Shadow Living

I recently turned 25, which is an age that seems like it would come with some additional amount of withheld wisdom or at least a senior discount at the movie theater, but so far has only made my students react with wide eyes and the confidence-building question, “But weren’t you really young when you started teaching us?” It’s been quite the ride.

In my 25 years on this earth, I haven’t ascribed much significance to ages. I didn’t start driving until I was 18. 21 didn’t find me at a bar. 22 did not feel like one of the Taylor Swift’s nights on the town. By all accounts, significant moments in my life haven’t come attached to specific ages.

I do frequently think about the 6th grade. In the grand scope of my youth, that was a defining year. That was the year I became my class’s prime candidate for bullying. I was invited into friend groups, only to be kicked out for “making them look bad.” I was asked questions about myself, only to hear the information retold later in jokes at my expense. I was a loser, a lame, that horrible f-word that has been used to degrade the LGBTQ community for decades now. I was pushed around when the teachers weren’t looking, the recipient of spitballs to the back of my head. Teachers assured my mom that they didn’t see anything. My principal asked if maybe I didn’t possess a sense of humor, if I hadn’t understood that “boys will be boys”? Most days, my mom would sign me out for lunch so that I could cry in her Chevy Astro van in the parking lot, a brief reprieve from the harassment.

It was a terrible, terrible year, but when the seventh grade rolled around, it was over. Nothing significant changed in me, but the class moved on to other targets, and I was safe at last. One would think that this was the end of all that noise.

If you look at my high school track record, the sixth grade underdog came up big. I was the class president and valedictorian, involved in Art, Theater, Student Council, National Honor Society, UIL Academics, and my school’s first-ever all-male “dance” team, the Crazy Cats. It was a classic Cinderella story, one that used to make me think that I was real cool.

Of course, life never leaves off where the happy ending in a movie does. There are always more dragons to face after the credits, and rarely do they go easier on you because of past victories. As I entered college in 2009, I was confronted with the challenge of making a new name for myself in a new place. This sea of 8,000 faces was an opportunity to make new friends and make the most of my four years as an undergraduate.

But that’s not how I viewed this new landscape. What I saw were 8,000 faces that could call me a loser again. What I saw was an infinite amount of scenarios in which I could reveal part of myself only to have it thrown back in my face as a joke. I felt vulnerable, exposed to the possibility that I could be hated again for no reason at all. I was standing in the shadow of my sixth grade self, or what those kids had told me about my sixth grade self, and I was afraid of what would happen if I tried to outlive him.

I’m not the only one who does this. I know people who have yet to outlive words people said about them what seems like lifetimes ago to everyone else, but just yesterday to them. I know people who have yet to outrun past mistakes because they can’t believe that grace extends to oneself. I know people who have yet to let go of missed opportunities, believing that life will never be as good as that alternate route they failed to take.

In some ways, we are all shadow people. We all live out, over and over, the words or actions that we cannot seem to shake for all of our successes and triumphs. I have lived a good life filled with so much joy and so much love, yet sometimes I am standing in a room of people I don’t know and am afraid to speak for fear of what they might think of me. I sometimes have entire weeks of feeling sensitive and remaining quiet, avoiding friends and interactions so that I can protect my bruised ego. I am always on guard for people who might belittle me and revert me back to that insecure boy who stopped trusting others to save his self.

For me, stepping out of the shadows of that fateful year is dangerous. It is a constant risk that I do not always perceive as worth taking. I am risking my ego, my feelings, my self-esteem that took so long to build up after that time, and ultimately myself. Whenever any of us decide to step out of the shadows we are hiding in, we run the very scary risk of losing part of what makes us whole.

But when we decide to stay in the shadows, to lick our wounds for our whole lives, to never trust that there is light for us outside of this darkness, we run the even scarier risk of never truly being whole.

I never fully left the shadows of my sixth grade year in college, and the consequence was only being left with a few good friends from that time, friends I can’t even say know the whole me despite how much I cherish them. I have met up with long-time friends to catch up, only to realize I never fully revealed myself to them, and no longer know them because they never really knew me. I have spent months with my guard up around people I could have loved deeper and received deeper love from, had I only let them in sooner.

We deserve to step out of the shadows. There is light on the other side of whatever darkness we wrestle every day.

We deserve to believe that there are truer, kinder words to be spoken of us by people who actually have our best interest in mind. Better stories exist if we only pick up the pen to write them and share them with our loved ones.

We deserve to accept the grace we extend to others. We can spend our lives paying for the past, but we’ll never settle the debt unless we learn to live forgiven.

Shadow living is a difficult and heavy way to live, but it is also incredibly easy, for it is a pain that is known, comfortable, and predictable. Living in the light requires more of us, is a challenge not everyone wishes to risk, but is ultimately a lighter load to carry. Its pain is the pain that James Baldwin describes when he says, “Love is a growing up.”

We deserve to step from the shadows and live in light, so that we may know love and give love and let go of the rest.

Better Love

Depending on which day you ask me, I will tell you that my 7th graders are (a) hilarious, (b) adorable, (c) obnoxious, (d) too hormonal, or (e) horribly mean. That’s a lie: puberty allows them the unique opportunity to embody all 5 of these traits within one day.

I teach three different subjects, so I see some students two or three times a day. It is amazing (or horrifying) how a perfect angel in 2nd period can turn into the alien in the film Alien by 3rd period.

Because of these personality whiplashes, I never know whether to take some students’ comments as humor or insult. Today, on the eve of Valentine’s Day, my students took an intense interest in my love life.

I am asked three or four times a day by four or five students (for an average of 12-20 comments) about my love life. My students remain constantly concerned that I am not taking my personal life serious, that perhaps because I am a first-year teacher I am letting it fall by the wayside.

On a typical day, I will get some variation of the following questions:

  1. Are you dating anyone yet?
  2. How is your girlfriend? I know you have one. Is it Ms. So-and-So?
  3. Have you considered dating Ms. So-and-So? I can introduce you if you’re nervous.
  4. Did you go on a date this weekend? Why not?
  5. Are you worried that a girl won’t like your beard?
  6. You should get out more and try to meet new people. You know you have to put yourself out there if you’re ever going to get a girlfriend, right?
  7. Why did you break up with your last girlfriend? What if that was your last shot?

Don’t be jealous: I know you wish you had a tiny army of preteens who cared this much about your romantic well-being. Somehow I juggle these questions with various denials, quips, and general mopey faces and still manage to teach them subject-verb agreement.

One of the more insulting conversations I had was with one of my best students. That’s the thing about having good students—they have to go and get a big head about it. I was talking with her and her friend after school, and the friend was checking out guys on the football team as they ran to practice.

My student said, “Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

The girl, still maintaining eye contact with the backside of football players’ uniforms, replied, “Not at the moment.”

I thought this was hilarious, so I nudged the girl and said, “Single on the weekends, am I right?!”

And my student, without hesitating, nudged me and said, “Single all your life, am I right?!”

She moved down my list of good students immediately.

Today, I was met with an exponentially more severe amount of love life questions centering around my Valentine’s Day plans. In a truly Oscar-worthy monologue, one girl splashed me with a cold glass of reality:

“Mr. Taylor, don’t you want to have a family some day? You don’t have much time. You’re already in your 20s, so you need to get started soon. You haven’t even started dating someone, and you have to date them, marry them, and then have kids. Do you understand how little time you have? You already look like you’re in your 30s. Have you even shaved lately? Because it looks like you haven’t shaved in weeks. I’m worried about you.”

Cupid has not shot me with an arrow in a few years, but my students haven’t failed to take aim. And she was right: I haven’t shaved in 2014 at all.

In truth, I never find these conversations insulting. These are the type of absurdly hilarious comments that keep me going when the going gets tough and the kids get annoying. If I seriously worried about getting a girlfriend, maybe the story would be different. But believe me, my apathy about my romantic world balances out their sole interest in it.

What worries me is that some of my kids really do think it is the end of the world that tomorrow they will not receive a Valentine. Right now, some of my kids are figuring out a way to feign an illness or make up a significant other who “goes to another school”. As middle schoolers, they are wired in such a way that they can’t help but treat tomorrow as social life or death.

Several of them have started to roll the “L” word around in their mouth, seeing how it tastes when it is applied to someone other than family. Some of them are already regretting that they didn’t reserve it for their mom and dad.

Middle school romance is usually funny due to the total dramatization of a totally insignificant moment in their lives. I will comfort a girl crying over a boy one day, and the next day listen to that same girl go on and on about the boy in 7th period she hadn’t noticed before today. And somehow the universe always maintains a perfect balance of Drake songs that cover both the falling in and out of relationships.

As unserious as most of it is, my kids are discovering both the mushy-gushy side of staying on the phone long after curfew and the very destructive side of believing whole-heartedly they will never be worthy of love.

I recently read a Lorde interview in which she criticized the type of love-or-bust music that Lana Del Rey makes:

“I was just thinking it’s so unhealthy for girls to be listening to, you know, ‘I’m nothing without you.’ This sort of shirt-tugging, desperate, ‘don’t leave me’ stuff. That’s not a good thing for young girls, even young people, to hear.”

Leave it to a 17-year-old to articulate a truth even adults have trouble understanding.

My kids are currently working on a poetry project in which they pick out the poetic conventions used in their favorite songs and analyze what the song means based on how the artist uses these conventions. I have to check over their analyses before they are allowed to make their posters. As I was going through their papers, one device kept popping up: hyperbole, hyperbole, hyperbole.

I started to tell a few of them to pick out different devices, but after combing through the lyrics, I found that they had picked out everything there was.

Miley Cyrus has a song on the radio letting her boo know that she “just started living” when she met him.

Katy Perry has a song on the radio letting her boo know that all his dirty laundry never made her blink “one time”.

Drake has a song on the radio letting his boo know that she is “everything” that he needs.

The band keeps playing, and kids keep taking it to heart. These hyperboles are slowly slipping their way into children’s subconscious, convincing them that this is how love works.

When those children become adults, they don’t know how to be alone because the radio tells them that life doesn’t start without a significant other.

When those children become adults, they don’t know to be together because they expect people to fulfill every need humans weren’t made to fill.

Eventually the joke about middle school romance gets old, and the “L” word starts to leave a bitter taste in their mouths. That same student who made the “single all your life” joke about me was sitting with me after school one day, updating me on all of the hot gossip (don’t judge; it’s really juicy in junior high). She finished up a story about a complicated love hexagon, and finished by saying, “People be taking relationships too serious. That thing that you’re doing ain’t all that serious at this age. Right now, you’re just playing. That’s why I had to break up with my last boyfriend: we were having fun, and then he got too serious. I told him he was too young to know what he was talking about.”

Do you ever get the feeling that we are all too young to know what we are talking about? That my students, Lana Del Rey, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Drake, me, and you all share that in common?

True love is serious; it is not meant to be taken, or given, lightly. But please hear this: You are valuable with or without a significant other. Your worth does not come from the love that you get but from the love that you give.

Today, if you are alone, look around. There is someone there that you failed to notice, just like my kids when they finally see the cute boy or girl next to them in 7th period. And I don’t mean that romantically for you: you are not alone if you have even one friend. I have never met a single person that didn’t feel lonely every once in awhile. Bright Eyes put it best: “You’re not alone in anything/you’re not alone in trying to be.” So stop trying to be.

Today, please look up. Please love the people around you, and please love yourself.

A student who is analyzing a Christian rap song asked me what humility is, and I said, “It means you know that any good thing you do is because of God and not you.”

She asked, “Oh, so it’s like having a low self-esteem?”

I clarified, “No, people my age confuse humility and low self-esteem all the time. A low self-esteem means you hate yourself, but humility means you love yourself but not because of what you’ve done but what God has done in you. You are not the reason you are valuable, but that doesn’t make you any less valuable.”

It’s time we tell ourselves a better message about love. Am I right?

Taking Candy, Inspiration From Kids

It took me just three months as a teacher to exploit my children for personal gain. This past week, my seventh graders were roused to trick-or-treat after an impassioned speech from Mr. Taylor about how you are never too old for free candy.

Before I sent them on their way Thursday, I asked them to please keep me in mind when taking inventory of their stash. I told them that though you are never too old for free candy, there is an age where dressing up and knocking on doors for candy becomes less socially acceptable. With tears welling up in my eyes, I told my children I feared that time had come for me.

“Please,” I said, “if you can spare any candy, I would be eternally grateful.”

Rather than taking the bait, my students made fun of me. There was not a grain of mercy for their old, decrepit English teacher who just recently found his first gray hair. It was heartbreaking.

But unbeknownst to them, I always have a Plan B. Halloween just so happened to fall the day before grades were due for the 2nd 6 weeks and I saw my opportunity. “Let me put this in simple terms for you guys,” I continued. “You may not have candy for me tomorrow, but I may not have a passing grade for you.”

After I subdued a small riot, one of my students said, “You can’t change our grade just because we don’t bring you candy!”

“You may not want to find out what I can do to your grade,” I replied.

Of course, this was all in jest. I had already finished putting their grades in for the 6 weeks. But they didn’t need to know that. “Let them wonder,” I thought.

The next day, I started each class by asking everyone to pull out their candy and pass it forward.

“Come on, don’t be greedy,” I said. “Remember that we all want to pass this 6 weeks. Keep the candy with nuts; I only want the good stuff.”

I shouldn’t disclose how much candy I ended up receiving, but if you were to guess in the ballpark of 100 individually wrapped sweets, you wouldn’t be far off.

Truthfully, I know my students didn’t give me candy because they thought it would affect their grade. My kids are very thoughtful, and shared plenty of candy with each other, whether in negotiations for Starbursts or just out of sheer generosity. They’re great kids, most of the time.

I’ll be honest, though: I do wish grading them was based on something as easy as how much candy they give me. I wish I could give them an ‘A’ for every time they make me laugh or just do their homework on time, even if it’s completely wrong. But I wouldn’t be growing them as students or individuals if that were the case. And so, I grade on.

I started a game with myself where I try to grade everything and enter it into the gradebook in my off-periods before the day is over. I rarely win, but it motivates me.

The other day, I was rushing through some multiple-choice quizzes about internal and external conflict when I saw words written next to a question. It was from a student in my 2nd period who never talks to me. The most he has ever said to me is “okay” when I tell him to tuck his shirt in every day. He turns in assignments just as often as he comes to class with his shirt tucked in—never. There are days when I hand him a piece of paper and—though he doesn’t move from his seat—he has lost it by the end of class.

It was a miracle I was holding this quiz of his. And, here was proof he could write, as he had scribbled a small note next to one of the questions.

The question asked which conflict out of all the answer choices was an example of human vs. society. The correct answer was, “A. A Christian is made fun of for his beliefs.” Next to that answer choice, this boy had drawn an arrow to the side where he wrote, “Happens to me all the time :(.”

I was confounded. Out of the 60 days he had chances to speak to me and didn’t, he chose this quiz to finally share some personal detail about himself. Not just any personal detail either, but a conflict that must deeply upset him.

For a minute, I selfishly considered moving on so that I could stay on track to finish grading. It was a sad thing to share, and something I have personally dealt with, but what am I going to write back to him that could hold any weight?

But I knew from experience that when a child finally decides to open up to you, as awkwardly-timed and placed as it may be, you have to jump on the opportunity to connect with them. I wrote back two short lines: “Happened to me too. Makes you stronger.” 

It wasn’t much; just seven words to say I had been there and became better for it. I was grading while he and his classmates were silently reading, so I walked the quiz over to him with a stack of other papers he had turned in only a month late. I made sure the quiz was on top, then walked back to my desk.

On the back wall of my room, I have a poster for students to place sticky notes with personal questions for me so that I can share with them when I am not in the middle of teaching. I call it ‘Backstage’ to fit my music theme, and because you only ask personal questions of musicians backstage after the show. You can’t just shout at them about their life experiences while they’re performing.

After class, I noticed that a new sticky note had found its way to the poster. Usually the questions are hilarious or heartfelt (personal funny faves include “Where do you get your shirts?” and “What does the fox say?”), so I immediately walked back to see what new question awaited me.

Four words graced the sticky note. The student who had just “talked” to me for the first time had signed his name under three words:

“I’m a soldier.” IMG_1848

There are days when grading makes me hate the world. There are moments when my students are not my favorite people to be around. There are times when I question if I am getting through to the students who do not speak to me or turn assignments in.

And then there are moments like this one. I am reminded why I teach, why I cannot pass up opportunities to connect with students, and why sometimes getting done with grading and the million other tasks I have is just not as important as telling a student that the ridicule you get for your faith will only make you stronger.

I still do not know this student very well, but we have the beginnings of a bond now. Somehow, in seven simple words I reminded him that he is a soldier. And in three simple words, he reminded me that I must stand strong in my faith, which to me means I must give all of my love and service to these children even when it feels like I am at war with apathy and to-do lists.

There is a Local Natives song where the singer admits, “Every night I ask myself: Am I loving enough?” It is a question that never returns a satisfying answer for me. There is always more that I can be doing for my students, for my friends, and for my family. That being said, I constantly feel inspired to love a little bit more every day, especially when I have students who are the ones teaching me.