To Catch Up With Oneself

Almost two years ago, I made the decision to leave my role as a middle and high school teacher to pursue a Master’s in Theological Studies. It was both a difficult step to take, and also one I felt was necessary in order to follow a dream I had to research religion and music more deeply.

If I am being truthful, I regretted the decision almost immediately. As my first semester of classes began in the Fall of 2016, I found myself struggling to justify why I had left a job which had given me purpose to earn a degree that would just require another degree to get me as far as I believed I wanted to go. I started to experience the feelings I felt when I was 12 and 19, those feelings that became the days themselves and cast their long shadows over months. It didn’t make sense: I was privileged enough to study for my Master’s, something few people get to do, and I was about to propose to my then-girlfriend, whom I had loved for years.

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Soundtrack, 2017

2017 was full of personal growth and joy in the midst of a revealing and painful year for our society. The albums that provided the soundtrack to my year reflect those two poles, with much of what I listened to providing a prophetic voice for troubled times.

This is also my fifth year noting my favorite albums in a year, so I took some time to see how my past years lined up with my current view on the albums listed then. In 2013, almost every album stayed in my rotation, but in 2014, only three did. I was mostly right about 2015, and last year, in 2016, I would go back and move Solange and ScHoolboy Q up to the spots right under Frank Ocean. We’ll see how this year stacks up, but for now, here are the albums that provided the soundtrack to my year.

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Featured in AUSTERE Magazine: Trophy Kids

I have a new piece published in Dallas-based AUSTERE Magazine, a journal by very cool people doing incredible work. Check them out.

My piece, “Trophy Kids,” can be read here. You can also purchase a print edition from their online shop. You might recognize the name “Trophy Kids” from the zine I released with my album, which is available for purchase here. The name is a defense of the millennial generation, but I’ll let you see for yourself what I mean. Thanks for reading. More soon.

Walking the Talk: A Conversation With Tash

I Walk With Natasha March, Baylor University (Photograph by Marissa Elaine Photography)
I Walk With Natasha March, Baylor University (Photograph by Marissa Elaine Photography)

Since I left my teaching position last summer to pursue my Master’s in Theological Studies, I have struggled to find a new route to take with this blog. Over the course of my three years in the classroom, it slowly turned into my reflections on teaching. The intent was always to make this a space to inspire people with stories, and I’ve been thinking recently of how to do so through others’ voices, especially millenials who often receive undue criticism and baseless stereotypes that seek to degrade us while we work to become who we are in this world.

I asked Natasha (Tash) Nkhama, a former student, to share her insights about an incident that happened in her first semester at Baylor. Our conversation is below.

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Soundtrack to my year, v. 4

Every year, I like to reflect on the albums that got me through the year. In 2016, I spent more time trying to listen than talk, and I felt these albums offered the space for me to reflect and understand the nuances of the experience of others. Each title links to where you can purchase directly from the artist (in most cases), and a few of them are even free.

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Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

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Identity: Capable

In the fall semester of 2015, I started a Master’s program in school counseling. Three months later, I hated it. I felt I was pursuing this path because it seemed like the logical next step in my career. My life has never followed a “logical next step” trajectory, and it felt dishonest to who I am as a person. I don’t say that to discount the wonderful work of counselors, just that it isn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself as a counselor ten years out, and that’s not a good start to a two-year program.

Three months is not long to decide to quit graduate school. You can imagine my embarrassment when family and friends asked how my first semester went, and only months after telling them I was going back to school, I was telling them I wouldn’t be returning for a second semester. When I cited that “my heart wasn’t in it,” I could see older adults give me that generational side-eye reserved for millennials perpetually “figuring it out.”

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The Age of Solitude, Issue 1, April 2016

In December of 2014, I set out to share poetry with people via actual, physical mail. In 2015, I sent out 10 mailings to about 60 people. Over that span of time, I received mail from roughly 15 people, and texts and messages from many others involved in the project. In 2016, I vowed to keep the project up, but dropped everyone who did not engage with me in some format. The purpose of the project is, in part, that we are living in a time when we fake connections and I want to offer a chance to make real ones. Every month (or so) I send poetry that (hopefully) challenges my readers to reconsider a mindset held by society at large. I share some personal thoughts in addition to the poetry, and I have forged several excellent pen pals because of it. Above, you can see the new(s) format of the dispatch. I’ll be posting each on here a few weeks after sending them out via mail, but if you’d like to receive a physical copy and engage with me on a more personal basis, please email your physical address to therealbenshady@me.com. I promise not to show up at your door.

Looking forward, I would like to expand the dispatch to include the work of others. Reach out if you’d be interested.

You can follow on Twitter here.

Shadow Living

I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.

In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.

I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.

It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.

If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.

Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.

But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.

I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.

In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.

For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.

But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.

I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.

We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.

We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.

We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.

Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”

We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.