The Reason For My Silence

I find myself feeling rather lost these days, and ever, ever more quiet.

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause, though there are a myriad of possibilities. I’m not exactly inspired by my job transition and am feeling a sore lack of purpose. I’ve gone off my anti-depressant and anxiety medication to get ready for trying to have a baby. I’m overwhelmed by tragic world news and increasingly despondent over everything happening here in the U.S.

Perhaps most of all, I’m starting to really awaken to my own whiteness — all that comes with being born with this skin in this country — and I’m my feeling lost as to where I fit into these larger conversations.

I have things to say, experiences to share, but I am poignantly aware of my social position and how that may qualify my voice. I am so very lucky in so many ways: I have a good job, I have a good marriage, I have a nice place to live, and I enjoy all the benefits of being white in America. I look around everyday and am humbled by people who have it far worse than I do.

How does that taint my own perception of life? How does it negate my experiences of suffering? How might it disqualify me to talk about struggle?

The last thing I want to do is be another self-indulgent, privileged voice when there are so many others who deserve to be heard.

I can’t tell you how many posts I have written and deleted.

Where does my voice fit in? Or is it more of a service to just stay quiet?

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Why “Walking Up” Isn’t Enough

In the days since the National Walkout – a morning of school protests planned and executed by students around the country (including my own) – I have heard a lot of talk about “walking up” vs. walking out. People who advocate this “walk up” movement seem to imply that instead of protesting the slaughter of their peers, teens should be using their time to befriend the less popular students in their schools.

There are several things I find problematic with this statement:

For one, there is no reason I can see that students cannot do both. I can find no conflict in both “walking up” and walking out. It concerns me because it seems like an attempt to silence the brave students who are standing up and speaking out to stop a national problem that directly (and horrifically) affects them.

For another, it implies that saying hello to a troubled kid is going to magically change the culture of a school. It seems to argue that making more of an effort to acknowledge a marginalized child is going to stop bullying.

Let me be clear: I support “walking up.” I support saying hello. I support being a friend.

There is no teacher in the world that I can imagine who would be against children being kinder to each other.

But bullying, real bullying, is an issue that runs far deeper than a “hello” in the hallway. Bullying is a systemic problem. It is a school problem. It is endemic to the culture of an institution, and it cannot be solved but on that basis. It doesn’t end when one student says howdy to another. It ends when schools proactively and consistently create safe spaces for students to be different and foster tolerance and acceptance via guided conversation on a daily basis.

In my small middle school, we have 18 students. We have some quirky kids, some introverted kids, some wild and zany kids, some “cool” kids. Each morning, we spend 15 minutes in community meeting, touching base with each other, offering appreciation, solving problems, and sharing about our lives. Does everyone get along? Certainly not. But when conflicts arise, we mentor our kids by facilitating conversation. We teach them on a daily basis that you do not have to like every person in order to treat them with respect. We work with our students side-by-side to foster real, honest, productive communication.

Yes, sometimes it’s exhausting, and sometimes it feels non-stop, but it is so worth it, because it is so necessary. It is what I consider the true work of my profession, far beyond instruction in reading strategies and math theorems.

I do not blame larger schools or their teachers for their inability to foster this kind of dialogue, but I do blame our education system as a whole. You cannot pack 3,000 kids into a building with 100 adults and expect those adults to foster communication or teach real-world interpersonal skills. The set-up precludes the work.

Let me say that again, for the people in the back: I do not blame the teachers or the schools for being challenged in doing this critical work. It’s incredibly difficult given the organization of these places of learning. But I do blame the institution of education in our country for failing to recognize that the period of development in which we send our kids to school is critical for far more than just reading and writing.

If we want to stop bullying, we need to mentor our kids. And if we want to mentor our kids, we need more than 35 minutes a day with a 30:1 ratio. There is far greater reform to be done in education in America, and it needs to happen at the top just as much as it is happening at the bottom.

By all means, tell your kids to walk up and say hi to someone today. It’s a beautiful gesture, and it may mean a lot to an individual.

But do not expect that that alone will stop bullying. Do not expect it to stop a school shooting.

Most of all, do not pretend that by lauding anti-bullying ideals you can also ignore gun control issues.

Our kids deserve better than that.

17 Reasons for Hope

Today, my 17 students joined the national walkout at 10 am. They spent 17 minutes walking in silence to honor the Parkland shooting victims. They planned it last minute (aka this morning), but they executed it with the utmost dignity. I went with them to ensure their safety while they paced around the blocks surrounding our school, and I honestly didn’t think it would be that big of a deal.

I was wrong.

I cried.

More than once.

Why?

Because as I walked behind my 17 students, I couldn’t help but feel both a surge of pride and a crushing wave of grief. Pride, because these young people could sense and empathize with the gravity of the situation. Because they cared enough to want to participate. Because even the silliest of kids held it together for this tribute that they organized. Grief, because these are my kids. And I got to watch them walk back into school.

There are teachers who lost their 17 students. There are parents who lost their 17 children. There are 17 lives that were tragically cut short, and those are 17 out of thousands more.

Feeling encouraged, I made the mistake of looking up the hashtag #nationalwalkoutday. I expected to be inspired, to be further impressed with the acts of this courageous generation, to feel more pride and more hope. Instead, I stumbled into an unexpected vortex of trolling negativity. People were blaming students like mine, accusing them of being sheltered, of being manipulated, of being dumb. People were twisting an act of courage into an act of ignorance.

Let’s get one thing straight: I have 17 kids who better understand the state of this country than many of the adults who got us here. I have 17 kids who know when enough is enough, who can tell you what is acceptable and what is not. I have 17 kids who will go to high school in the next two years, and who I worry about more than I should have to.

My students are my reason for pushing through the day, for putting my all into my job, for caring about the future.

My students are my 17 reasons for hope. I hope they can be yours, too.

Trading Creativity for Criticism: How do I go back?

If you were to ask me what I have always wanted the most (in a really tangible sense, not in the “to be happy and healthy” sense), I would say that I’ve always wanted to write a book. When I was a child, writing filled me with an incomparable, immeasurable amount of joy. I rarely even took much time to read what I had written; it was just the process, the act of creation, that enamored me.

I could jump into the flow at a moment’s notice; now I need binoculars to even find the river.

In some sense, I blame my education. I was lucky to study English literature in college, but it turned me into an editor, an analyzer. I developed a voice of critique, not creation, and that critic has followed me ever since. I gave away my bliss, paper by paper, book by book. I chose the safe route of reader, and I abandoned the dangerous but thrilling role of writer.

When I have down time, I can feel the pull to write, this subtle twinge deep in the center of my being, but my mind comes up with so many excuses. There’s not enough time; there’s too much time; I’m not sure where to start; I’ll just do something else first. I tell myself that I’m putting it off, but the truth is that I know I’m not really planning to go back.

Why is it that the things we want the most are also the ones we are most afraid of?

For me, the answer is that success is undefined, and that is equally as terrifying as failure. I am afraid that when I sit down to write, I won’t be able to. But I am just as afraid that I will, that I’ll love it, that I’ll feel successful, and then I won’t know what to do with it. What if I actually write my book? What then? Is it a waste of time and energy to write something that no one else will ever read? A writer writes for an audience, but who will my audience be? And am I ready to lay my soul bare for someone else to examine? I know the role of critic, and the truth is that I’m afraid to be its victim. So instead, I victimize myself before anyone else can; I critique the work I’ve not yet even written in order to keep it hidden.

I say this because you, too, may want something you are afraid of getting. I imagine we all do in some shape or form. And perhaps just expressing our desires can be the first step. Perhaps by sharing our deepest fears, we can shake them loose. Perhaps the more we face them, the closer we can get to banishing them.

One tenuous step forward, no looking back.

The Cost of My “Me Too”

When I first saw the “me too” facebook request pop up on my news feed, I had a feeling it would go viral. But me, I opted to pass. Asking sexual assault and harassment victims to identify themselves on public social media didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t give much thought as to why — and since, many have eloquently explained the problems with asking victims to prove themselves to perpetrators — I just decided not to do it.

As I saw a few more “me too” posts pop up, I briefly wondered about my reticence. But not too much. I kept on scrolling.

It was not until a flood of “me too”s took over my newsfeed that I considered adding my name. And eventually, I did. But the truth is that I hadn’t wanted to think about it. I knew that adding my own “me too” meant shining a light on parts of my life I preferred not to think about. But I got caught up in the current of empathy, and I jumped in. And since then, I have spent a lot of time thinking.

I’ve been thinking about getting warnings from my mother as early as I can remember that yes, many men were good, but also some men were bad, and sometimes it was hard to tell the difference, so I should always be assessing and reacting, protecting myself. I’ve been thinking about how I carry my keys as a weapon when I walk at night alone. I’ve been thinking about how I always sit in the front car of the train after dark, just in case something happens so the conductor can hear me and get help. I’ve been thinking about the countless times I smiled politely or offered a demure “thank you” to an unwanted advance, because I was more afraid of the bitter threats that could follow my honest reaction. I’ve been thinking about the times I had to protect my own middle school students from being hit on by older men. I’ve been thinking about how I could not fall asleep for three nights following my own sexual assault, and how at one point I was sure I’d never think about anything else.

I’ve been doing all of this thinking, and I’ve also been realizing that, for the most part, I’ve always just accepted this as the way things are

And then last night on the bus on my commute home, a man ran his foot up and down my leg in a way that immediately set off all my alarms. I waited a beat. Maybe it was an accident. He did it again. I looked at him and he looked back, and I immediately moved away as far as I could, but I felt gross. I felt violated. And really, I didn’t even look good. I was tired from work, my makeup had all but worn off, my hair was a mess. I was wearing a long sweater over a high-necked t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans with sneakers. I could not have looked any less like I was asking for attention. I wasn’t asking for attention.

In fact, since I hit puberty, I have largely lived my life avoiding male attention. I’ve cut my hair short. I’ve worn long hem lines and high neck lines. I’ve practiced a face that conveys disinterest and distance. I’ve done most of this unconsciously as a reaction to my environment, and I’ve done a few things on purpose as a response to my experiences.

But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.

Because even with my dumpy clothes and my short hair and my un-made face and my tired eyes, even with my disinterested look and my nose in a book, some man can still feel it’s in his right to violate my space, to make me feel unsafe.

Clearly, it’s really not about me.

And yet, that “me too” is mine to carry.

The Braver We Are

Here’s the thing: I’ve been thinking about how to write this post for a long time. I’ve played with messages, metaphors, spins. I’ve written, and I’ve erased. I couldn’t figure out how to tell this, or even if to tell it. Nothing about my story is unique. Nothing is particularly exciting or groundbreaking. I won’t say anything that hasn’t been said before.

But none of that matters.

Because in this case, it’s quantity over quality. In this case, it only matters that I add my voice to the conversation. It only matters that I raise my hand and say, “Me, too.”

So I’m abandoning my usual need for perfection in order to simply send the message.

Our biggest enemy is silence. Silence leads to the illusion of solitude, of singularity, and this inevitably leads to loneliness. Loneliness leads to hopelessness, which leads to desperation, and the land of desperation is where we lose people every day. People end up in desperation because the stretch of time in front of them feels utterly unbearable when they believe they’re going to do it alone.

I know that from the outside, I look like I pretty much have it together. I’ve always had that problem. (Okay, it’s not a problem per se, but it has always prevented me from being transparent.) I’ve got a solid job, a wonderful husband, great friends, etc. I’m reasonably attractive, and I have some talents. I can even be extroverted when the mood strikes and come off as fairly sociable.

What is far less apparent when you look at me is the years upon years of internal warfare that I’ve waged. For pretty much as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from persistent and sometimes severe depression and anxiety, even as a young child. As a teen, this presented in damaging and dangerous issues like self-harm and suicidal ideation. As a young adult, it looked like self-medication and denial. As a 30-something, I’ve finally learned to turn to therapy, spirituality, and medication to help tame my mental-illness-laden genetics. I could tell you the stories, and perhaps one day I will, but really none of that matters. What matters is that though I may never be fixed, I am always fighting.

It matters that I tell you this because silence has been my enemy for a long time, and I know it is a demon that haunts too many other people. It matters because at some point, I know you reach your tipping point. You have to make a choice between continuing like this, or… not. My hope is that by coming out of the shadow of my own struggles, I can help shed light into someone else’s darkness. I know you can only live under the thumb of misery for so long before you throw your hands up and surrender. But there’s a lot to be had here, experienced and felt and given and shared, and I think it’s worth the fight.

The harder we fight, the braver we are. The braver we are, the happier we will be.