That’s Progress

Growing up, I remember when my friends would tell me that they got paid $10 per A on their report cards. Some of their parents paid them on a scale, and even doled out $5 per B. Some of my friends were stacking up $80 every grading cycle, and I envied them for it. They were getting rewarded for something my parents expected of me.

Granted, I got paid too. But I only got $10 for the whole report card, and all 8 grades had to be As. I recognize that many children are not paid for their grades, and I’m speaking from a place of privilege as well, but I never understood the difference in pay scale that existed between my peers and me.

Glass 8% Empty
Sometimes I am a glass 8% empty person.

My parents always expected me to do my best, and in their definition of ‘best’, my best had to be the best. If I came home with a 92, my parents would inquire about the missing 8 points. Glass 8% empty kind of thing.

I’m not saying any of this to dog on them (hi, Mom and Dad). My parents are the most supportive people in my life, and they tell me they are proud of me on a weekly basis. Sometimes I feel they tell me they are proud of me just for breathing (sometimes that is enough).

It is also because they pushed me so hard that I am the person I am. I am eternally grateful for their blend of immense love and high standards. Not every child gets that.

When it comes to my life and my work as an adult, I often remember to keep my parents’ high bar, but just as often I forget to hold their deep pride for me. No one is harder on me than me. I beat myself up far easier than I celebrate myself. If I succeed in something, I feel the briefest sense of pride before I ask, “What’s next?” If I fail, however, I welcome an extended sense of shame that I will hold until another one comes along. 

Next week my students are taking their state-mandated exam in English. As we prepare for the test, I relate to the anxiety they feel over these test scores that mean very little. I remember when I got my first B in college, and the resulting fear that I had lost some self-worth I would never get back.

I do my best to encourage them while giving them results on reviews and assessments and retests. If I give them a grade that is less than stellar, I try to remind them that this and any other number have no correlation to their value as humans. 

But it is hard for us humans to not overburden ourselves with the weight of numbers or labels that society has told us are important. We are categorized in innumerable ways that mean almost nothing but are treated as everything. Who has truly learned how to overcome these boxes we are told to shrink and squeeze into?

I can write and talk about how state tests are unfair and biased, but I would be lying if I said the scores don’t worry me. If my kids don’t pass, they have to take the test again. If they don’t pass the second time, they go to summer school and take it a third time. Those promises I make about the test score not defining their value start to fall on deaf ears as self-doubt mounts in their minds.

Where is the peace for our troubled minds?

One of the ways I am preparing my students for the test is by having them look at the score for each individual standard from their benchmark. They may have received a 40 on the test, but perhaps they scored an 80 on poetry. That is something to celebrate. Now they can focus on nonfiction, where maybe their score brought the overall average down. It is a great way to take the pressure away from one big number to focus on small, attainable goals.

Last week a student brought a reassessment to me so that I could grade it and give him feedback. He scored a 40 on the assignment. I handed it back to him, and his shoulders slumped as he started to walk away. That shoulder slump resonated deeply with me.

That's progress.But then, something else happened that caught me by surprise. Halfway through his first step back to his desk, he stopped, turned to me, and said, “Wait a minute. I got a 0 for this standard on the benchmark. This is a 40. That’s progress.” His shoulders were now straight, a smile coming across his face.

We high-fived, and he walked with pride back to his seat. It hit me hard. He hadn’t passed. He hadn’t reached his goal. But he got a little closer.

There are things I do as a teacher that will never show up on paper, and yet they are the greatest things I will ever do for my kids. I have mentored boys to speak with respect to girls and not make homophobic comments to one another. I have talked girls and boys through drama and breakups and all of the hard parts about being a middle schooler. I have spent time off taking my students to see movies and events that I knew would have a meaningful impact on them. I have loved them deeper than I thought possible.

Trust me when I say that I do not mention these moments as boasts. I forget that I do them all the time. I focus on the wrong parts of my day and remember my worst moments far more than my best. 

They are moments that do not return an immediate impact. Sometimes I feel like I have repeated the same sentence to the same student for two years now, with no visible effect. But every day, every time I do the real work of a teacher, I need to remember that I am getting a little closer. When a student acts just a little bit better than yesterday, I need to say, “That’s progress,” and hold my shoulders high. There are small moments of progress every day, if we would just choose to look for them instead of moments of failure.

You > Test Scores

This year I started a project to send my poetry and music to anyone who was interested in reading, listening, and being my pen pal. One of my dear friends purchased a set of my greeting cards for her students to give to them before their state test. Yesterday I received a package from her that included one of the greeting cards, returned to me. The card reads, “You > Test Scores.” She reminded me that I am more than test scores too. She knows my heart, even though she is miles away. I am grateful for her.

Perhaps I am not writing you a personal letter, but I want you to know that you are more than test scores, more than labels, more than anything anyone could ever put into words. You are valuable beyond measure, and someone is immensely proud of you. If you can’t think of someone who is, perhaps that person should be you. 

Your day should not be measured by the moments you failed; it should be measured by the times you picked yourself up and kept going. Your life should be measured by the immeasurable impact you have on others. It won’t come back as a number. It might not come back at all. The only indicator you will have is in the moments you remind yourself or someone else reminds you that you are worth so much more than what is expressible.

Earlier today, I texted my mom to tell her I will be performing my first hometown show in a few weeks. She texted back, “Proud of you!” with a lot of emojis. My first thought was, “Why?” I haven’t done anything yet. I might mess up. But then, I stopped myself mid-thought, turned around, and smiled. She was proud, and that was enough. I’m a little closer to something, and it feels like home.

Introducing The 27th Line Cards

27th Line CardsAt the end of March, my students will take the Reading STAAR, the statewide standardized test for Texas. As you’ll recall from last year, I am not a proponent of standardized testing. I wrote an essay for my students entitled “The 27th line,” to let them know that they are worth more than test scores and that their value is not numerical.

This year, I am giving a specially designed card to each of my students with a handwritten note inside. I will hand them out the day before the test, so that each kid walks into the test knowing that their teacher loves them no matter what.

I have made these cards available at a very affordable price on my Etsy page. If you would like to purchase one (or 100) for a special student or students in your life, please help me in telling kids statewide, nationwide, and worldwide that a test says a lot less about a person than we have come to believe.

If you are like me, and you occasionally err on the side of rebellion, you might want to send a card to other people who might need to hear the message of the 27th line. I will personally be writing one and inviting any interested students to write one with me, as we whistle the Hunger Games theme.

Pricing:

1 Card/$2

10 Cards/$10

20 Cards/$15

50 Cards/$30

Here are the cards:

You > Test Scores The 27th Line You Cannot Be Named None of the Above

The Strength in Sorry

When I started teaching, a lot of friends and family members expected me to be lax in the discipline department. I am rarely visibly fazed, and so laidback I am practically reclining. Half of me feared that I would turn out to be like the unsuspecting substitutes my friends and I used to run all over during high school.

We were all wrong about me, though. My students know that I am easy to joke with, but I also run a tight ship. If one student so much as utters a sound during the first five minutes of class, all twenty students return to the hallway to start the day over. It is in that space that I have given many of my greatest speeches, including one that started with this humble brag: “The great thing about me is that I don’t give up. And if you want to keep testing your limits, that’s fine. I’ve yet to back down. Try harder. I wish you all the luck in the world.” Some of my non-troublemaking students really appreciate my ability to make these speeches up on the spot, and will smile knowingly throughout my ramblings.

Despite my strictness, office referrals are not difficult to avoid in my classroom. I believe in doing my best to settle discipline with a student on my own, in order to maintain positive relationships and develop solid conflict-resolution skills. Most of classroom management comes down to being able to talk to a student person-to-person, and not escalating a situation beyond what is necessary.

My smarter students know that, after receiving a reprimand, the only thing required to settle a small dispute is to say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. That’s it. I don’t need a speech. I don’t need a grand gesture of sorrow. I definitely don’t need an excuse. I just need an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing, and then we can move on.

The problem with our world at large is that we do not live in an age of apologies. Our culture runs a lot of self-celebrating mantras up the flagpole: No Regrets, No Apologies, Do You, etc. In each of these precepts, the idea is that whatever you believe to be right is right, and everything else is just collateral damage.

I’m not sure what the hip lingo is these days, but not long ago the trendy joke to make was, “Sorry I’m not sorry.” It was an insult pinned on stereotyped sorority girls, but a conviction indirectly aimed at my entire generation. For actions we are expected to feel guilt for, we “regretfully” decline any remorse or even an ounce of self-reflection. 

A classic line I often see in the media and in real life is the non-apology: “I’m sorry you took it that way.” This is a poorly veiled way of saying, “I have done nothing wrong, but I am sorry that you’re so sensitive you took my actions offensively. It must suck to take everything so seriously.”

The problem with saying sorry in the modern age is that we’ve begun to confuse apologies with weakness. If someone realizes they are in the wrong, and takes responsibility for it, they must be weak. It goes against everything our current culture teaches us about saying what we feel with zero concern for how others take it. A few weeks ago I posted a blog about being careful with our words in relation to certain media events, and I was called some pretty vulgar names by complete strangers. The irony was not lost on me, though I’m afraid it was on them.

I recently read Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect,” and something she said struck me. She defined character as “the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life,” which, she explains, is “the source from which self-respect springs.”Joan Didion's Definition of Self-Respect

Our world does not have a lot of character, at least by these standards. This morning my pastor asked us to think about the people we haven’t apologized to, and I felt some strong conviction. I have a running list in my head of people I owe apologies, but I have not even attempted to pay those dues.

I carry that guilt around and let it weigh me down, and I think I am starting to understand what Didion meant by self-respect. If I had more of it, I would have owned up to my mistakes the minute I made them. Or at least I would’ve owned up to them by now. If our culture had real self-respect, we wouldn’t be so miserable with ourselves as we pretend to live freely and without regret.

A few weeks ago a student confided an intimate secret in another student, and that student let the secret slip almost instantly. As the rumor mill goes in middle school, the secret reached everyone’s ears by the end of the lunch period. After school, the student with the secret came to my room to talk to me about the day’s events. As she expressed her hurt over having her secret revealed, the other student walked in.

This ought to be good, I thought.

The student asked if he could sit with us, and I motioned him to the open desk at our table. After taking his seat, he sighed heavily, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I told one person, and they told everyone, and I see now that I was wrong for telling anyone in the first place. Please forgive me.”

“Why should I?” the girl implored. “You broke my trust. How could I ever give it back to you?”

The apologizer looked to me, as if I had some magic solution. “Mr. Taylor, can you help me?” he asked.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” I started, unsure of where this was going. “She will probably not forgive you for a long time, if at all. What you did was wrong. I am not going to rub your nose in it anymore, because it seems to me you are sincerely regretful. You don’t need guilt on top of guilt. What I will tell you is that this—you coming and apologizing—says a lot about your character. You have more integrity than I do, and I respect you for that. For now, you need to find comfort in the fact that although you made a mistake, you realized it and did the right thing afterward. That is more than I can say for many students and most adults I know, myself included.

I wish I could tell you that the two students mended their bond, and that they remained friends. I cannot speak to this. I have not seen them talk since it happened. The girl told me after he left that she could not forgive him, and I told her that she had every right to be angry, that she did not have to forgive him immediately, but that eventually it might be necessary in her healing process.

The hard and necessary part about apologies is that the admission of wrongdoing makes you very vulnerable in the hands of the person you hurt. You are giving all of your power to someone who was damaged by your words and your actions. The odds are not in your favor, nor should they be. You are the wrongdoer, after all.

However, I am starting to believe that the strongest people left in our world are those who own up to their mistakes, swallow their pride, and apologize to those they have hurt. After all, every single one of us is guilty of hurting others. The only difference between us is those who have owned up to it and those who have not.

The strange and beautiful thing about being on the giving end of an apology is that you also begin to find more grace in your heart to forgive others. When you have been the transgressor, you know the fear of not receiving forgiveness, and so become more understanding of the human capacity to make messes. It doesn’t mean that you excuse people for their mistakes; but you don’t hold a grudge either, the equivalent of drinking rat poison and waiting for the other person to die.

I am not one of the strong ones yet. I owe some apologies, I owe some graces. I have yet to hone the character that Didion notes is so rare in our world. For someone who usually only looks for an apology from his students to make things right, I sure keep a lot of people waiting on mine.

I think I will start this week, resting in the comfort that although I may not receive forgiveness, I might develop some strength in saying sorry.

Ears > Mouth

As a blogger with a tiny following, I fully understand that my voice only carries so far. But it does carry, and it does mean something. Why would I write if I did not believe that my writing impacts someone?

Despite this, I have remained silent on all social media on the recent happenings in Ferguson, New York, ad absurdum. It is not that I don’t have a strong opinion on these events. However, with everyone throwing in two cents (plus some), I wasn’t sure if mine counted for anything.

The great thing about social media is that everyone is allowed to express an opinion; the worst thing about social media is that everyone is allowed to express an opinion. I have seen some serious ignorance on my Facebook news feed in recent weeks. It has served as a great reminder for why I am required to teach my students how to analyze sources and differentiate fact from opinion and commonplace assertion.

It has also caused me to fall silent in a time when perhaps we can no longer afford to be silent. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” As small as my voice is, I don’t want to deny its power—however small—and not speak up.

I have thought and thought about what to write on the racial tensions mounting in America. Plans have been made and scrapped and made again to conduct a discussion with my students. Blog posts have been written, trashed, recovered, rewritten, and trashed again.

But recently, I have recognized the reason for my pause in commentary and my hesitance to speak. And I actually think it is a good enough reason to be silent for just a bit longer.

Sidestep leading to the larger point: I am a good writer. There is plenty of room for improvement, but I know that people read my writing and appreciate what I have to say, in part because of how I am able to say it.

People sometimes ask me how I became the writer I am today. My dad claims he is responsible; my mom claims she is responsible. They are probably both right, and I don’t feel obligated to say that just because they are faithful readers of my blog.

But I actually attribute most of my writing skills to one simple trick: I read. A lot.

For every piece of writing I create, I have read at least 5 articles a day leading up to it. I am always eyeballs-deep in a book. I study song lyrics and good pieces of dialogue in television and movies to understand what made me connect to them. I read and read and read and read. Then—when I take a very brief break from reading—I write.

I write well only because I read well.

Tragedies are occurring in our nation. Whichever side you take in these racial debates, human beings are dying. Nothing constitutes a lack of sympathy for the loss of human life.

As a heterosexual white male who experiences privilege on a daily basis, I am in no position to understand the plight of minorities. I teach 110 students, 109 of whom are students of color, and I still have no right to pretend to understand the oppression they face in our messed-up system. I can see it, my heart can break for them, but I will never experience it firsthand.

In times when I am not the victim or part of the victimized group (whether you believe it is perceived or real), my opinion matters far less than my compassion.

To Be A Teacher
Blackout poem by Austin Kleon

It is in times like these when my ears are worth more than my mouth.

If I am to be a good writer, I must read.

If I am to be a good speaker, I must listen.

If I am to teach my students well, I must also learn from them.

Here is a simple test to explain my point:

Do you feel injustice has recently occurred in the Ferguson and New York cases?

Do you feel that racial intolerance is present in America?

Do you feel that you or your racial group is being oppressed in the current system?

If you answered NO to any or all of these questions, now is not the time for you to speak. The most important, humane, and right thing you can do is to listen.

Here’s something that may surprise you: Your opinion doesn’t always matter. Someone may have told you that growing up, but it isn’t true. Sometimes what matters more is your ability to lay down your perceptions, preconceptions, and news articles from your favorite sources and just hear someone else out.

I am not saying that your voice doesn’t matter. But sometimes, your voice matters a lot less than your hearing.

Here’s another test:

Have you listened to the other side of the argument recently? 

If you answered NO to this question (or defensively answered YES), please stop talking for a minute and hear someone out. Far too many people are speaking and far too many people are not being heard.

We are not living in a post-racial society; we never were. We are very much entrenched in outdated systems that need to be updated or completely thrown out and replaced. We cannot afford to be silent, but we also cannot afford to be so loud that we don’t hear what our brothers and sisters are saying.

I recently read a quote from Jonas Salk that struck a chord with me: “Are we being good ancestors?” For the sake of our descendants, we must come together before we fall any farther apart.

I feel like I have already said too much. I need to get back to listening before I assume my voice is the most important one in the room right now.

Aim Higher

One of the biggest day-to-day battles I face is convincing students to turn assignments in. If I give students an assignment and tell them it is due at the end of class, some of them will find a way to lose it before the bell rings. They won’t leave the room, and yet the assignment will vanish into thin air. It’s like I’m teaching in the Bermuda Triangle.

Last year, this daily headache induced a destructive attitude in me called the “take-what-you-can-get” method. I would be grateful to receive a worksheet from some students within the month I had assigned it to them. My late work policy became lax, my mercy was at an all-time high, and students who were setting a low bar for themselves continued to jump that low bar with my help.

The problem with the low-bar method is that people often meet the expectations you set for them. If you expect greatness out of someone, and push them to get there with the tools and motivation to be successful, they have a high probability of becoming great. Conversely, if you expect little to nothing out of someone, they will probably not attempt to convince you otherwise.

This summer I had my low-bar attitude checked. I was at a professional development session learning how to increase rigor in the classroom (yay, summer break!) when a woman raised her hand and said, “I’m sorry, this is probably off-topic but I just don’t see how I could teach my kids something at this level. You don’t understand what it’s like to teach at a school where 1,000 students are just waiting to drop out. My kids couldn’t do something like this. They don’t care about school. Their parents aren’t home. They’re just trying to get out.”

That statement should make you angry. I hope you don’t believe that just because children are dealing with incredibly difficult circumstances means they don’t care about school or can’t perform at a certain level. That story—long told and widely accepted—is a tall tale.

I am going to get vulnerable here: I don’t believe this tall tale, but I have allowed it to be told around me. I set a high bar for my students, but when they didn’t live up to it, I often caught myself lowering the bar rather than pushing my students harder. I caught myself accepting less from them because I feared I was expecting too much of them. I caught myself—I am ashamed to admit—pitying my students because the odds were against them.

I have never heard a good story where pity helped the protagonist succeed. I have never known a person who got somewhere great because others let them “get by.” I have never seen great heights reached by people who only cleared low bars.

Great HeightsTrue, my students are dealing with a lot more than I can understand. Some of them are in single-parent homes. Some of them are all too familiar with the weight of poverty. Some of them have lost more people in twelve years than I have lost in twenty-three. Each and every child everywhere struggles with something, not just because of circumstances, but because they are all human. To be alive is to struggle.

Though my students struggle, they do not need me to lower expectations, accept failure, or pity them—even if it is well-intentioned. My students need me to set a high bar for them and then help them clear it.

My students need me to teach them that colleges, workplaces, and the world at large have no interest in the tall tale about the struggling kid who needs lower expectations. They care more about the underdog story. They care about the struggling kid who overcame immense obstacles to graduate college, run a company, save lives, and help other kids who are in need. They are searching for the next Steve Jobs, the next Jay Z, the next Lupita Nyong’o.

We do a disservice to our children, our future, and our world when we tell the tall tale that kids in tough places cannot do hard things. The reality is that they do hard things every day, whether or not those hard things are always apparent in school.

They can handle difficulty; if we do not hand difficulty to them, they will not have any reason to try. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote in a letter that “the fact that a thing is difficult must be one more reason for our doing it.”

The woman who made the comment about her students expects them to fail, and increases their risk of failing by perpetuating the stereotypes that exist about them. I’m not saying she is a bad person, or that she hates kids. But she has bought into the tall tale. Until she believes a different story can be told, she will continue to tell the same story about her kids and she will be one more person they have to resist to succeed.

It is hard, both for my students and me, to resist these popular stories and reach for better narratives. But lower bars do not challenge us to reach for anything new. Lower bars harm us, and keep us at status quo.

Higher bars ask us to aim higher, to set our sights for heights unreached. JFK once said of the first trip to the moon, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because it is easy but because it is hard.”Aim Higher

Contrast this with Interstellar, where Matthew McConaughey’s character in the film reflects sadly on the current human condition: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars; now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

No one gets to the moon by staring at the ground and hoping for the best.

This year, I give my students homework every week, and only allow students who complete all of their homework to go on our field trips. We had 66 students on the first field trip.

I assign an outside reading project every six weeks, and students cannot pass the six weeks without completing it. Though I had around 15 students fail the first six weeks, only 6 failed the second six weeks. I’m aiming for 0 this time around.

Students who fail a quiz or assignment are required to attend tutoring to make up the grade. Students who failed the first six weeks now make up some of my best students because they want to meet and exceed my expectations. (They also don’t want me to call home, which they know I will.)

My students and I have grown tremendously since I raised the bar. They are not discouraged when they don’t reach it, but encouraged by my belief that they will soon enough. Someday they will run their own companies, save others’ lives, and change the world as we know it. Those who listen to the tall tale now will be surprised, but I won’t be.

If you have set the bar low for yourself, for your relationships, for your life, I want to encourage you to aim higher. You will be surprised at what you can do when you stop telling the tall tale and start writing your own story. Write it well, and make it worth telling. The world needs higher bars and better narratives.

The Sweet Spot of Self-Talk

I once thought that grade school bullies were my worst enemies; that was before I picked up their tricks. Only one year of my life was spent being bullied by others, but it was plenty of time to learn how to bully myself for the next ten.

When it comes to self-deprecation, I can downplay myself with the best of them. Attribute any good quality to me, and watch me bat down that compliment like a wasp is headed for my face. A typical exchange goes down like this:

Praiser: “Ben, I hear you’re a great rapper.”

Praisee (me): “Someone must not listen to a lot of rap.”

It’s one of the most common defense mechanisms of our modern world: in case anyone may not find you worthwhile, be the first to suggest it’s true. My self-esteem went from minimal to nonexistent in just one year of elementary school. In response, when other people tried to take my value away, I started taking it before anyone else had the chance.

It worked too. Even today, a lot of my friends appreciate my ability to cut myself down with a pointed comment about my socially awkward style of living. When my roommate attempts to convince me that a girl likes me, I reply, “Yeah, from a distance!”

In some ways, the ability to make fun of yourself is healthy. If done correctly, you may actually possess a high self-esteem that allows you to self-deprecate without self-loathing.

If you aren’t careful, however, you can easily cross that thin line between humor and reality. The fear that others may see through your #flawless social media presence to the #flawed real person pushes you into a dangerous territory where you try to protect yourself by beating yourself up.

Have a talent? Tell people you’re “not that good” or that you “just do it as a hobby.” That way, if they don’t think you’re good, they won’t think it means the world to you.

Have an amazing personality trait? Tell people it’s “not that big of a deal” or that you haven’t really seen it yourself. “You’re so funny!” they say. You look away sheepishly and reply, “Really? I’ve never thought that about myself.” Then, if someone doesn’t see that trait in you, they at least know you don’t either and don’t blame you for others being misinformed.

This modern form of self-loathing is often misnamed as humility. I was raised in church all of my life, where the word ‘humility’ is often thrown about but never properly defined for teenagers already neck-deep in self-hate. Don’t be proud or boastful? Uhh, easy! Don’t take credit for the goods things you’ve done? Check! I’m the best Christian ever!

I cannot pinpoint this blame on any preacher or church leader. On one hand, I was told to acknowledge that all good things come from God and not me. On the other hand, I needed more reminders that I am a good thing that came from God. “God didn’t make no junk” never really resonated with me, as the bad grammar probably turned me off to the message. Instead, I went on believing/pretending that hating myself meant I loved God more than anyone else.

I heard somewhere that to “love your neighbor as yourself” means you must first love yourself to know how to love your neighbor. We always focus on how to love our neighbor, but forget that the simile compares the love you should have for your neighbor with the love that you have for yourself.

By this logic, if you hate yourself, you’ll treat your neighbor the same. If you cannot give yourself grace, how will you possibly offer it to others around you? We have internalized the message that forgiving ourselves for some failures is impossible, and so we withhold the same forgiveness from others. It is a poisonous cycle, one that we must reverse to even possibly change the way the world is now.

i_KENDRICKLAMAR_FINAL
Kendrick Lamar’s single artwork for “i.”

Kendrick Lamar recently released a new song called “i,” in which he raps about depression he’s faced since adolescence and a world out to crush his spirit. He responds to these struggles with a rousing battle cry in the chorus: “I love myself.”

In an interview with Hot 97, Kendrick stated that he wrote the song for “these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more.” For those who don’t see the light in themselves, Kendrick offers three words to change the language they use when speaking about themselves.

But I also feel as if Kendrick knows something about true humility as well. The title of the song is a lowercase i, which is printed clearly on the single artwork as well as the hat he wears during the interview with Hot 97. The lowering of the case seems to indicate that self-love does not equal pride. Loving yourself doesn’t mean you place yourself on a pedestal; it just means you recognize your worth despite your flaws.

I started teaching an afterschool session with high school students about life after graduation. Each week we talk about different aspects of the college application process or college life. Today we discussed interview etiquette, specifically how to answer questions that ask you to speak well of yourself.

“There is a sweet spot of self-talk,” I told them. “On one end of the spectrum, you can speak so poorly about yourself that no one will hire you or accept you into their college because you let them down before they got the chance to know you. On the opposite end, you can speak so highly of yourself that no one will accept you because they can’t teach someone who thinks they have it all figured out.”

A girl shot her hand up and asked, “But how do you find the balance?”

“Uhh…” I hesitated. How much should I say about my decade-long journey to love myself with a lowercase i?

I considered the pros and cons of spilling too many beans about Ben to my students, and then I went for it: “Look, I used to get bullied, and then I used it as an excuse to bully myself for a long time until I realized that until I loved myself, I wasn’t going to be able to accept love from others or give love to others. So I just stopped bullying myself. Well, I didn’t just stop. It took me a long time. Like, a really long time. It wasn’t anything specific about me that I started loving. I just realized that I am worthy of love and I need to love myself. I’m full of flaws. But I also can talk about the good things I’ve done and be proud of them and not get a big head about them. I guess I’m saying all of this so that it doesn’t you a decade to get to where I am. Cut the corner and start speaking well of yourself now, and eventually you’ll believe it. Just don’t be a jerk about it when you do.”

I’m not sure if this was the answer she was looking for, but she started taking notes after I finished rambling. I’m no expert on how to self-love yet, but I have picked up a thing or two. And I love myself enough to believe that the ripples I set off in my students will be waves by the time they reach someone else.

Badges

We all wear badges. When I was in the sixth grade, my badges were basketball jerseys. I didn’t want to wear the labels other kids were putting on me, and the only shield I had were jerseys for Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, etc. I got made fun of for wearing jerseys—not being a good athlete myself—but those badges gave me confidence.

As I started to find my true(r) self in middle and high school, I packed the jerseys into a box in the garage and traded those badges for band tees. Wearing shirts for Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, and Panic! At the Disco, I let everyone know how cool I was for knowing about a band they didn’t. And yeah, I got this at their concert, I would brag.

With age comes some maturity, and though I still consider some of my clothes badges (my students say I have my own swag—I think that’s positive), my badges have taken different shapes. When people tell me I am a good writer, I wear that as a badge. When my students tell me they love me, I wear that as a badge. When I am looked up to as a leader, I wear that as a badge.

I can’t say that all of the badges I have worn have been worth wearing. Clothes are a necessity; it is hard to admit the privilege I experience in calling them badges when there are children without enough clothes to last the week. My pride has been a badge many times, sometimes at the expense of others. The list goes on.

I see my students’ badges every day in the classroom. Some of them wear the badge of intelligence; others, the badge of a great sense of humor. Some wear their good behavior like a badge, while others hold their bad behavior in the same esteem.

Too often I am tempted to see a badge of bad behavior and not look at the person wearing it. If you are anything like me, I was the type of student who believed that my teachers were above petty thoughts. I assumed they were wise enough to know when a kid was genuinely evil or just acting out.

The reality is that adults are equally—and sometimes more—susceptible to writing others off when they seem like bad apples. When a student misbehaves on a regular basis, I start creating a false narrative: this child must love the destruction of my peace. They must brood at night over the ways they will torment me tomorrow with irrelevant comments, inappropriate outbursts, and inopportune times to ask to use the bathroom.

It’s so easy to create animosity between you and your students, especially when knowing you are right makes you forget that they are just children. I recently asked another teacher why a student seems to hate me. When she told me I had written him a referral last year and he hadn’t let it go, I actually replied, “But he started it!”

We need to stop assuming that bad badge means a bad person. Often, people just can’t seem to shake a label. Or feel like there is no other badge available. Or think it is too hard to try for a new badge.

I teach AVID at my school, which is a class designed to prepare students for college. They learn how to take notes, stay organized, study better, and improve life skills necessary for college and the professional world.

If a student is in AVID, they know that there is zero tolerance for bad behavior. I tell the kids that I am like Santa Claus, seeing and hearing everything they do. They find this creepy.

This year, I recommended a few students to be in AVID that wore bad badges last year. I taught them for a full year, seeing the way they disrupted class, picked on other kids, or didn’t complete assignments.

But something about their behavior told me that they didn’t want to wear those badges anymore. So, I recommended them, and they got accepted.

The school year only started three weeks ago, but already I have seen the effects of giving kids a different badge to wear. My bad apples from last year threw out their old badges, and now wear AVID as their badge. It’s a badge that says that I believe in them. It’s a badge that says they deserve to go to college too. It’s a badge that says they want a better future for themselves than what others predicted for them.

I hear students ask them, “How’d you get in AVID?” and their bold reply is always, “Because I deserve to be in it.”

Outside of AVID, I tell other former troublemakers that they are not wearing the same badges anymore. I pulled a student into the hallway the other day and said, “You are not the same person as last year. You are better, and I have seen that. We are not repeating last year because I know you have improved.” From then on, she was perfect(ish).

When my rowdiest period rolls around, I say, “You are wonderful human beings and I love you. Thank you for being here and getting to work.” And even if they weren’t working before I said that, they want to wear the badge of my approval and scramble to find their pencil. 

It’s not the ones who are amazing that always need to be told they are amazing; tell the ones who don’t know they are amazing, who you don’t always think are amazing, that they are. You will surprise them, and then they will surprise you.

We all deserve a better badge to wear. Help someone pin theirs on this week.

 

 

Nothing Stands Still

Summer break for teachers is a dirty lie. Those who don’t teach always talk about how nice it must be to get three months of vacation time every year.

Start with the fact that it’s actually only two months, three weeks are inevitably spent in required training or training you were duped into, and the remaining five weeks are spent overcommitting to people and plans because you feel useless without young minds to mold, and summer break adds up to nothing but an urban myth.

I won’t trip though. My two months were well spent with family, friends, trips, music, and memories that will give me the steam to teach until Thanksgiving break.

Also—and please don’t tell anyone this—but I am actually excited to go back to school. Tomorrow, my desks will once again be filled with many of the same students I taught last year (I moved from the 7th to 8th grade, which puts me on track to become the Mr. Feeny of my school.)

Though my summer slumbers were sometimes interrupted by visions of my trouble children haunting my dreams, I was glad to see them on my roster again—maybe not glad to see them in my 8th period, but glad nonetheless.

I have a reason for this anticipation. While visiting home this summer, an older woman at church asked me what I am up to these days. I told her I was on summer break, and she—like all adults older than me and store clerks who eye me funny when I ask for the teacher discount—assumed I was still a student.

After convincing her that I am actually a teacher, and letting her know that I teach in Oak Cliff, she replied, “Be careful in Oak Cliff. I went there when I was a kid, but nothing stands still.”

I hear people tell me to be careful in Oak Cliff fairly often. If people don’t say it with their mouths, they say it with their shocked expressions when I tell them I teach there. If you aren’t from Dallas, you may not know about Oak Cliff’s bad reputation. One Google search of Oak Cliff on any given day turns up a litany of results about recent crimes in the area. Indeed, even my students—who are only 12 and 13 years old—are acutely aware of the perceptions surrounding them.

I don’t know when the woman at church was in Oak Cliff, but she’s right about something: nothing stands still. Oak Cliff, when founded in 1886, was originally designed to be an elite neighborhood and vacation resort. Now, people call it the “wrong side of town,” both because of real issues it has but also because of negative stereotypes that reinforce those issues.

I’m not ignorant enough to think that I am teaching in an elite neighborhood, but I am also not naïve enough to think that I am teaching on the wrong side of town.

No, I am teaching in a place where—like any place on Earth—nothing stands still. My students are no longer the wide-eyed kids they were when they entered middle school last August. They have done some growing, some learning, and some maturing. They have made good choices, and they have made bad choices. They have made incredible gains and seen heart-wrenching losses. They are not really the same kids that I met on my first day of teaching.

I am not the same kid either. Last year, absolutely everything that happened in class was the first time I had experienced it; now, I am a teacher with one year of experience in my supply bag. When I think about the person I was before teaching, I barely recognize that wide-eyed kid who had no idea how to handle a student crying or a parent conference.

It is far too easy for us to believe that things are how they are and that they will never change. My least favorite idiom of recent years is the phrase used for seemingly uncontrollable moments: “It is what it is.” We all fall victim to the lie that life will always be how it is now, people will never change, and bad neighborhoods will always be bad neighborhoods.

Nothing is as what it was yesterday. People are entering and leaving your life faster than you realize. The words you say today to your students, your children, or your friends are affecting who they will be tomorrow. 

That may seem scary, but there is comfort in knowing that all is temporary. The kid I sent to the office last year will be the kid who steps his game up this year. The grief you have held for months on end will fade in time, and you will see brighter days again. The anxiety you feel over a relationship or a job will be resolved. Our debts don’t have to carry over throughout our entire lives.

This also means that the success we had yesterday doesn’t pay for today. I experienced a lot of proud moments in my first year of teaching, but I also saw my fair share of disappointments. I remember the looks on students’ faces when I told them they didn’t pass the STAAR. I remember the last day of school when some kids walked out of the door without shaking my hand or hugging me because I didn’t develop strong relationships with them. I carry those moments with me, and I know I have to do better tomorrow.

Whatever season you’re in right now, whether joy or pain, remember that nothing stands still. We have to work a little harder every day to ensure that the stories we tell about ourselves and our communities are better than the ones we told last time. It will be difficult, yes. But at least nothing is static, and the page can always be turned.

Same Old Story

I wrote this poem for my students before saying goodbye for the summer. A video of my performance for one class can be found here: 

you were born into a story you had no hand in writing
before you got here
people already thought a particular way about
your race
your sex
your potential abilities
the money your parents made: that was part of your story
the way people looked at you when they saw
your clothes
your house
your hygiene
and your education was based on how people predetermined
people like you turn out
they didn’t want to leave you behind
but they didn’t want you to get ahead
so instead they created a home for you inside of a box
and gave you just enough light to make you think you could see
and just enough air to make you believe you were breathing
it wasn’t a scheme
it wasn’t a plot
it was simply a way for them to keep contained what they couldn’t comprehend within their brains
you can blame them
but they, too, were born into stories they had no hand in writing
born into families that raised them to believe, “we are okay,
and everyone else is other.
we are right, and everyone else may be right as well,
but less so.”
instead of blaming them,
ask yourself how well you fit inside the box you’ve been placed in
if you have the audacity,
step outside the box and read the label
and ask yourself, “is this me?”
another way to phrase this is,
“who am I?
and who gets to decide?”
are the names
young
white
male
probably protestant
college-educated
economically privileged
heterosexual
above any other name?
do societal norms get to dictate who gets to succeed?
and if I am different then that, then it must not be me?
you have been told that you are a product of your environment
but you were also born with feet to walk away from your environment
and create a new one
born with a voice to speak and say who you are not
born with hands to create and point to what you are
and true, there are those will try to silence you
and too often they will succeed
they will block the paths you choose to walk on
cut the mic you wish to speak from
tie the hands you try to create with
and too often the story you had no hand in writing
will end without your pen ever reaching the page
the multiple choice world didn’t like that you couldn’t fit your intelligence
within a, b, c, or d
so they failed you because you are “none of the above”
they gave you 26 lines and said, “write within the box.”
but you have an infinite amount of thoughts that cannot be captured
by factory-processed prompts
so they denied your college apps
your job apps
your improbability didn’t add up
so they kept you inside the box
that they might second guess
that might give them guilt
but it just makes sense
because they, too, were born into stories they were not invited
to edit or throw out
just told, “stick with the status quo.”
so they stuck with it
and stuck you to it
and all of us turn the gears of a machine that manufactures products of
poverty
racism
classism
sexism
environments we cannot survive in
but one day
while you were on break
at your minimum wage job
after days with no sleep
weeks with no relief
and years with no peace
you found a pen
and you checked your shoulder like you were trained
but for once no one was watching
and you didn’t have paper but you had a handkerchief
that you use to wipe the sweat away
so you used it to wipe the slate
and you wrote a story about a father
who cares for his daughter
despite what the world says about
fathers who look like him
and you couldn’t wait to wake your daughter
and tell her the story
and the next day
she found a paintbrush
and she created something that looks like nothing to no one
but you
and now it hangs in a frame in the hallway
because you said, “the fridge is no place for a masterpiece.”
and the next day she whispered the secret to her friends
about a story we weren’t told
a story so bold
that now they can barely hold their tongues
when handed tests that say nothing about them
and everything about the lie we were handed
and commanded not to change
but the truth finds its way through time
and fights its way through lies
and now there are boys and girls of every
color, shape, and size
age, orientation, and status
who tell the story to each other
and weigh what it means for them
and tell it in a different way
because they are becoming acutely aware of the radical idea
that no one can tell their story who is not holding the pen
one of them is your president
some of them are your teachers
all of them are your children
and all of us
are coming to check our stories out of your library
and never return them
because they were never yours to begin with
right now we are ripping the pages and adding new ones
we are skimming history and laughing at the way things used to be
we are creating entirely new ways of telling the truth that
our story is our story
and the only way to be a part of it is to understand
that before we got here
there was a story we had no hand in writing
but after we leave
it will never be the same

You Are Alive

I used to believe a lie.

Even though I am ultra-cool now to everyone who knows me (I can hear some of you snickering), I used to be uncool. Rather, I used to be ashamed of being uncool.

In the 6th grade, I was bullied for being the scrawny nerd who believed he could play in the NBA one day and had an unusual affinity for rap music (specifically Nelly’s Nellyville). Most days I was called the names children still pass around like candy that’s been poisoned. Most days my mom took me out for lunch to let me breathe for 30 minutes. Most days I was ready to call it quits on school because of the pain that came with it.

The lie I believed was not that I would be in the NBA; that didn’t pan out either, but I (mostly) got over that. There was a deeper lie that took root due to the bullying I experienced that year: I believed I did not have a voice.

In the short span of one year, enough kids told me I did not matter that I started to believe they must be right. Time after time, when my teacher blamed me for painting a target on myself, she painted a picture of me that made me invisible. When an administrator told my mom, “Boys will be boys,” I wondered when I got to be one of the boys and not one of the victims.

It was only the 6th grade. The year after, I started making friends again and the bullies left me alone. A few of them became my friends.

But the small moments that happen to a child—or any human for that matter—can take root and grow into something massive over time. The movie Inception shows the power small ideas can have when they are planted deep in someone’s subconscious. I was only bullied in the 6th grade, but the effects lasted into adulthood.

In high school, my theme song could have been Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” (you know, the one that goes, “I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man”). I was class president, valedictorian, and involved in any club or organization that even remotely interested me.

I don’t say any of this to brag; no one cares what you did in high school starting the day you graduate from high school. I say this because I used to think I had lived out the quirky indie movie about the middle school dweeb-turned-high school cool kid. I thought I had lived the Cinderella story and my underdog roots would carry me through life. I was convinced that I was a real-life Michael Cera.

When we are young, we can be pretty dumb. As soon as I got to college, my social 180 took a spin in the other direction. I realized I had not really emerged from my cocoon of uncool. I commuted to school and found it difficult to fit into the social scene at my university. Instead of digging my heels in and trying harder, I started remembering that voiceless 6th grader that faded into the background of everyone’s minds and concerns.

It’s not something I like to think about or talk about a lot, but on my lonely commute to and from school, I used to imagine a world without me. I would think about how people would go on living after I was dead. I wondered how much I mattered, and I started to believe that lie about myself—the one about how I was voiceless, powerless, and ultimately worthless.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about that dark period in my life, but I do want to talk about the other side of it. After hitting my version of rock bottom, I took stock of my life and started digging deeper so I could climb up and out of the hole years of insecurity and false security had made. I added a Writing major to my Religion major, and began writing stories that helped me process what I was dealing with internally. I started being a better friend to people who had been there all along.

Slowly, I survived the storm. As Ben Dolnick writes in the novel You Know Who You Are, “the amazing, ordinary thing happened: time passed.” There were certainly other factors that pulled me from the depths of my insecurity, but they all happened because time allowed them to come through for me.

In ten weekdays, I will finish my first year of teaching. This year, I have taught about 100 students who are just a bit older than I was when I was first told I was voiceless. Interacting with them on a daily basis, I have made it my mission to let them know that they have a voice. I cannot give them their own voice, but I can help them find it.

It is a hard task. My students are dealing with social pressures that I never conceived of at their age. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this reality, from the fact that they are dealing with their racial identity at a much earlier age than I did to new technology we as adults don’t even know how to use. My kids are constantly inundated with messages that tell them they, too, are as voiceless or more voiceless than I was.

I wanted to tell you that I found the key to loving people in such a way that they know they have a voice. I wanted to tell you I unlocked a secret in my first year of teaching that most of us spend a lifetime searching to be told.

I did not find that magic solution.

However, I will tell you this: I am alive.

I know that is probably shocking news, so I will give you a moment to process.

I have been thinking about the 6th grade a lot this year. I have been thinking about what it felt like to be voiceless, to feel like I didn’t matter. I have been thinking about how it felt to experience that again in my early adult years.

Lately, I have also been thinking about how I survived those years, those trials, those moments when I felt like I wouldn’t make it, to be alive right here and now.

I stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers every day, and I tell them they matter both through my words and my actions.

I wrote a blog post about how we are all the 27th line, and almost 55,000 people read it. Many shared it with their children or students to let them know they matter.

I perform my rap music every month in the same room I have seen my favorite bands play.

I drove home this weekend to tell my mother I love her.

I know a group of very special people who I love through stupid jokes and fun adventures.

How did I come to believe I have a voice? I am alive, and that has made all the difference. Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” I have showed up to life every day for over 23 years, I did a few things right here and there, and I started becoming acutely aware of how far my voice truly carries.

You are alive, too.

In this moment, your voice is carrying a lot farther than you realize. You never know what showing up will accomplish. There are people all around you who need you to believe the incredible truth that you are alive.

This past week, I received a note from a student for Teacher Appreciation Week. He is one of my English Language Learners, and he wrote that since I became his teacher, he is no longer afraid to write, but instead has started to learn its importance.

I hope that you stop being afraid of not mattering and start learning that you matter. I hope you know that you are alive right now, and someone needs you to remind them that they are alive too. I hope someday we don’t have to be told we are alive, because we will all just believe it from a very young age.

Until that day, wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and say, “I am alive.” Believe that, then use it. You won’t get it right every time, but every once in awhile, something amazing will happen. Live for that moment, then go after the next one. You will be surprised by what happens to those who believe the truth that they are alive.

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