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.

Being Brave

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
remember
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
end.

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.