Nothing Stands Still

Summer break for teachers is a dirty lie. Those who don’t teach always talk about how nice it must be to get three months of vacation time every year.

Start with the fact that it’s actually only two months, three weeks are inevitably spent in required training or training you were duped into, and the remaining five weeks are spent overcommitting to people and plans because you feel useless without young minds to mold, and summer break adds up to nothing but an urban myth.

I won’t trip though. My two months were well spent with family, friends, trips, music, and memories that will give me the steam to teach until Thanksgiving break.

Also—and please don’t tell anyone this—but I am actually excited to go back to school. Tomorrow, my desks will once again be filled with many of the same students I taught last year (I moved from the 7th to 8th grade, which puts me on track to become the Mr. Feeny of my school.)

Though my summer slumbers were sometimes interrupted by visions of my trouble children haunting my dreams, I was glad to see them on my roster again—maybe not glad to see them in my 8th period, but glad nonetheless.

I have a reason for this anticipation. While visiting home this summer, an older woman at church asked me what I am up to these days. I told her I was on summer break, and she—like all adults older than me and store clerks who eye me funny when I ask for the teacher discount—assumed I was still a student.

After convincing her that I am actually a teacher, and letting her know that I teach in Oak Cliff, she replied, “Be careful in Oak Cliff. I went there when I was a kid, but nothing stands still.”

I hear people tell me to be careful in Oak Cliff fairly often. If people don’t say it with their mouths, they say it with their shocked expressions when I tell them I teach there. If you aren’t from Dallas, you may not know about Oak Cliff’s bad reputation. One Google search of Oak Cliff on any given day turns up a litany of results about recent crimes in the area. Indeed, even my students—who are only 12 and 13 years old—are acutely aware of the perceptions surrounding them.

I don’t know when the woman at church was in Oak Cliff, but she’s right about something: nothing stands still. Oak Cliff, when founded in 1886, was originally designed to be an elite neighborhood and vacation resort. Now, people call it the “wrong side of town,” both because of real issues it has but also because of negative stereotypes that reinforce those issues.

I’m not ignorant enough to think that I am teaching in an elite neighborhood, but I am also not naïve enough to think that I am teaching on the wrong side of town.

No, I am teaching in a place where—like any place on Earth—nothing stands still. My students are no longer the wide-eyed kids they were when they entered middle school last August. They have done some growing, some learning, and some maturing. They have made good choices, and they have made bad choices. They have made incredible gains and seen heart-wrenching losses. They are not really the same kids that I met on my first day of teaching.

I am not the same kid either. Last year, absolutely everything that happened in class was the first time I had experienced it; now, I am a teacher with one year of experience in my supply bag. When I think about the person I was before teaching, I barely recognize that wide-eyed kid who had no idea how to handle a student crying or a parent conference.

It is far too easy for us to believe that things are how they are and that they will never change. My least favorite idiom of recent years is the phrase used for seemingly uncontrollable moments: “It is what it is.” We all fall victim to the lie that life will always be how it is now, people will never change, and bad neighborhoods will always be bad neighborhoods.

Nothing is as what it was yesterday. People are entering and leaving your life faster than you realize. The words you say today to your students, your children, or your friends are affecting who they will be tomorrow. 

That may seem scary, but there is comfort in knowing that all is temporary. The kid I sent to the office last year will be the kid who steps his game up this year. The grief you have held for months on end will fade in time, and you will see brighter days again. The anxiety you feel over a relationship or a job will be resolved. Our debts don’t have to carry over throughout our entire lives.

This also means that the success we had yesterday doesn’t pay for today. I experienced a lot of proud moments in my first year of teaching, but I also saw my fair share of disappointments. I remember the looks on students’ faces when I told them they didn’t pass the STAAR. I remember the last day of school when some kids walked out of the door without shaking my hand or hugging me because I didn’t develop strong relationships with them. I carry those moments with me, and I know I have to do better tomorrow.

Whatever season you’re in right now, whether joy or pain, remember that nothing stands still. We have to work a little harder every day to ensure that the stories we tell about ourselves and our communities are better than the ones we told last time. It will be difficult, yes. But at least nothing is static, and the page can always be turned.

Same Old Story

I wrote this poem for my students before saying goodbye for the summer. A video of my performance for one class can be found here: 

you were born into a story you had no hand in writing
before you got here
people already thought a particular way about
your race
your sex
your potential abilities
the money your parents made: that was part of your story
the way people looked at you when they saw
your clothes
your house
your hygiene
and your education was based on how people predetermined
people like you turn out
they didn’t want to leave you behind
but they didn’t want you to get ahead
so instead they created a home for you inside of a box
and gave you just enough light to make you think you could see
and just enough air to make you believe you were breathing
it wasn’t a scheme
it wasn’t a plot
it was simply a way for them to keep contained what they couldn’t comprehend within their brains
you can blame them
but they, too, were born into stories they had no hand in writing
born into families that raised them to believe, “we are okay,
and everyone else is other.
we are right, and everyone else may be right as well,
but less so.”
instead of blaming them,
ask yourself how well you fit inside the box you’ve been placed in
if you have the audacity,
step outside the box and read the label
and ask yourself, “is this me?”
another way to phrase this is,
“who am I?
and who gets to decide?”
are the names
young
white
male
probably protestant
college-educated
economically privileged
heterosexual
above any other name?
do societal norms get to dictate who gets to succeed?
and if I am different then that, then it must not be me?
you have been told that you are a product of your environment
but you were also born with feet to walk away from your environment
and create a new one
born with a voice to speak and say who you are not
born with hands to create and point to what you are
and true, there are those will try to silence you
and too often they will succeed
they will block the paths you choose to walk on
cut the mic you wish to speak from
tie the hands you try to create with
and too often the story you had no hand in writing
will end without your pen ever reaching the page
the multiple choice world didn’t like that you couldn’t fit your intelligence
within a, b, c, or d
so they failed you because you are “none of the above”
they gave you 26 lines and said, “write within the box.”
but you have an infinite amount of thoughts that cannot be captured
by factory-processed prompts
so they denied your college apps
your job apps
your improbability didn’t add up
so they kept you inside the box
that they might second guess
that might give them guilt
but it just makes sense
because they, too, were born into stories they were not invited
to edit or throw out
just told, “stick with the status quo.”
so they stuck with it
and stuck you to it
and all of us turn the gears of a machine that manufactures products of
poverty
racism
classism
sexism
environments we cannot survive in
but one day
while you were on break
at your minimum wage job
after days with no sleep
weeks with no relief
and years with no peace
you found a pen
and you checked your shoulder like you were trained
but for once no one was watching
and you didn’t have paper but you had a handkerchief
that you use to wipe the sweat away
so you used it to wipe the slate
and you wrote a story about a father
who cares for his daughter
despite what the world says about
fathers who look like him
and you couldn’t wait to wake your daughter
and tell her the story
and the next day
she found a paintbrush
and she created something that looks like nothing to no one
but you
and now it hangs in a frame in the hallway
because you said, “the fridge is no place for a masterpiece.”
and the next day she whispered the secret to her friends
about a story we weren’t told
a story so bold
that now they can barely hold their tongues
when handed tests that say nothing about them
and everything about the lie we were handed
and commanded not to change
but the truth finds its way through time
and fights its way through lies
and now there are boys and girls of every
color, shape, and size
age, orientation, and status
who tell the story to each other
and weigh what it means for them
and tell it in a different way
because they are becoming acutely aware of the radical idea
that no one can tell their story who is not holding the pen
one of them is your president
some of them are your teachers
all of them are your children
and all of us
are coming to check our stories out of your library
and never return them
because they were never yours to begin with
right now we are ripping the pages and adding new ones
we are skimming history and laughing at the way things used to be
we are creating entirely new ways of telling the truth that
our story is our story
and the only way to be a part of it is to understand
that before we got here
there was a story we had no hand in writing
but after we leave
it will never be the same

You Are Alive

I used to believe a lie.

Even though I am ultra-cool now to everyone who knows me (I can hear some of you snickering), I used to be uncool. Rather, I used to be ashamed of being uncool.

In the 6th grade, I was bullied for being the scrawny nerd who believed he could play in the NBA one day and had an unusual affinity for rap music (specifically Nelly’s Nellyville). Most days I was called the names children still pass around like candy that’s been poisoned. Most days my mom took me out for lunch to let me breathe for 30 minutes. Most days I was ready to call it quits on school because of the pain that came with it.

The lie I believed was not that I would be in the NBA; that didn’t pan out either, but I (mostly) got over that. There was a deeper lie that took root due to the bullying I experienced that year: I believed I did not have a voice.

In the short span of one year, enough kids told me I did not matter that I started to believe they must be right. Time after time, when my teacher blamed me for painting a target on myself, she painted a picture of me that made me invisible. When an administrator told my mom, “Boys will be boys,” I wondered when I got to be one of the boys and not one of the victims.

It was only the 6th grade. The year after, I started making friends again and the bullies left me alone. A few of them became my friends.

But the small moments that happen to a child—or any human for that matter—can take root and grow into something massive over time. The movie Inception shows the power small ideas can have when they are planted deep in someone’s subconscious. I was only bullied in the 6th grade, but the effects lasted into adulthood.

In high school, my theme song could have been Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” (you know, the one that goes, “I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man”). I was class president, valedictorian, and involved in any club or organization that even remotely interested me.

I don’t say any of this to brag; no one cares what you did in high school starting the day you graduate from high school. I say this because I used to think I had lived out the quirky indie movie about the middle school dweeb-turned-high school cool kid. I thought I had lived the Cinderella story and my underdog roots would carry me through life. I was convinced that I was a real-life Michael Cera.

When we are young, we can be pretty dumb. As soon as I got to college, my social 180 took a spin in the other direction. I realized I had not really emerged from my cocoon of uncool. I commuted to school and found it difficult to fit into the social scene at my university. Instead of digging my heels in and trying harder, I started remembering that voiceless 6th grader that faded into the background of everyone’s minds and concerns.

It’s not something I like to think about or talk about a lot, but on my lonely commute to and from school, I used to imagine a world without me. I would think about how people would go on living after I was dead. I wondered how much I mattered, and I started to believe that lie about myself—the one about how I was voiceless, powerless, and ultimately worthless.

I don’t want to spend too much time talking about that dark period in my life, but I do want to talk about the other side of it. After hitting my version of rock bottom, I took stock of my life and started digging deeper so I could climb up and out of the hole years of insecurity and false security had made. I added a Writing major to my Religion major, and began writing stories that helped me process what I was dealing with internally. I started being a better friend to people who had been there all along.

Slowly, I survived the storm. As Ben Dolnick writes in the novel You Know Who You Are, “the amazing, ordinary thing happened: time passed.” There were certainly other factors that pulled me from the depths of my insecurity, but they all happened because time allowed them to come through for me.

In ten weekdays, I will finish my first year of teaching. This year, I have taught about 100 students who are just a bit older than I was when I was first told I was voiceless. Interacting with them on a daily basis, I have made it my mission to let them know that they have a voice. I cannot give them their own voice, but I can help them find it.

It is a hard task. My students are dealing with social pressures that I never conceived of at their age. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this reality, from the fact that they are dealing with their racial identity at a much earlier age than I did to new technology we as adults don’t even know how to use. My kids are constantly inundated with messages that tell them they, too, are as voiceless or more voiceless than I was.

I wanted to tell you that I found the key to loving people in such a way that they know they have a voice. I wanted to tell you I unlocked a secret in my first year of teaching that most of us spend a lifetime searching to be told.

I did not find that magic solution.

However, I will tell you this: I am alive.

I know that is probably shocking news, so I will give you a moment to process.

I have been thinking about the 6th grade a lot this year. I have been thinking about what it felt like to be voiceless, to feel like I didn’t matter. I have been thinking about how it felt to experience that again in my early adult years.

Lately, I have also been thinking about how I survived those years, those trials, those moments when I felt like I wouldn’t make it, to be alive right here and now.

I stand in front of a classroom of middle schoolers every day, and I tell them they matter both through my words and my actions.

I wrote a blog post about how we are all the 27th line, and almost 55,000 people read it. Many shared it with their children or students to let them know they matter.

I perform my rap music every month in the same room I have seen my favorite bands play.

I drove home this weekend to tell my mother I love her.

I know a group of very special people who I love through stupid jokes and fun adventures.

How did I come to believe I have a voice? I am alive, and that has made all the difference. Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” I have showed up to life every day for over 23 years, I did a few things right here and there, and I started becoming acutely aware of how far my voice truly carries.

You are alive, too.

In this moment, your voice is carrying a lot farther than you realize. You never know what showing up will accomplish. There are people all around you who need you to believe the incredible truth that you are alive.

This past week, I received a note from a student for Teacher Appreciation Week. He is one of my English Language Learners, and he wrote that since I became his teacher, he is no longer afraid to write, but instead has started to learn its importance.

I hope that you stop being afraid of not mattering and start learning that you matter. I hope you know that you are alive right now, and someone needs you to remind them that they are alive too. I hope someday we don’t have to be told we are alive, because we will all just believe it from a very young age.

Until that day, wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and say, “I am alive.” Believe that, then use it. You won’t get it right every time, but every once in awhile, something amazing will happen. Live for that moment, then go after the next one. You will be surprised by what happens to those who believe the truth that they are alive.

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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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