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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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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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.

Reverse Drake

IMG_0302I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 3 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

I recently became engulfed in the still-unresolved beef between Drake and Meek Mill. A good friend once introduced me to a new teacher by saying, “Taylor’s expertise is pop culture.” This was a high compliment. I can playback high profile, tweet-by-tweet coverage of any celebrity scuffle.

If you’re unfamiliar with what took place between Drake and Meek Mill, do not fear: I am here to navigate you through the inner workings of the rap game and feuds herein.

A few weeks ago, Nicki Minaj took to Twitter to express her disdain for “Anaconda” getting snubbed for the MTV Video Music Awards. As she lit our feeds up, her fiancée, rapper Meek Mill, decided to fire a few rounds on Twitter as well. What was on Meek’s mind? Well, he accused Drizzy Drake of using a ghostwriter on a song he was featured on for Meek’s latest album.

Now, if you don’t know a lot about the rap game, to be accused of using a ghostwriter is a pretty steep claim. What you are suggesting is that, according to kris ex, a rapper’s authenticity or realness is false. A rapper must first and foremost be real, and to use a ghostwriter is to be unreal, inauthentic, un-hip-hop.

Drake did not appreciate this. Drake, who has a Twitter, decided not to tweet back, but to release two dis tracks (“Charged Up” and “Back to Back”) aimed at Meek Mill. And, of course, Meek responded with his own dis track (name not worth remembering). And, naturally, Drake then played his favorite Meek-mocking memes on the screen behind him as he played his annual OVO Festival.

The beef got so hot (I AM UNSURE IF MY LINGO IS STILL CURRENT) that Whataburger tweeted, “Meek, if you’re going to serve beef, make sure it’s high quality.”

Most incendiary, in my opinion, is that there is actual video footage of Will Smith, Kanye West, and Drake laughing at a Meek meme on Will’s phone. Talk about beef served cold (I AM AWARE THE TEMPERATURE OF THE BEEF KEEPS CHANGING).

I started to wonder why I was so fascinated by this high-profile interpersonal conflict. At first, I thought that I just pay attention to the wrong things. I do hate when people try to psychoanalyze celebrity’s choices and lifestyles, but when the celebrities are publicly displaying their grievances with one another, it’s not my fault if the dirty laundry was hanging outside and I happened to catch a whiff.

But then I dug a little deeper into my fascination with this beef, and I realized that the same way that Drake escalated Meek’s tweet from 0 to 100 is the same way we teachers often escalate our students’ misbehavior to unnecessary levels of humiliation and oppression.

As the school year begins, we all hang posters with our expectations of students. They include classics like “keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself,” “use appropriate language,” “raise your hand before speaking.” All of them boil down to respect.

But what happens when we don’t live up to what we expect from our students? What happens when we tell our students to respect us and then don’t return them the same respect we demand?

My students like to use the bumper-sticker phrase, “You have to give respect to get respect.” It’s a troubling motto, because it implies that we both wait for the other person to respect us, and end up in a standoff where no one ends up respecting anyone.

Yet we do the same thing with our actions towards students. A student will make a comment that is as small as Meek’s tweet, and we will escalate it to yelling, rude comments, negative reinforcement, and outright oppression of our students.

Sometimes a student’s facial expression will set us off. Other times a student will say something we misinterpret. How often do we wrongly punish a student for a small miscommunication that we mistook for disrespect, or overly punish disrespect we grossly overreacted to? How seldom do we apologize when we realize we over-disciplined?

I have been guilty. I have let my bad moods affect the way I speak to my kids. I have raised my voice after telling my kids to never raise theirs. I have given full, impassioned lectures in what could have been powerful, teachable moments.

It is our responsibility as educators to Reverse Drake. We have to take moments of tension from 100 to 0 real quick, not the other way around. If we don’t stop to reflect on our cultural biases, we can mistake positive traits like outspokenness for open disrespect. Our choice of words can cost us the ability to reach a student and love them like we are called to do.

I don’t mean that we allow our children to run all over us. I have a strong classroom management system in place, but there is a difference between good leadership and oppressive dictatorship. One makes people want to follow you out of mutual respect and desire; the other makes people follow you out of fear or rebel against you altogether.

Children absorb messages from us, and they are taking on some of our character every day they spend with us. My kids know and point out all of my quirks, and I have noticed some of them adopting some of them as we grow and learn together. Your kids will learn character traits from you. Are you living the character you want them to have? If the answer is not always yes, or even often yes, perhaps you should live up to your classroom expectations before you ask anyone else to do so.

Maybe you need to read into your responses and discipline like I read into celebrity beef, and check whether you are taking tweets and turning them into dis tracks. You know where Twitter beef never gets resolved? On Twitter. If it ever goes away, it is because of a private conversation between the two tweeters.

Or maybe you have continued cooking the beef long after it burnt. I know teachers who hold onto grudges with students for years. We are human. We are not infallible, or impervious to personal feelings or prejudices. What is important is that we recognize these emotions and biases and work actively to reverse them.

We have a greater duty to our kids than teaching them equations and sentence structures. We need to teach them good character, and we first do this by practicing good character in front of them. Our words and our posters and our expectations are worthless without congruence of actions. Squash the beef and dish out more grace, more compassion, more love. Learn to Reverse Drake, and get back to the heart of teaching: to show children their immeasurable worth and lift them up in a world that is constantly trying to bring them down. Your children need you more than ever.

Lift Their Voices

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 2 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.LIFETalk

Last week I wrote about my love for movies and how reading reviews relates to the oppression of our students. Something I love less than movies but have nonetheless participated in is dating. I was wondering (I would say not recently, but…) what is the proportion you are supposed to achieve in terms of how much talking each person does on a date?

I assumed that I should be talking 10% and she should be talking 90%, so that I don’t end up saying anything that ruins my chances. The less you try, the less you fail, right? Don’t make that a classroom poster, by the way. Terrible advice—for dating and teaching.

What I actually found, after extensive Googling (again, I’d like to say I embellish details sometimes, but…) is that ideally you want to achieve the rule of 50-50, in which each person talks an equal amount of time. That makes perfect sense when you think about a healthy, equal relationship, but it is so hard to do, both on dates (if you’re me), and in schools.

In the classroom, we assume that we should talk more because we get paid to teach and hopefully know what we are talking about more than 50% of the time. However, when we create a teacher-centered classroom in which we are the authoritative holders of all knowledge, we create a system where we are the experts and no one else is allowed to be smart on the subject we are discussing. In the same way that we oppress our students by reading reviews about them, we oppress them through actual silencing of their voices.

I hear a lot of teachers make flimsy excuses like, “My students don’t want to talk. They sit silently when I ask questions.” What we often fail to consider is why our students are not talking. If we establish a 90-10 relationship from the start, we communicate a clear message to our kids: “I am the authority, and you are the subordinate. I hold the knowledge, and you absorb it. I know everything, and you know nothing. Soak up my wisdom.”

When we only trust students with 10% (or less) of the conversation, we excuse them from their responsibility to participate. When students learn that all of the knowledge is at the front of the room where you stand, they are content to sit back with the understanding that the knowledge is not with them.

Oppression lives in the subconscious signals we send our kids. The passive belief that we are the only experts in the room actively silences our children’s ability to take ownership of their learning.

Worse, we not only excuse them from taking ownership of their learning, we then blame them for it. We ignore the fact that we have effectively silenced them to wonder why we do so much of the talking. We start sentences with the finger-pointing phrase, “These kids never…” rather than starting sentences with the self-owning phrase, “I never let my kids…”

“These kids never answer my questions,” is often a stand-in for, “I never let my kids answer questions.”

“These kids never turn in their homework,” is code for, “I don’t maintain high expectations for homework to begin with.”

“These kids never do better than this,” is oppressive and lazy language for, “I don’t ask my students to do better than this because I assume they won’t.” Or, conversely but equally oppressive: “I set unreasonable standards and then don’t offer support when they flounder.”

If we ask our kids questions, and there is silence, we have to learn to be comfortable with it. If we ask a question, and let the silence simmer, eventually someone will talk. It cannot always be us. We must learn not to cave in uncomfortable, eerie silences. Silence in the room is not oppression; silence of our students while we keep talking might be.

We must also learn to maintain high expectations even when they aren’t met immediately. Often we assign homework Monday, make it due Tuesday, and then change the due date to Wednesday when no one turns it in. Or Friday. Or stop giving homework altogether. Lowering the bar does not help our students jump higher; it just makes it easier to step over a very low bar. Keep the due date on Tuesday. Maintain the bar. Offer support. Then wait. Consistently expect the best from your students, and eventually they will rise to the challenge.

I have a student who is in my first period, and then is my aide in second period. After hearing me teach the lesson, she asked if she could teach it the next period. Without hesitating, I gave her my place and sat in her seat. She rocked the lesson. She did not just read my PowerPoint: she explained the concepts and asked questions. The rest of the class took notes attentively and participated. As I tweeted about her teaching, a girl leaned over and said, “Excuse me, we don’t use phones in this class. Just trying to help you.”

Another student asked if, when I start grad school next week, they can create lessons to teach the class. I will be out of a job by December when they are running the class without me.

Our kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Donald Miller writes that “the world would be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence.” Are we the reason they don’t already understand?

May we not stand in awe of the kids who succeed in spite of the obstacles, but move those obstacles—our perceptions, low expectations, oppressive power structures—out of their way. May we come to understand the necessity of every child’s existence, and may we lift their voices higher than ours.

Miller, D. (2011). Father FictionBrentwood, TN: Howard Books.

Reading Reviews

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 1 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.

LIFETalkI love to see movies. Every week, I try to make it out to the movies at least once. People with children tell me this is a great source of jealousy for them, as the movie-going days end when the little ones take center stage. I will probably forgo having children for a long time.

Being a known moviegoer makes me the go-to guy amongst my friends for recommendations. I often attempt to convince people to see movies that are not in the never-ending Marvel universe. If I have negative feelings toward something, I will ask people general questions about their preferences before saying anything too specific. “Do you enjoy cliché romantic endings? Oh, you do? Then yeah, you’ll love it.” I’m very helpful and nonjudgmental in this way.

On one hand, I enjoy being a trusted source of movie recommendations for people. It’s a source of pride for me. It is also a source of tension, because I hate when people try to form my opinions for me, so I worry that I do the same to others when I talk a movie up or down.

Everyone wants to know what to see and what to avoid so they save themselves time, hassle, money, boredom. Put simply, we want somebody else to tell us what to love and what to hate. It is amazing when someone who has not seen a movie rattles off everything that is wrong with it because so-and-so who writes for so-and-so told him so. We let somebody else form our opinions about things we will never experience for ourselves.

And there is more hate in movie reviews than anything else. A recent review of Adam Sandler’s new movie Pixels said that a justifiable reason to see the movie would be “having a loved one held for ransom” or suffering “a serious blow to the head.”

A review of Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 said it offers “possible evidence of a civilization in decline.” Look, I’m not thrilled about Kevin James’s career choices either, but the most harm he is doing to anyone on that Segway is himself.

It’s easy to be negative; it can even be fun.

It’s also poisonous.

Our problem in education (and the world at large) is that we read the reviews about our children before we give them a chance. Inevitably, the beginning of the school year brings a lot of jitters and chatter about which unlucky teacher got ‘That Child’. We look over each other’s shoulders and groan in sympathy when a teacher has one of our former troublemakers on their roster. We begin to recount stories of disaster and mayhem that we ideally think will prepare that teacher for what misfortunes are about to befall them.

What we really do, however, is write that child off before that child gets to write themselves a new chapter. We deny that child’s right to be better than before. We silence the possibility that people can change. We oppress our students before they even enter the classroom.

When people hear that I teach in Oak Cliff, their eyes all but pop out of their heads. They make some comment along the lines of, “Wow, those kids must be so rough.”

Nine times out of ten these people have never been to Oak Cliff.

Ten times out of ten these people have never met the wonderful children I am lucky to have known for two years.

They have read the negative reviews and spat them back out as facts. They know all about a movie they haven’t seen.

Make no mistake: this review-reading and regurgitating is nothing short of oppression. When we make assumptions about people who are young, or black, or brown, or live in a certain neighborhood, or look a certain way, we willfully and actively push down a group of people we have not begun to try to understand. With the multitude of obstacles that children face in the 21st century, our ill-informed assumptions are just one more roadblock they will have to overcome on their journey in becoming. Turn the news on: some aren’t even getting the chance to prove they are more than these categorical reductions.

So what do we do—as educators, as adults, as advocates for our kids—in order to unravel these oppressive threads and allow our children to write their own narratives?

The actress, writer, and producer Mindy Kaling tells a story in her book about Steve Carell, whom she worked with on The Office. It’s rumored that Steve Carell is the nicest guy in Hollywood, and Mindy’s evidence of this is that anytime the cast of The Office gossiped about someone, and asked Steve to weigh in, he would (at most) say, “Wow. If all they say about him is true, that is nuts.” He would then “politely excuse himself to go to his trailer.” She said it was infuriating. But you know what? The world needs more Steve Carells and less TMZs. The world needs more moviegoers and less movie reviewers.

We need to take it even farther than Steve Carell. There are so many negative narratives about our kids that it is becoming more and more urgent for us to push back on these narratives with better, truer stories.

When people make ignorant comments about my kids, I feel angry, awkward, and ill-equipped to respond. But I have slowly grown to counter these microaggressions with stories that I believe diffuse the moment’s tension without making a scene. One person went so far as to say that teaching in Oak Cliff must be “scary.” I lowered my voice as if I was about to share a spooky story by the campfire and replied, “Yeah, on my last birthday, my children threw me a surprise party. They planned it for weeks and had snacks, gifts, and hugs all around. Very scary.”

Let’s make a promise to each other: Let’s not read the reviews before we meet our children. Let’s not hear the story from someone else. Let’s not return to our classrooms and start gossiping about kids we haven’t met, or about kids who haven’t finished growing yet—which is all of them.

If you aren’t an educator, be careful how you speak about children you don’t know.

If you are an educator, be careful how you speak about children you do know.

Let’s recast ourselves not as critics ready to write scathing reviews of our kids, but as active participants in the movie of these children’s lives. Imagine that our names will appear in each child’s credits, and realize how important it is that every child gets to tell the story they set out to tell.

There is an incredibly inspiring, daring, challenging story inside each of us—we all deserve to tell it our way.

Chang, Justin. (2015, April 17). ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ Review: Kevin James Heads to Vegas. Variety. Retrieved from http://variety.com/2015/film/reviews/paul-blart-mall-cop-2-review-kevin-james-1201474644/ 

Kaling, M. (2011). Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns. New York, NY: Crown Archetype.

Mohan, Mark. (2015, July 22). ‘Pixels’ review: Adam Sandler battles video-game space invaders; why won’t someone say ‘Game Over’ to his career? The Oregonian/OregonLive. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/movies/2015/07/pixels_review_adam_sandler_bat.html

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 take 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.

 

 

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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The 27th Line

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more about love, respect, and how to change the world than any other event, person, or experience in my lifetime. They are incredibly intelligent, highly talented individuals who encourage me daily to be a better person.

I don’t need a test to tell me how valuable they are to our future.

If they pass the STAAR tomorrow, it may say a lot about their growth as students. It may provide some evidence of their success in middle school. It may slightly indicate some part of their intelligence.

But it won’t measure their worth as humans. It won’t tell the whole story.

There has been a lot of criticism in recent years about the way education waters down learning the common core, the way teaching has turned to content and skills that may not matter at all.

We have imprisoned creativity and labeled imagination worthless. We have boxed children into standards that say next to nothing about their abilities. We have mislabeled intelligence as the ability to answer multiple-choice questions.

Today, I reminded my students that no one—not the world, the government, test-makers, parents, friends, family, nor society—gets to tell their story if they don’t let them.

I sometimes hesitate to post stories about my students because it communicates to you that I believe my students’ stories are mine to tell. Just because I teach them and always speak highly of them does not mean that I always share the story about them that they might share about themselves. I try to do them justice, but I sometimes fall short.

Part of the reason I write about my kids, and tell my version of their story (because really, it is our story), is because there are far too many negative, incorrect narratives about them. Some of my students are unaware of the way society portrays them, but most of them are fully aware of the way the world sees them. They need fighters in their corner. They need someone to point out stereotypes of them and tell them, “This isn’t you.”

Since becoming a teacher, I have heard a thousand ignorant comments about how people see inner-city children. I have been devastated by friends who assume certain stereotypes about my children because they have never heard a better story about them. I believe it is my responsibility to tell the world a different, better, truer story about my children.

Don’t take this as me saying that I get to tell my kids’ stories for them—they are the only ones with the power to do that. All I have the right to do is tell my story, which often involves them as leading characters.

But when I was their age,  bullies had told me so many untrue stories about myself that I had started to believe their fairytales. If it weren’t for the people who told me a different story, I would never have become the man I am. I wouldn’t be the Ben Taylor who knows his story is important and worth telling to others. I owe the same to my kids.

Because of this, a day before the Writing STAAR, I read the essay below to them to remind them that their worth cannot be measured by any test, standard, or person. Perhaps you can find some hope in it too, if you have found yourself answering to the wrong measures of a person’s true value.

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In case it is hard to read from your Internet device, here is the full transcript:

You were born into the wrong times. In this age, they box you up, label you, and sell you for the price they think you’re worth. They size you up by how well you can shrink your brain to multiple-choice responses. If you cannot fit within their definition of intelligent, they will call you otherwise. They will work to ensure that opportunities aren’t handed to you by the same measure they are handed to others, that more doors close for you than open. They ask you to to tell them how smart you are in 26 lines–never mind that your story already stretches beyond lines and pages and books.

In the short time you have been on this earth, you have held the weight of love, felt the sting of heartache, known the joy of laughter, bitten into the sorrow of loss. You are not a statistic. You cannot be measured or weighed or labeled or boxed or held down. You are what is right in this wrong world. You will alter perceptions and destroy the shaky foundations of stereotypes. You were born into the wrong times, but you will make them right.

Whatever happens tomorrow–whether you pass or “fail”–will ultimately not define you, because you cannot be named anything you don’t answer to. Who you become is your decision. It is your story to tell, so make it a story worth telling. Many of the pages are blank, but rest assured: you are more than multiple-choice answers, and you are more than 26 lines.

You are the 27th line.


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