When I tell people I teach in Oak Cliff, I am frequently met with the same response. “You’re so brave,” they say. Occasionally they will add some variation of, “It must be so tough to teach those kids.”
It is an infuriating response. These are children whom I love, and this person who has never met them or heard a single story about them already assumes they are tough to teach, difficult to reach, and easy to label. And—amidst these kids’ impossibility—I am a brave soul for choosing to teach them.
Over the years I have made varied responses to this statement, everything from passive silence (I am ashamed to admit) to passive-aggressive quips like, “Isn’t every teacher anywhere brave?” Time and again, I excuse myself from calling them out on the implicit racism within their pseudo-compliment.
Teachers are not brave based on where they teach. My children in Oak Cliff are just as good and bad as the children I grew up with in a small town in the suburbs that has no reputation, just as good and bad as the children who grow up in the “rich” neighborhood 15 minutes up the highway.
I don’t mean to be a reductionist, because certainly not all children are dealing with the same issues. But my point is not about what children are going through, but how “teachable” different children appear to be to people. And to that point, children are children, regardless of differences. They have curious minds, breakable hearts, and a propensity for making mistakes. Adults are the same, albeit many tend to lose their curiosity.
Teachers are also not brave just for being teachers, as my passive-aggressive quip once suggested. In my three years in education, I have met teachers from many different schools. Unsurprisingly, some teach for the money, some look at their kids and only feel malice, and some push packets onto desks every day and tell the kids not to bother them.
It’s a funny thing about the world that we have failed to grasp: being in a profession doesn’t make you good at it. There are bad teachers, bad police officers, bad mechanics, and so on. Professional labels are not as simple as the Village People made them out to be. Our world would benefit from learning not to treat a critique of a profession as a damnation of everyone who works within it.
So what makes a person brave?
Hollywood has a dangerous model. The most successful movies are always the ones where superheroes fight evil on larger scales with every sequel, or extraordinary humans survive the escape of dinosaurs in theme parks or intergalactic oppressive regimes. How many of our professions call for us to pull off such feats? (Seriously, if you’re dealing with escaped dinosaurs or intergalactic oppressive regimes, please reach out with more info.)
Even the movies about teachers romanticize the classroom, building up big breakthroughs of kids who once seemed unreachable. They play like highlight reels of teachers’ lives, when more often than not my life as a teacher would end up in very unentertaining deleted scenes and bloopers.
At their best, these movies can inspire us to live braver in our daily lives. But when we get caught believing too heavily in the Hollywood narrative, we can easily feel like something is wrong with our lives. A bad day turns into a bad year. A relationship didn’t turn around like it does in the rom-coms. The student standing up for himself at school didn’t transform into the hero getting back-pats and high-fives in the hallway. Where is the happy ending? The deus ex machina?
Charles Bukowski has a poem about the athletes who aren’t the all-stars, and ends with this reflection:
there are times when we should
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
Perhaps bravery has less to do with who we are (or what we call ourselves), and more to do with our daily choices.
Bravery is the single mom or dad who wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning to make lunch for their child before working a 10-hour shift.
Bravery is the kid who is called names every day, and looks at himself in the mirror and knows better. Or, on days when he doesn’t know better, chooses to love others anyway.
Bravery is the woman afraid to speak in front of crowds, who stands up and inspires audiences of hundreds and thousands (or even just ten).
Bravery is the social justice advocate who continues to fight for the oppressed even as their personal character is attacked for attempting to help the hurting.
Bravery is anyone who wakes up in this world today and decides to spread positivity amidst all of the negative energy emitted by the human population at large.
Bravery is more often found in the small details of the day than the larger victories that only come around a few times in a lifespan.
Another dangerous definition of bravery is the phrase “putting on a brave face,” often advised when people should hold in their negative emotions to pretend they are fine. But what if the bravest face is the one that cries in front of others in a moment of vulnerability so rare in our modern age? What if the bravest face is the one dealing with depression, and openly talks about the experience of living with a terrifying chemical imbalance that gets stigmatized by society?
We need to redefine the brave face. It’s not the one smiling through the pain, swallowing sadness to look ‘presentable’. The brave face is feeling what it feels, and sharing it with others. Let’s not call people brave for tucking their true emotions away.
Let’s call people brave when they wake up on their worst day and still go to work. Let’s call people brave when for struggling with this beautiful, broken thing we call life. And let’s call ourselves brave when—having failed—we look in the mirror and still call ourselves loved.
Don’t make bravery synonymous with a certain profession, with Hollywood heroism, or with concealed feelings. Bravery is, simply, making the effort to live well in spite of the overwhelming amount of reasons not to.
If we start to see bravery as a daily choice to make the most of our smallest and most unrecognized moments, then maybe we can look at each other and say, “You’re so brave,” and it will finally mean what it should.
Bukowski, Charles. (2007). “Bruckner.” The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951-1993. New York, NY: HarperCollins.