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.

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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