philosophy, but also a working-through of it. The truth is that I cannot stand in front of a room full of students without understanding, to the fullest extent possible, what I believe is right, and seeking to enact it in every way possible, from the content I teach to the way I teach it, from the color theme of my classroom to the way I handle students whose needs are not being met.

The first thing I wanted to recognize is that teaching is not about me. It’s about my students. It doesn’t matter what I want to do. It matters what students need.

So, I started my notes this morning by asking myself this question: What do students need?

I came up with this answer: To not feel trapped.

I could be wrong about that. But when I think back to my childhood, my education, and middle school especially, the feeling that shrouds everything — the same feeling I see in my students now — is the feeling of being controlled. As a kid, no one listens to you; no one takes you seriously. For the students in my classroom, students who are defined as having a learning “disability” (a term I take with more and more salt as time goes on, but that’s a different blog post), they often feel controlled by the school environment, which marches them along despite their complete bafflement at the classroom content. At home, so many of them feel controlled by circumstances that are deeply painful — even when it’s not family life but the internal life, the spiral of anxiety and depression and self-loathing that’s all too common to being a teenager.

So, to me, something feels right about this idea of not feeling trapped. If we want to phrase it “positively” — remove the negative sense of “not” feeling something — I suppose we could say liberation. What students need is to not feel trapped, or to feel liberated. I prefer the former, though. Because that oppressive sense of feeling trapped is where it all starts.

So what does not feeling trapped look like? Four concepts came clearly to my mind when I considered this.

Not feeling trapped is:

  1. Being able to make choices.
  2. Loving yourself.
  3. Having hope.
  4. Being loved by others.

The fourth item on the list is possibly optional, only because it is external. But as a teacher, considering what my students need, I am not going to remove it. I am not trying to simply seek to hand them all these internal states or abilities without also seeking to create an environment that loves and welcomes them from the outside. I think that’s critical for children to have. As a young person, it’s almost impossible to produce all those states for yourself. I mean, it’s nearly impossible even as an adult.

So this basically accounts for my teaching philosophy. As of right now. It’s about what students need to not feel trapped — at least in some small ways that I might lighten the load.

OK, so how will I do it?

Students need to be able to make choices. 

  • Provide choice as often as possible in classroom activities.
  • Provide choices for students to meet their needs.
  • Give students the opportunity to make choices about what they are going to learn.
  • Give students the opportunity to make choices about their classroom.

Students need to love themselves.

This one’s not as easy as making choices. You can’t make someone love themselves. But you can create conditions that make it easier.

I’m getting anxiety just thinking about this, trying to consider ways I might bring this to life in my classroom.

  • Show students they are worthy of love.

That one comes in every little interaction. Words, gestures, attention given. Intervention in bullying or other painful things students face.

  • Provide students opportunities to feel successful.

It is so disheartening to feel like a failure over and over and over. It becomes personal, we take it personally. OK, so I want to challenge students, but I really want students to feel a sense of mastery over their work. Feeling a sense of success gives you a sense of greater control over your environment. And vice versa.

  • Affirmations?

Affirmations are a tough one, because they feel really hokey and fake. I know they work, but I can’t make a kid convince themselves that they work (can I?). So this one’s a toss-up for me.

Students need to have hope.

I mean, how do you even begin to instill that in someone? Someone who feels they are at the whim of all the circumstances around them? Where does hope come from? How do we feed it?

  • Model hope.

I guess that’s a start. We learn from watching others. If I can display hope even in the face of great disappointment, maybe my students can see that and learn from it in some way.

  • Create long-term opportunities and projects?

I guess this one makes me think about hope in terms of the fact that those sorts of things give students something to look forward to, and having something to look forward to can make you feel hopeful when nothing else does.

  • Use class content that reflects reality but does not eliminate hopeful futures.

How will I do this? I don’t know! But texts are really important for this, I think. Finding texts that reflect student realities without giving up on a vision toward something brighter.

  • Talk to students and their families about their hopes and dreams.

really need to stop projecting my own values onto students, and this is a challenge I’ve been coming across for a while now. Why teach, why do work whose entire point is to help shape someone’s future, if you don’t want to instill in them some sense of a future? But it’s not fair, it’s not fair to these families and to this community for me to think that my values about what someone should want to do with their life are shared. And it’s actually coming from a space of privilege, since my extremely privileged white, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied (with the exception of certain mental health issues) perspective is so limited as to what might be the “right” future for someone. Until I step back and start listening to the voices in this community, I absolutely have to stop myself from thinking I have any idea what kind of future would be best for these kids.

Students need to be loved.

  • Show love all the time.
    • Be patient.

Dang it is hard as a teacher to remain patient, when the whole world seems like it’s on top of you and you can’t get a sentence out without a kid interrupting you! But it has to happen. It absolutely has to happen.

  • Intervene immediately in situations of teasing or bullying.

I struggle with doing this, or doing this well, because I don’t know how to stop the thing that’s happening at the source. I usually intervene, but I don’t really do a good job of shutting the situation down. How do I do this better? I’m not sure. But I have to work on that.

That’s it for now. I know I have more, but I think I need to go back to the pen-and-paper notebook. This visioning process is messy and has gone through three different mediums already, but I need to keep working until I feel like I have at least a working picture of what I believe, and how I can stay true to those beliefs when they don’t align with the beliefs of others.

I believe what I believe for a reason. I have to remember that.


The Goddess and The Ghost

My folks, they left the TV on.
I was falling in love years before I ever met someone.
Like a prayer, you don’t expect an answer,
Though you ask for one.
Assured my love would come along–
Like a bird, and only I would recognize its song.
–Typhoon, “Prosthetic Love”

I leaned over with the sick feeling welling up inside my stomach.

On the television the characters said goodbye and did not kiss.

No, no, no. It’s not meant to be like this.

I’m a sucker for happy endings. The completion of the fairy tale gives me release, a sense of the butterfly bandage tightening closed on my heart. Like without that, what’s left inside me is some gaping wound.

I’m not sure when this began. Maybe it was the afternoon when I was 12 and the first boy I fell in love with led me up a ladder to the roof of my middle school. Gravel and blue skies.

I am afraid of love now. I think my fear is bound to what I’ve only just begun to understand: that love is not Love. That fairy tales are just fairy tales. That happy endings take work.

I thought I was smart. But somehow I fell into a trap that’s proliferant enough that I suppose we are all drawn toward it — in one way or another.

What I mean to say is this:

When I went to college, I met a boy who was unremarkable. He was not overtly generous or kind. His pursuits were deep and detailed, but mundane. His backstory was tragic but not incredible. He had occasional existential crises, which he worked through doggedly. He was okay with carving out a life of regular size. (Unlike me, forever the perpetrator of unreasonably large dreams and fairy tales.)

Unremarkable: I fell in love like a rockslide. Left with bruises and bloodied shins.

I believed in fairy tales.

My best friend fell in love like a whirlpool (she believed in fairy tales) and her love materialized. I felt myself begin picking holes in the hot flesh of my heart. She became proof of the real-world television love story that was so far beyond my grasp.

There was no way the boy would ever love me.

I have trouble watching TV shows. In every one, I become attached to a relationship, live and die by its highs and lows. I fall in so deep that I walk away from these shows feeling as if my own life has changed. They do me damage.

The past year has challenged me. Suddenly I am relearning myself. Relearning love and understanding that love is not Love. (I do not need to believe in fairy tales.)

I suppose what it comes down to is that years of belief are hard to undo. I thought the only lasting love I could ever have would have to look and feel like it felt with the boy. Dreamlike, miserable, feverish, impossible, beautiful. Endless. Tumbling stones and rips in my knees.

I know in my head it’s not like that. Even if it starts like that, it can’t live that way. All love is work. And good love, solid love, has its own magic. Something much quieter and more stable.

But some part of me wants the bleeding. I choose to live it out through the television screen.

I want to be happy — and it is a choice that I make. But I want to believe in fairy tales, too.

It’s a backwards take on the Book of Job.
His life was a wager, and mine’s a joke.
Give him what he wants, he will never know —
He’s tied up trying to let himself go.

One Day I’ll Write About This, But I Can’t Right Now

I’m hoping for a song that will come to me while I’m asleep
Because I can’t lie, so I can’t write
-Typhoon, “Hunger & Thirst”

“Pay attention while you’re teaching,” she says before I leave Arizona. “It will give you a lot to write about.”

“You should write these things down,” he says when I tell him the things that were said to me behind closed doors. “One day you’ll look back on them and realize. Maybe one day you’ll write about them.”

Writing is all I do. I eat sadness and spit out writing. I fall in love and spit out writing. I see empty benches and abandoned headphones and I spit out writing.

I write everywhere. I write on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. I write on my blog. I write text messages. I write poems on the Google Doc where I house them all, 55 pages and growing. I write in the small journal I carry in my purse. I write in the big journals I keep in my room. I write haiku on the white board on my fridge. I see everything and I spit out writing.

These days I almost write too much. I keep writing because I can’t capture, anymore, any of the important things happening around me.

It will give you a lot to write about, she says. But what about the things that were said to me behind closed doors? What about the bright, soft, innocent faces that greet me in the mornings? What about the stories they tell me—in the schoolyard, in the hallways, behind closed doors? What about my triumphs and my regrets? What about the stories no one tells—the secrets that play out behind closed doors?

I came to this work because I feel so much love it hurts. (I left the previous sentence purposely vague.) But it seems now I am stymied—limited in the work I love (the writing) because of the work I love (the teaching). Because Pueblo is a town full of closed doors.

I would like to teach for a long time. But at some point I will need to not teach, so that I am able to write. It seems like my whole life is tipping toward this, driving me ahead toward an unknown point, at which I am doing this one thing, this only thing. The point at which I am unburdened by the closing of doors.

I can’t get this idea for a novel out of my head. It’s not clearly defined, but what keeps drawing me back to it is the idea that I could, through fiction, create some accountability for all the things that have happened this year. Perhaps I could tell stories that taste the same as the ones I can’t tell right now. Stories that carry the same weight without publicizing the burden. I don’t know.

But even that novel, I can’t write. It seems like I’m carrying too much to plan out a fictionalized account that simulates this pain. I’m overwhelmed sometimes. I’ve slept for 14 of the past 24 hours. But I am sitting, waiting and watching.

It feels a lot like holding my breath. It feels like waiting in the cold for the tow truck to come. It feels like being alone in a room with one skinny window where the light never shines through. All I’ve ever wanted to do is open the doors. One day maybe I will, but I can’t right now.

On Clarity

I spent this weekend at a training for instructional coaches (read: teachers’ teachers) that covered the art of coaching and how to be an effective coach for teachers. I am not a coach. I had no real reason to attend the training other than feeling like I needed to learn more, and do more to learn, and engage more actively with the opportunities I was being provided.

But somehow the past two days have been much more than that. They’ve been strangely transcendent, opened my eyes to a lot of things, and brought me to a sense of clarity I’ve rarely felt before.

Only a small portion of this experience was tied directly to the workshop. It focused at many times on self-reflection in thoughtful and intentional ways, which I think I needed. But the real catalyst for everything was the roommate I was assigned by Teach for America, which was paying for the cost of my attendance and hotel for the training. She just needed someone to stay with at the hotel and I, always the odd man out, fell straight into that box.

I was nervous about having a roommate because meeting people is awkward and deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes I hit it off immediately with people, but more often than not, I get a lot of dead air and empty space. My roommate immediately suggested we get dinner, and I was thrilled. I got to meet someone new in a nice way, and I didn’t have to spend my night alone!

At dinner we talked — I explained that I’d had some frustrations with my job and in interactions with my coworkers, but that I recognized I was taking a deficit mindset and needed to think about what I could do and acknowledge what is possible. My goal, and the goal I’d set for myself at the training, was to learn to communicate toward positive change in a way that would promote teamwork among colleagues, rather than a sense of opposition. My roommate told me: You see this bright, hopeful future for your kids. Your colleagues may not be there, they may never be there. You have to walk back and take them there with you — the same way as you recognize you have to do for your students.

In a lot of ways, I suppose, everything culminated in this weekend, this dinner, the immediate and clear realization of my own ability. My frustrations had been building for a while, and were beginning to be worked through as I realized I needed to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t. That came in tandem with the slow realization that if I wanted to make any kind of real difference, I couldn’t do it from an oppositional place. That would just mean that if I ever left, there would be fewer people left to keep doing the work toward that vision. I couldn’t do it alone — and I had to do it with the trust, love, and teamwork of the people I’d felt I was battling all year.

That in concert with my teacher evaluation, which indicated the same things: Molly, you need to learn how to work with people.

At dinner, my roommate said: “You’ve had an excellent career as a solo artist. You just don’t know how to be in a band yet. And that’s okay. You’re learning.”

The thing about coaching, I learned in this workshop, is that it’s in large part about guiding someone toward learning in a way that allows them to reflect on themselves and change their practice based on their new understandings. It’s a lot like therapy (of which I am a huge proponent). Your job isn’t to tell someone else what to do; it’s to work with them as a teammate and an ally to learn where they are able to improve and grow. Now, I’m not a coach, but my job is to partner with teachers — to be their teammate and ally. In trying to fight in the way that I knew for the change I believed in, I was also doing a poor job of being a teammate and ally.

A component of the training was also the idea that coaches self-reflect. It starts with the coach’s learning about their own growth. In one exercise, we were asked to write down and analyze a scenario of a teacher that coaches may have to work with. Since I was not a coach but the kind of teacher that coaches were coming to this training to talk about,  and I’d been thinking a lot about self-reflection and my own ability to change, I wrote my own situation down and considered how a coach might approach me. This was, I think, the big moment where the switch flipped for me.

I need to stop focusing on my colleagues and their interactions with me, I thought, and focus on myself and how I am interacting with them. I do not need to learn these coaching skills so that I can communicate with them right now — I need to learn these things in order to reflect on myself. I have to start with me.

All this time, I’ve been thinking about myself and wishing I had more support, wondering how I can make changes when things seem stagnant, angry that I didn’t feel like I had enough room to move. I never really considered taking a moment to sit still — to observe the world around me — to build relationships and come to love and believe in the people I worked with the way I so naturally was inclined to do with my students.

Students are not always ready to learn or try new things — they carry a lot of baggage — learning and changing is hard and scary — and adults are not much different. I know I have ideas I want to share, but to disregard others’ expertise and ideas because of my passion for my own carries with it a dangerous movement toward disregarding others in general, and treating them unkindly and unfairly.

There is absolutely an urgency to providing the best education possible for our students as soon as possible. But education has to be a long game too. Because if we don’t bring people with us on the journey, then nothing sustainable exists when we leave. So maybe I can’t do it all right now — that’s okay. Better to do it in partnership with the people around me in a way that becomes sustainable than to leave behind a wake if ever I go, a rut of dark water and air that will fill up upon my leaving and end in silence and stillness, as if I were never there.

The Dark & Sticky Web of Living

It is all connected.

At first, you don’t see it, and the hurt seems so senseless. How many times have you broken down behind the wheel of your car, unable to go home? You asked yourself, then, why this was happening. Why do I feel this way?

I go to the gym to try and cause myself pain in a way that means progress — but my mind won’t quiet. I push harder and only barely stave off falling under that thing again, that inky black soup that turns my head into white noise.

It starts here: in the dining room, heaving furniture miraculously up the narrow, tall staircase of the Victorian home. It starts with “I know it will be hard, but I can handle it.” It starts with the first day of training, breaking down in tears in front of everyone.

I was brave.

I came somewhere new, again.

Lately, I can’t stop thinking of my mother’s friend in Arizona, the one who was a space of comfort during my first year in Phoenix, who died a month before she planned to attend my graduation. I don’t know why she won’t leave my mind. Her house was so cool in the mornings, and I remember sitting under the shaking fan on the covered patio, watching the quail and jackrabbit in the backyard.

I can’t stop thinking about work: the girl who follows me around at the end of the school day, the boy who promised to mail me a live squid when he visits China (someday). The teacher who said, “If you need time off, ask for it. You can’t let a job destroy your mental health.”

But I’m okay. It’s not this–this job, you know, it’s not the thing. It’s something else, it’s the weight of something else. It’s not this job.

But it’s all connected.

When I go home, my roommate and I make dinner. We talk and wash the dishes together. We watch television. Sometimes I go to the gym. I go to dance class. I visit the library. I go to sleep at 10:30, unless I have put off something important.

This is not right: the world should not take on this dimension — or rather, this dimensionlessness. This “is this it?”-ness. I know what it means to lose interest in the things you love to do.

I am lucky. I have friends (three, four on a good day). I have people to see and places to talk to. I have students who promise to mail me cephalopods. They talk to me at the school dances and ask if I will eat lunch with them.

But it is 9 p.m. and I am alone in this three-bedroom house. In the gym I could not get my brain to quiet. It tells me stories I know are lies. I am not sure how to silence them.

I stayed at my mother’s friend’s house before college. When I visited the school, I slept on the couch with her two geriatric dogs. I miss her, but I am not sure what I am missing, or why it hurts so much now, almost a year since she has been gone.

Sometimes, my days at school are lonely. Sometimes, it feels like the whole world is against me. There are days when every single person at the school is off, and you can feel it, the cloud humming in the air — and it turns out it is not just my school but others too, and maybe all of this town, this town that is haunted by something with deep, historic roots, something that started in the steel mills and still lives in the downtown buildings.

Living on the empty force of my convictions alone is not always enough. This work wears you down. Some days, it is not enough to bring all the verve and quirkiness and love I can muster. Some days, I cannot muster. It’s not this job, I say to myself. It’s just how much it hurts to feel alone.

My mother’s friend lived in Sun City, Arizona. Now my friends laugh at me when I tell them I stayed there and that I like it. It is a community primarily made up of wealthy retirees. But the air was still cool as the sun was coming up, and it was so quiet and still, and you could just see the jackrabbit perched behind the big rock in the backyard. It was peaceful there.

In the Winter Storm

“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries.” – Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

This afternoon it’s raining as I am driving home from the dealership where my car was under repair. I leave the music off, listen for the ticking and whirring of the motor to tell me that the heart of my vehicle is running smoothly. This is the second time I have picked it up in a month.

My left eyebrow is still twitching. It has been since Friday, four days ago. I press things to it — my fingertips, the back of a spoon, the rounded bottom of a cold water bottle — to make it stop. It does not stop.

My left eyebrow is twitching as I walk through the front door of my friend’s house around lunchtime.

“This is the ghost house,” he says, gesturing to the left half of the home. It looks like a model home someone forgot about: a round wooden dining table laden with purposefully stacked plates; empty mugs atop wooden coasters carved from segments of tree branch; two sofas on either side of a silent fireplace; no appliances in the kitchen. “No one goes over here,” he says. The only bedroom I see other than his is empty, a mattress on a bedframe with no sheets.

Something about this small moment haunts me, the way things have the past few days. He calls for the cat that lives outside but it does not come. I stand in the doorway. His mattress is on the floor.

I am haunted by other images, too. The headlights of cars blurred into softness by the haze of fog and snow, casting round beams through the barrier on the northbound highway. It’s Sunday night and my brother is driving me south, back to normal life. It’s so dark, all I can see is the snow in the headlights and a small stretch of road, and the fuzzy glow of lights on the opposite side of the freeway.

On his drive to pick me up on Friday evening, rolling along the same stretch of road, he detoured around a traffic jam causing a half-hour delay in southbound traffic. The collision blocking the road, we learned later, was fatal, killing one of the drivers. I found these clinical, broad details from reading the news report. My brother knew, from driving past, that one of the cars was blue. In some way, he said, knowing that detail felt wrong — too intimate — like carrying a piece of someone’s trauma without ever having earned a place in it.

So there is the theme of vehicles, road noise, softness, damage. Also things seen in passing, emptiness, and ghosts. I keep hearing the song in my head: “Heartbreak, you know, drives a big black car. I was in the backseat, just minding my own.”

On Thursday night we left the concert and walked to a diner two blocks away. The air was frigid. As soon as we sat down, I ordered hot tea and forgot to brew it, leaving the mug to grow cold before I remembered to put the tea bag in.

On Friday morning I sat backstage in our school auditorium and cried every time the lights went down, knowing that was when my students, seated on risers onstage, would not see or hear me. It felt like the end of the world then.

Now it feels like a dull ache, like a deep vase full of black ink inserted neatly into my ribcage. I think I’m all right, but my eyebrow won’t stop twitching.

On Thursday night we walked back to the parking garage in almost silence. We hugged in the doorway to the elevator and said goodbye. I regret that now — saying goodbye. As if anyone has a right to leave someone else for good. To get away without a scratch.

On Sunday, I walk with him around the memorials in the park in front of the capitol building in Phoenix. I hold his hand and I look at all the scars. The air is chilly, cuts past my sweater. My flight back to Denver is in three hours. I can feel the twitch in my left eyebrow. I look for it in the mirror when we get back to his house.

On Sunday night I pull the poster down off my wall. I’m not sure what to keep, what to get rid of, and what to hide. I ask a friend to get my records back.

There is nowhere to go, nothing to do but feel it living inside me, radiating out of me, like an insidious parasite — a black mantis shrimp buried behind my collarbone. The dark is so absolute, all that is left are headlights and the lines of bright snow against the windshield. I imagine I will not spin out from this collision, but I am not too sure. I am not sure at all.

The Deep Hurt

It is hard not to think, in any crowded place, how easy it could be for someone to hurt people there en masse if they wanted to.

It is painful to realize that the compulsion to think these things comes from a recent history in the United States of mass shootings and attacks that are so innumerable that they cannot be counted on one hand or even two. It is painful to realize these thoughts are spurred by a drive toward self-preservation, the desire to have an escape plan.

I read the news and find myself thinking, half or more of the time, that as a whole, it might be okay that humanity self-sabotages at every turn. Not for individuals, who I very actively and vehemently seek the best and the least pain for — but for us as a species.

This is not a perspective shaped by my sadness alone. I carry it in my heart on even my best days. It did begin with pain, a small global hurt that crept in the moment I shut the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Humans are odd. We are creative and brilliant, telling stories and inventing wild gadgets that allow us to do so much more than any other creature on this planet. And we destroy everything we touch.

I was sitting on the couch, watching television and scrolling through Twitter, luxuriating in a day off school thanks to last night’s heavy snow, when I saw the single mention — offhanded, almost, compared to everything else filling my feed — of the shooting today at Fort Lauderdale airport in Florida. Five dead.

My reaction in light of these events is complex. Often the first reaction is to scroll past it. It is easy to deny terrible news on the face of it, or to actively choose not to engage with it. It is okay to choose not to engage with it when there is nothing you can do. But to disengage with these stories, or to feel that there is nothing we can do, in the long term — we say, over and over, that mass violence cannot be normalized. But for each time it happens, we cannot help but turn away and say to ourselves, “Here we go again.”

If we engage fully with each tragedy, we waste away. The pain runs so hard and so deep that we are incapable of living our every day.

There is no thesis statement here, no argument to be made. I do not know how to walk the line between disengaging so much I become useless and engaging so much I become useless. Burnout is real, yet above almost all else I value not giving up.

I Googled some more about the shooting. Found out what I could. I thought back to waking up that July morning in Denver to the news that twelve had been killed at the midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” a few miles away. I thought about how many times I’ve stood in airport security lines and felt like a sitting duck, waiting with so many others to get to the other side where I could feel safe. Then I put it down, and went back to watching television.

The story of humanity is one big messy saga of violence and pain and art and architecture and invention and love and joy and choosing to hurt each other because the hurt inside us is so intense we cannot help but enact it on someone else. I am watching television. I am watching the show “Community,” which I enjoy because I can put myself into the lives of these characters instead of my own. I savor every small piece of drama, every confused kiss between characters. Through them, I am allowed to feel safely. I am allowed to exist in a world where the real hurt of this one doesn’t penetrate. And at the times when it does, the hurt is deep, because these characters have somehow accessed the real-world hurt, the kind that comes from your best friend moving away and disappearing from your life, when it feels like it’s for good.

I have a boyfriend now and he lives in another state. He hasn’t texted me for several hours because he is at work, driving an ambulance. Almost every day he picks up patients who have attempted suicide. My roommate is leaving soon for most of the weekend and I will be alone in this house, alone in this small town I moved to so that I could try and make a difference to humanity as a whole which, as far as any of this goes, seems to just hover around a baseline amount of pain anyway that no one can really do anything on a large scale to change. It will always be hurting, this part of us that hurts. We will carry it no matter what the world looks like.

So it goes: the whole tapestry of the thing — the life lived and unlived — begins to tie itself in small knots and ravel up in ways that make sense and remain messy. It’s all cyclical, and the themes overlap and correlate, but not quite perfectly. Each moment of pain is a pinpoint of light that both lives by itself and exists as one point in a much larger plane.

I am a middle school teacher. I teach special education. I love my students so fiercely I would go to war for them if I had to. I carry these small pains every day when I watch one student get yelled at by a teacher who assumes that he is trying to be a troublemaker, or when another tells me he is terrified of getting kicked out of our school because he is struggling to maintain the 3.0 GPA the school requires to retain students. I know I cannot hold it all inside me, but I am not quite sure how not to. I scroll through Twitter and watch “Community” and try to let out the pain slowly, like releasing the air from a blood-pressure monitor.

In this whole strange interconnected web of pain, which runs thick and constant with the occasional point of good and lightness, I also think about the student who surprised me with a hug on the last day before winter break, or the student who turned to another and told her, “You can’t give up. Ms. Bilker won’t let you.” I do not know how to balance or measure these moments against the hard ones. I just carry them both and hope that in the long run, the good wins out.

Who are those who were killed today? What were their names? Were they young or old? Were they just getting ready to see their long-distance significant other, who they’d flown all that way to see? What about those who survived? Will they be terrified of airports? How many of them will consider themselves lucky? How many of them got to see the partner they’d flown across the country to visit?

It is like the Leonard Cohen song says: “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you heard — the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

Music is a good note to end on. It carries our hurt and heartache in ways words alone will never quite be able to reach.

Grasping for Okay

For my whole life I’ve grappled with the intensity of my emotions, the frenetic nature of what I carry in my heart and my desperate need to process verbally in order to manage it. I grew up receiving the message that I was different from everyone around me because of my feelings.

Over time I’ve been in and out of the mess. I’ve had happy years, fairly inconsequential years, years of pain and heartache. I’m best when I have a good support system and friends around me.

Recently, I moved to a new city and started a new job. I’m working as a teacher at a middle school. As a brand new teacher with Teach for America, I’m coming in with a lot of raw energy and readiness, a quickness to learn and a passion and desire for this work. Nonetheless, it still feels sometimes — often — as though I’m slogging through a foot and a half of mud and quicksand, sinking and stagnating in my mess. That may not be true in reality, but when you take my new situation coupled with the nature of my emotions and the standards I hold myself to, it sure feels that way inside my head.

Out here, without my support systems in the city I came from and the city I grew up in, I get overwhelmed easily. November was an especially rough month. And the week before last, my anxiety shot through the roof badly enough that I could barely drive myself home in my emotional state.

The next day I did something I haven’t done in seven years: took a day off school to take care of my health. Instead of staying in bed all day and watching television, I got up early, made myself breakfast, and began to figure out all the things I needed to do to bring my anxiety under control.

Since then, I’ve been more proactive than I perhaps have ever been about managing my anxiety. I wanted to write this post because I am proud of myself, but also as a way of sharing out some of the strategies that have worked for me to bring myself peace after so many weeks of pain.

The day I stayed home, I made a decision to immediately handle anything that was stressing me out, no matter how small. If something contributed to raising my anxiety, I observed it and came up with a strategy for it.

The first thing I did was rearrange all the furniture in my room, so that my desk wasn’t in a claustrophobic spot facing a flat white wall right in the corner next to my door. Since then, my bedroom has felt like one I can work in, and breathe in.

I didn’t do any homework, but I went through everything I needed to do and organized myself. I made a list of when I could get it all done, but I separated it into small enough chunks that it didn’t feel overwhelming. (As of Friday, I was all caught up on my homework, though I was three weeks behind on the day I started organizing myself.)

I told someone when he had phrased something in a way that I realized had triggered my anxiety to raise even a small amount.

When a friend asked if I wanted to go to the gym the next day, I went with her, despite the fact that it was my first time going to a gym ever, which did raise my anxiety level. But I got it under control and had a good time.

I also started journaling, a strategy provided by the therapist I had finally gotten a chance to see. For a week, I’ve kept a journal of at least one good thing that’s happened every day. I also journal about the tough thoughts and feelings and things I’m processing, but I keep that section separate from my “Today’s Good Thing” section, which lives by itself with one or two good things from that day.

This week, I went to yoga on Monday night even though the person who was going to go with me canceled, so I had to go by myself. It was nonetheless lovely, though I did fall asleep on the floor during the rest portion of the class.

I had a really tough day on Tuesday, so I gave myself a gift I’ve never given myself: I left my work at work and went home and watched television all night without guilt about all the things I “should have” been doing.

Today, I’ve had a couple small victories in managing my anxiety, too. First, when I was feeling anxious that someone might be upset with me, I asked them directly, explaining that I was feeling that way as a result of anxiety. That way, instead of trying to assuage my anxiety by telling myself they weren’t upset, I was able to just put it to rest immediately.

Second, when my anxiety level remained high, I took to Google, realized it might be related to the fact that I hadn’t eaten dinner, and made myself a sandwich. This is a particular victory for me because I have a lot of difficulty preparing myself meals. I very, very often go without dinner because I get tired and/or anxious and don’t feel that I have the motivation or energy to prepare food for myself. This is the first time I’ve ever considered that my anxiety level might be tied to that behavior and made the effort to manage it.

All of this may feel very small, self-absorbed, or inconsequential. But this past week and even now, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like my fear and pain and negative emotions are in charge of me. I know they’re there, and I know where they sit inside me, but the moment I feel them start, I’m there to handle them, instead of letting them build out of control.

More than anything I am truly learning what it means to allow myself to be. To cut myself slack, or give myself freedom to be okay. It means deciding — actively deciding, not passively deciding through inaction — that it’s okay to put the overachiever down for a day and just be quiet with myself. It means knowing that I can go to the people around me and explain the nature of my anxiety to them in order to deal with the things that might set it off. It means treating my own feelings as if they are real and valid.

For once I know that there is an okay out there for me somewhere. It does not come in magically fixing or changing myself. It is instead in learning to live with myself, and in that way, just learning to live.

A Personal Post, in the form of a poem

It’s snowing.
You’re alone.

You fell for someone who lives
where you once did,
shares your history only by the
convenience of place.

You drove home through waves
of white confetti,
flickering headlights,
a sputtering engine.

Out there, anything could have happened.
The streetlights forget,
as do your tires
and your heart palpitations:

Cobwebs have already formed.
You are not waiting for rebirth,
but rather the moment
when you look out the window
and the bones of the trees feel like boxes,
and your heart forgives you.

The Case for Empathy

I think an awful lot about the idea of showing love to our oppressors and those who tend to oppose us most. The concept’s become a point of contention in what I’ll call the social justice community — the community of those who are engaged in dialogue around oppression and privilege — and the conversation has ramped up since (of course) the election.

I have said very little on the matter because I am afraid of the kind of backlash my words will receive. It can be scary to align with social justice, and to be passionate about the fight for it, and not agree with every single idea that’s being discussed. There’s a sort of viciousness that exists in this community, and it’s scary to stand up in the face of it. But as I said in my last post, I am no longer allowing myself to be silent, to walk around guilty and complicit.

Here is the argument:  Shouting down those who disagree with you, be those disagreements large or small, will make them disagree with you more.

It’s very simple, and it’s not a matter of whether a person’s perspectives are abhorrent or self-defensive or riddled with logical holes. It’s not a matter of who has more privilege in the situation and who has the responsibility to listen and learn. It’s a matter of human psychology. If someone is yelled at for the things they say or think, not only are they less likely to listen to the person shouting, they’re more likely to entrench and start reinforcing their own opinions.

Some people will take cool down time, maybe undig their heels a little, come back to what’s been said and think about it. But, due to a lack of capacity for self-reflection (which people can’t really be blamed for; they were never given the right tools in the first place), many people won’t — and not only will they dig their heels in deeper, but they’ll turn to the people in their lives, their families, friends, coworkers, and children, and begin to discuss why, in their view, they were right and the person they were arguing with was wrong.

There is the very valid argument that it is not the responsibility of the oppressed person to be nice to their oppressors. It’s the idea that someone is standing on top of your head, and you’re not going to say, “Hey, excuse me, could you please get off my head?” They’re hurting you badly and making it impossible for you to move. This is not the time for politeness that they will probably just brush off anyway. It could be best to just push them violently off your head.

But it’s not a perfect analogy. In some ways, it nullifies the actual existence of the person doing the standing. They may not understand that their standing on your head is causing you pain, or they’ve heard that it is but they can’t actually see that they are, in fact, doing it. In that case, shouting at them to get off may not in fact actually make them move.

Pushing them violently off could hurt them, and while their pain from that can’t and shouldn’t be weighed against the pain you were feeling while they were, you know, standing on your head, they might nevertheless be hurt and not understand why you were doing this to them. They might get some of their friends to help them stand back up so they can get back on your head, all along wondering why you’ve been so angry with them.

If you push them off and kill them, a bunch of others might come along and pile on top of your head on purpose because you’ve ended the life of someone they love. All the while you’re frustrated, saying what seems obvious: “But you should be able to see that standing on someone’s head is not okay.”

But oppressive behaviors are learned behaviors. Even those who have unlearned as many as they can will still be complicit as long as they have privilege. Helping people unlearn those behaviors helps, and it can be done by anyone when we can start by validating others’ pain. And I want to emphasize that pain and life experiences can be validated without validating beliefs.

Back to human psychology: People are most likely to respond well to us when we listen and validate where they are coming from. Again, it’s not a matter of whether what they actually believe is morally reprehensible to us — it’s a matter of how our brains work and how we function on an emotional level.

Here’s excerpts from an apt Twitter thread that covers the issue from the perspective of someone whose mind did eventually change:

The vast majority of people want to do good by others. There are many who fail because they were never given the tools to do so. For so many of those people, the pain in that failure runs deep, in ways they aren’t aware of. Repression is a real problem, and people who lash out the most are often those who carry the most dissonance and pain inside. Shouting at them makes them recede further away.

And deciding to cut people whose perspectives we see as fundamentally terrible out of our lives doesn’t stop those people from existing, and teaching those perspectives to others around them, to their children. That, perhaps, is the biggest critique I hold on the dialogue I so often see in the social justice community — it ignores the actual existence of the people who believe in and do these things that harm us so, so deeply.

A question arises for people when they feel they’re being shouted at, especially in regards to those who are interested in social justice and who do want to do right by this community.

“If I am not welcome here: Where, then, should I go? What, then, should I do?”

The options are to become silent and, in being silent, fail to promote social justice; or to return to or find a community where they feel their voices can be heard without fear of backlash and judgment. Either option perpetuates oppression.

All of this has happened to me, or to people I know. It continues to happen for me. I should not have to be afraid of those I seek to stand in solidarity with; and those who seek to stand in solidarity with me should not have to be afraid of me.

Here’s another apt Tweet on this, linking to an article that gave perspectives from social scientists and research professionals regarding how social movements are successful.


It is valid and reasonable to be angry, and hurt, and to want to engage with others in ways that hold them completely accountable for the things they do that cause that pain. But we will continue to isolate others and push them away if we do not acknowledge their pain — even if it seems trivial in the face of ours. Isolating others this way can factor into things occurring such as backlash against “political correctness,” people making fun of trigger warnings and safe spaces, and the election of Donald Trump (recognizing, of course, that he did not win the popular vote).

It starts with empathy, validation, listening. It starts with trust and love. It doesn’t mean winning everyone over all the time. But it means giving them a chance to exist, and going from there.

Note: I do not discount the validity of violent resistance when necessary. If someone is standing on your head causing you pain, that’s one thing. If they’re pressing a power drill into your scalp, grinning and prepared to split your skull wide open, that’s another. I do believe, though, that violence and aggression is not the only response, and certainly not the most valid one in the majority of situations.