could be (part 4)

This post is the last part of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole, and read part three here, on valuing the moments that make us who we are.

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could be (part 3)

This post is part three of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, and you can read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole.

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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

Ears > Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write well only because I read well.

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

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

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

To Be A Teacher
Blackout poem by Austin Kleon

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

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

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

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

Here is a simple test to explain my point:

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

Do you feel that racial intolerance is present in America?

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

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

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

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

Here’s another test:

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

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

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

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

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

Aim Higher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sweet Spot of Self-Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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