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.”

Continue reading

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

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.

Badges

We all wear badges. When I was in the sixth grade, my badges were basketball jerseys. I didn’t want to wear the labels other kids were putting on me, and the only shield I had were jerseys for Dirk Nowitzki, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, etc. I got made fun of for wearing jerseys—not being a good athlete myself—but those badges gave me confidence.

As I started to find my true(r) self in middle and high school, I packed the jerseys into a box in the garage and traded those badges for band tees. Wearing shirts for Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, and Panic! At the Disco, I let everyone know how cool I was for knowing about a band they didn’t. And yeah, I got this at their concert, I would brag.

With age comes some maturity, and though I still consider some of my clothes badges (my students say I have my own swag—I think that’s positive), my badges have taken different shapes. When people tell me I am a good writer, I wear that as a badge. When my students tell me they love me, I wear that as a badge. When I am looked up to as a leader, I wear that as a badge.

I can’t say that all of the badges I have worn have been worth wearing. Clothes are a necessity; it is hard to admit the privilege I experience in calling them badges when there are children without enough clothes to last the week. My pride has been a badge many times, sometimes at the expense of others. The list goes on.

I see my students’ badges every day in the classroom. Some of them wear the badge of intelligence; others, the badge of a great sense of humor. Some wear their good behavior like a badge, while others hold their bad behavior in the same esteem.

Too often I am tempted to see a badge of bad behavior and not look at the person wearing it. If you are anything like me, I was the type of student who believed that my teachers were above petty thoughts. I assumed they were wise enough to know when a kid was genuinely evil or just acting out.

The reality is that adults are equally—and sometimes more—susceptible to writing others off when they seem like bad apples. When a student misbehaves on a regular basis, I start creating a false narrative: this child must love the destruction of my peace. They must brood at night over the ways they will torment me tomorrow with irrelevant comments, inappropriate outbursts, and inopportune times to ask to use the bathroom.

It’s so easy to create animosity between you and your students, especially when knowing you are right makes you forget that they are just children. I recently asked another teacher why a student seems to hate me. When she told me I had written him a referral last year and he hadn’t let it go, I actually replied, “But he started it!”

We need to stop assuming that bad badge means a bad person. Often, people just can’t seem to shake a label. Or feel like there is no other badge available. Or think it is too hard to try for a new badge.

I teach AVID at my school, which is a class designed to prepare students for college. They learn how to take notes, stay organized, study better, and improve life skills necessary for college and the professional world.

If a student is in AVID, they know that there is zero tolerance for bad behavior. I tell the kids that I am like Santa Claus, seeing and hearing everything they do. They find this creepy.

This year, I recommended a few students to be in AVID that wore bad badges last year. I taught them for a full year, seeing the way they disrupted class, picked on other kids, or didn’t complete assignments.

But something about their behavior told me that they didn’t want to wear those badges anymore. So, I recommended them, and they got accepted.

The school year only started three weeks ago, but already I have seen the effects of giving kids a different badge to wear. My bad apples from last year threw out their old badges, and now wear AVID as their badge. It’s a badge that says that I believe in them. It’s a badge that says they deserve to go to college too. It’s a badge that says they want a better future for themselves than what others predicted for them.

I hear students ask them, “How’d you get in AVID?” and their bold reply is always, “Because I deserve to be in it.”

Outside of AVID, I tell other former troublemakers that they are not wearing the same badges anymore. I pulled a student into the hallway the other day and said, “You are not the same person as last year. You are better, and I have seen that. We are not repeating last year because I know you have improved.” From then on, she was perfect(ish).

When my rowdiest period rolls around, I say, “You are wonderful human beings and I love you. Thank you for being here and getting to work.” And even if they weren’t working before I said that, they want to wear the badge of my approval and scramble to find their pencil. 

It’s not the ones who are amazing that always need to be told they are amazing; tell the ones who don’t know they are amazing, who you don’t always think are amazing, that they are. You will surprise them, and then they will surprise you.

We all deserve a better badge to wear. Help someone pin theirs on this week.

 

 

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.

Every Word

“Mr. Taylor, I’m going to start calling you Benjamin, but you can’t be mad at me because I warned you. Okay, Benjamin?”

When it comes to 8th period, all bets are off. At the end of the day, there is an unspoken understanding between my students and I that some jokes will slip through the cracks of my waning late-afternoon discipline.IMG_2054

It never (rarely) gets out of hand, but my students know that when we are all ready to bust through the doors into the open air like a reverse High School Musical, I am more concerned with getting through to them on proper apostrophe usage than correcting their mild irreverence.

In truth, few acts of misbehavior make me visibly upset. The stank face is one. If a student makes the stank face in my general direction, they purchase a one-way ticket to the hallway until they can “fix whatever is wrong with their face”.

But what my students know about me is that the only time I get really visibly upset is when they put each other down. There are words in our society that have bred negativity disguised as harmless idioms that some of my students have unfortunately taken to: one is the r-word and the other is the other f-word (‘f—ggot’).

From the beginning of the school year, I made it clear that inappropriate language in my class included these two words (as well as the negative use of the word ‘gay’) and the use of such words would result in immediate removal from the class. I wanted the consequence of using these words to convey the room I have for such ignorance, which is none.

Only a few students had to learn how serious I was before all of my students knew how serious I was. And yet, when I sent them out I never felt quite right about the consequence: do they learn anything from me kicking them out? From a one-hour detention sentence?

At the beginning of this semester, I reminded my students of the expectations in my classroom. As a first-year teacher, I learned my own lesson about being extremely specific with certain rules (“keep your hands and feet to yourself” makes more sense to a middle-schooler as “if you didn’t bring it in, don’t touch it”).

When I reviewed my rule about the words we use with each other, one of my students raised his hand. “I’m not trying to be rude,” he cautiously started, “but why do those words offend you?”

I explained to the class that when we describe something stupid or ridiculous as “gay”, what we are suggesting is that all people who are “gay” are stupid or ridiculous. Or to say that someone or something is “retarded” is to imply that it is a negative thing to be handicapped. I also reminded them that even if they disagreed with homosexuality, there is a respectful way to disagree with something without calling it stupid or ridiculous.

“Oh,” the kid who had posed the question replied. “If I had known that’s what we were saying, I would have never said those words.”

Sometimes off-handed comments hit you head on.

IMG_2051Most of my kids didn’t know that the use of these words cut certain groups of people down. Most of my kids had heard these words from adults or their peers and assumed they were okay. All of my kids heard me say they were not okay, and thought, “Why?” but never bothered to ask out loud.

For the rest of the day, when I reviewed my rule about language to my other classes, I made sure to tell them why. One of my students that has me for two classes nudged a friend after hearing my explanation again and whispered, “Did you know that?”

A lot of times, my kids just don’t know what they’re saying. They get it secondhand from people they respect or shows they like, and assume it’s acceptable.

A lot of times, we as adult just don’t know what we’re saying. It wasn’t so many years ago that I referred to things as the r-word until a friend made me think about the connotations for the first time. I still hear some of my friends using slurs like these, and I can’t honestly say I am courageous enough to always confront them like I do my students.

It’s not fair for us to assume that people know what they’re saying just because they’re saying it. It is easy to react angrily when we hear things that offend us; it is incredibly difficult to react with patience and kindness. It is difficult to calmly ask, “Why are you using that word?” instead of getting in people’s faces about the offense you believe they have purposely given.

All words come with a set of intentions. Even though a word or sentence is offensive does not mean it comes from a place of purposeful offense.

If it does, we need to work to love the people who hate. We cannot continue to accept the “every person is an island” mantra, because the world will never get better if we continue to put broken people on their own islands far away from the rest of us equally broken people. I have sent so many students out for bullying others, only to regret that I did not try harder to show them how loving others works: not by pushing people away, but bringing them in close and understanding their hurt. What if the friend who corrected me had pushed me away instead of seeking to make me understand what I was saying?

If words do not come from a place of purposeful offense, we cannot offend or hurt back. That makes us hypocrites. We also cannot say, “Eh, they didn’t mean it.” We must have the difficult conversations with one another about words. We must change the way we speak to one another, ensuring that each word that leaves our mouths, each text or post that leaves our fingertips, is conveyed with the intent to lift up and never the intent to pull down. As The National once said, “I think everything counts a little more than we think.”

I was not offended in any way by my student who decided to call me Benjamin, but I explained to him why he couldn’t call me Benjamin even though he had warned me.

“I have to know you respect me, Kevin,” I said, “even by what you call me.”

We have to know we respect each other, through each and every word.