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.

The Neutral Lives of Teachers

I teach at a school that once was a church, and the steeple still resides atop the elementary school building. Most of the students I teach identify as Christian or Catholic. So far as I am aware, there is not a single Muslim student in our school. Based on what my students have disclosed in class, they have never met or regularly interacted with someone of the Islamic faith. Most of what they know about Muslims they have heard on TV or seen on social media.

Lately the media has abounded with hateful, degrading, and dehumanizing comments toward people of the Islamic faith community. After a certain politician took degrading comments about Muslims to a new level last week, I decided to tell my students that regardless of religious beliefs, we owe every faith and non-faith tradition the respect that we would expect to have from them. I gave my kids the option of sharing a letter on social media to tell Muslims that they have value, they are beautiful, and they have a place at our table. I myself wrote a letter which—although I stand by the overall message—I will not repost here as I wrote it quickly in class while keeping one eye on my working students, and thus did not polish my words to communicate everything exactly right.

After posting a picture of my letter, a (former) Facebook friend commented that I should not “indoctrinate” my students with my own personal opinions. And, although I generally do not take teaching advice from people who have never taught, I thought seriously about his position on the issue. Should teachers reserve their opinions in the classroom at all times? Does taking a stance in front of my kids inherently push my values onto them? Are educators expected to remain neutral in the professional setting of their classroom? Indeed, a poster above my desk says, “The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see” (Alexandra Trenfor).

I spend a lot of time teaching my kids where to look. If I had to guess, I would say that I spend more time than the average teacher talking about how to critically analyze the messages my students see every day. That is no dig to other teachers; if anything, it is a dig at a government that has consistently placed high stakes testing over the ability to actually think. I have an advantage by teaching an elective that focuses on the vague principle of “postsecondary preparation.”

I believe a large part of postsecondary preparation is having the skills to critically analyze media messages. Many college courses are student-driven discussions based on readings, and I believe that I am preparing my students for college by teaching them to critically read about current events. I just wrapped up a unit with my students where we studied the basic principle that (1) all media messages are constructed (2) using a specific language (3) with an embedded set of values and (4) are typically seeking profit or power. We talked about the myth of “unbiased news” and spent a lot of time reading, writing, and debating the messages we observed. Who is giving us this message? What message are they giving us? Why? And, ultimately, do we accept it or not, and why?

One of the best lessons my kids have taught me in the last three years is that you have to earn a relationship with someone; your age, expertise, or authority do not excuse your need to know someone before you start trying to teach them something. One of Maya Angelou’s many pieces of wisdom was that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Thus, my kids have learned to not take any message at face value. It doesn’t matter if they like the person saying something: what are they saying, and do I agree with it?

As their teacher, although many of them seem to like me (fingers crossed), my position doesn’t make my words gospel to them. I know they feel comfortable disagreeing with me, because they do it all the time. And I don’t mean in petty arguments about their behavior; I mean in the real issues that drive at the heart of what it means to be human in 2015. I have deeper and more respectful conversations with my students about political issues than 99% of Facebook is having right now.

I would hate to leave the classroom someday and have my students wonder who I really was. I like to think that they are getting all of me, not some paid pawn reading from a script. I am a fan of NPR’s Secret Lives of Teachers segment, but in my classroom, there is no secret life of Mr. Taylor. I am the same to them as I am to my friends. We argue about rap, I use my trademark self-deprecating humor, and I occasionally share an opinion about topical issues. On my birthday this past Monday, one said, “So you’re 25. No wife. No kids. No prospects.” This is indicative of how much they know me, and how sad my life sometimes seems to them.

I think more of us should recognize the distinction between telling people what we think and telling people what to think. In telling people what we think, we trust them with part of who we are, the experiences and environmental conditions that led us to believe something about the world, ourselves, and others. Conversely, in telling people what to think, we insult them by forcing our own experiences onto them and expecting them to fall in line with us.

If I could destroy one cliché, it would be “because I said so.” It implies that authority supersedes a relationship. It says that your power outweighs all other considerations. It says that an adult’s words are good enough evidence, when we live in a world where adults often abuse, mistreat, and otherwise disregard the feelings of children.

Instead, I tell my kids what I think and why I think it, and then I let them, as fully functioning humans, determine if it is true for them or not. They don’t absorb my words as facts; they have more critical eyes than all of the conservatives and liberals who read the same news sources every day and repeat what they’re told.

I also wonder what effect it has on kids to put them in front of eight adults a day and expect those adults to never share personal opinions. Take a look at your social media, your last family gathering, or the last time you were in the break room and Donald Trump was brought up. Did everyone stay neutral? Did everyone sidestep the conversation and reserve their personal opinions? I highly doubt it. And if in most cases adults do not maintain neutrality amongst their peers, what kind of false reality are we building for our kids when eight times a day they interact with adults who don’t seem to think anything about anything?

I would rather my kids know where I stand on certain issues and strongly disagree with me than assume that adults mostly feel nothing about critical issues. I would rather they know that the world is not a neutral place, and they need to know how to disagree with people and still maintain relationships. The person who posted on my letter has never actually hung out with me one-on-one, or spent any time in the last four years with me, so I felt compelled to remove him from my Facebook (and essentially, my life), and move on. I don’t want to teach my kids that eliminating friends with different viewpoints is how life works, nor is imposing viewpoints on people when there is no relationship present.

When it comes to neutrality, I think teachers need to do two things. The first is to teach kids how to think, because without teaching them how to think they will never truly be prepared for the realities ahead of them.

The second is to teach them, by example, how to be human. More often than not, when my students have class debates and discussions, I step out of the way and allow them to learn the ins and outs of forming opinions and having respectful conversations. I don’t share my opinion, because I don’t want to be the loudest one in the room. It’s a good way for everyone to try to live.

But every once in awhile, when the world seems to be going awry, and not enough people are speaking up for Muslims, or women, or people of color, or children, I open my mouth and I speak from the heart. And my heart, more than my brain, more than my opinions, more than anything else, is what defines me as a teacher and a person. I would rather be wrong in front of my kids a million times than not speak my mind to them even once.

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

That’s Progress

Growing up, I remember when my friends would tell me that they got paid $10 per A on their report cards. Some of their parents paid them on a scale, and even doled out $5 per B. Some of my friends were stacking up $80 every grading cycle, and I envied them for it. They were getting rewarded for something my parents expected of me.

Granted, I got paid too. But I only got $10 for the whole report card, and all 8 grades had to be As. I recognize that many children are not paid for their grades, and I’m speaking from a place of privilege as well, but I never understood the difference in pay scale that existed between my peers and me.

Glass 8% Empty
Sometimes I am a glass 8% empty person.

My parents always expected me to do my best, and in their definition of ‘best’, my best had to be the best. If I came home with a 92, my parents would inquire about the missing 8 points. Glass 8% empty kind of thing.

I’m not saying any of this to dog on them (hi, Mom and Dad). My parents are the most supportive people in my life, and they tell me they are proud of me on a weekly basis. Sometimes I feel they tell me they are proud of me just for breathing (sometimes that is enough).

It is also because they pushed me so hard that I am the person I am. I am eternally grateful for their blend of immense love and high standards. Not every child gets that.

When it comes to my life and my work as an adult, I often remember to keep my parents’ high bar, but just as often I forget to hold their deep pride for me. No one is harder on me than me. I beat myself up far easier than I celebrate myself. If I succeed in something, I feel the briefest sense of pride before I ask, “What’s next?” If I fail, however, I welcome an extended sense of shame that I will hold until another one comes along. 

Next week my students are taking their state-mandated exam in English. As we prepare for the test, I relate to the anxiety they feel over these test scores that mean very little. I remember when I got my first B in college, and the resulting fear that I had lost some self-worth I would never get back.

I do my best to encourage them while giving them results on reviews and assessments and retests. If I give them a grade that is less than stellar, I try to remind them that this and any other number have no correlation to their value as humans. 

But it is hard for us humans to not overburden ourselves with the weight of numbers or labels that society has told us are important. We are categorized in innumerable ways that mean almost nothing but are treated as everything. Who has truly learned how to overcome these boxes we are told to shrink and squeeze into?

I can write and talk about how state tests are unfair and biased, but I would be lying if I said the scores don’t worry me. If my kids don’t pass, they have to take the test again. If they don’t pass the second time, they go to summer school and take it a third time. Those promises I make about the test score not defining their value start to fall on deaf ears as self-doubt mounts in their minds.

Where is the peace for our troubled minds?

One of the ways I am preparing my students for the test is by having them look at the score for each individual standard from their benchmark. They may have received a 40 on the test, but perhaps they scored an 80 on poetry. That is something to celebrate. Now they can focus on nonfiction, where maybe their score brought the overall average down. It is a great way to take the pressure away from one big number to focus on small, attainable goals.

Last week a student brought a reassessment to me so that I could grade it and give him feedback. He scored a 40 on the assignment. I handed it back to him, and his shoulders slumped as he started to walk away. That shoulder slump resonated deeply with me.

That's progress.But then, something else happened that caught me by surprise. Halfway through his first step back to his desk, he stopped, turned to me, and said, “Wait a minute. I got a 0 for this standard on the benchmark. This is a 40. That’s progress.” His shoulders were now straight, a smile coming across his face.

We high-fived, and he walked with pride back to his seat. It hit me hard. He hadn’t passed. He hadn’t reached his goal. But he got a little closer.

There are things I do as a teacher that will never show up on paper, and yet they are the greatest things I will ever do for my kids. I have mentored boys to speak with respect to girls and not make homophobic comments to one another. I have talked girls and boys through drama and breakups and all of the hard parts about being a middle schooler. I have spent time off taking my students to see movies and events that I knew would have a meaningful impact on them. I have loved them deeper than I thought possible.

Trust me when I say that I do not mention these moments as boasts. I forget that I do them all the time. I focus on the wrong parts of my day and remember my worst moments far more than my best. 

They are moments that do not return an immediate impact. Sometimes I feel like I have repeated the same sentence to the same student for two years now, with no visible effect. But every day, every time I do the real work of a teacher, I need to remember that I am getting a little closer. When a student acts just a little bit better than yesterday, I need to say, “That’s progress,” and hold my shoulders high. There are small moments of progress every day, if we would just choose to look for them instead of moments of failure.

You > Test Scores

This year I started a project to send my poetry and music to anyone who was interested in reading, listening, and being my pen pal. One of my dear friends purchased a set of my greeting cards for her students to give to them before their state test. Yesterday I received a package from her that included one of the greeting cards, returned to me. The card reads, “You > Test Scores.” She reminded me that I am more than test scores too. She knows my heart, even though she is miles away. I am grateful for her.

Perhaps I am not writing you a personal letter, but I want you to know that you are more than test scores, more than labels, more than anything anyone could ever put into words. You are valuable beyond measure, and someone is immensely proud of you. If you can’t think of someone who is, perhaps that person should be you. 

Your day should not be measured by the moments you failed; it should be measured by the times you picked yourself up and kept going. Your life should be measured by the immeasurable impact you have on others. It won’t come back as a number. It might not come back at all. The only indicator you will have is in the moments you remind yourself or someone else reminds you that you are worth so much more than what is expressible.

Earlier today, I texted my mom to tell her I will be performing my first hometown show in a few weeks. She texted back, “Proud of you!” with a lot of emojis. My first thought was, “Why?” I haven’t done anything yet. I might mess up. But then, I stopped myself mid-thought, turned around, and smiled. She was proud, and that was enough. I’m a little closer to something, and it feels like home.

The Strength in Sorry

When I started teaching, a lot of friends and family members expected me to be lax in the discipline department. I am rarely visibly fazed, and so laidback I am practically reclining. Half of me feared that I would turn out to be like the unsuspecting substitutes my friends and I used to run all over during high school.

We were all wrong about me, though. My students know that I am easy to joke with, but I also run a tight ship. If one student so much as utters a sound during the first five minutes of class, all twenty students return to the hallway to start the day over. It is in that space that I have given many of my greatest speeches, including one that started with this humble brag: “The great thing about me is that I don’t give up. And if you want to keep testing your limits, that’s fine. I’ve yet to back down. Try harder. I wish you all the luck in the world.” Some of my non-troublemaking students really appreciate my ability to make these speeches up on the spot, and will smile knowingly throughout my ramblings.

Despite my strictness, office referrals are not difficult to avoid in my classroom. I believe in doing my best to settle discipline with a student on my own, in order to maintain positive relationships and develop solid conflict-resolution skills. Most of classroom management comes down to being able to talk to a student person-to-person, and not escalating a situation beyond what is necessary.

My smarter students know that, after receiving a reprimand, the only thing required to settle a small dispute is to say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it. That’s it. I don’t need a speech. I don’t need a grand gesture of sorrow. I definitely don’t need an excuse. I just need an acknowledgement of the wrongdoing, and then we can move on.

The problem with our world at large is that we do not live in an age of apologies. Our culture runs a lot of self-celebrating mantras up the flagpole: No Regrets, No Apologies, Do You, etc. In each of these precepts, the idea is that whatever you believe to be right is right, and everything else is just collateral damage.

I’m not sure what the hip lingo is these days, but not long ago the trendy joke to make was, “Sorry I’m not sorry.” It was an insult pinned on stereotyped sorority girls, but a conviction indirectly aimed at my entire generation. For actions we are expected to feel guilt for, we “regretfully” decline any remorse or even an ounce of self-reflection. 

A classic line I often see in the media and in real life is the non-apology: “I’m sorry you took it that way.” This is a poorly veiled way of saying, “I have done nothing wrong, but I am sorry that you’re so sensitive you took my actions offensively. It must suck to take everything so seriously.”

The problem with saying sorry in the modern age is that we’ve begun to confuse apologies with weakness. If someone realizes they are in the wrong, and takes responsibility for it, they must be weak. It goes against everything our current culture teaches us about saying what we feel with zero concern for how others take it. A few weeks ago I posted a blog about being careful with our words in relation to certain media events, and I was called some pretty vulgar names by complete strangers. The irony was not lost on me, though I’m afraid it was on them.

I recently read Joan Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect,” and something she said struck me. She defined character as “the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life,” which, she explains, is “the source from which self-respect springs.”Joan Didion's Definition of Self-Respect

Our world does not have a lot of character, at least by these standards. This morning my pastor asked us to think about the people we haven’t apologized to, and I felt some strong conviction. I have a running list in my head of people I owe apologies, but I have not even attempted to pay those dues.

I carry that guilt around and let it weigh me down, and I think I am starting to understand what Didion meant by self-respect. If I had more of it, I would have owned up to my mistakes the minute I made them. Or at least I would’ve owned up to them by now. If our culture had real self-respect, we wouldn’t be so miserable with ourselves as we pretend to live freely and without regret.

A few weeks ago a student confided an intimate secret in another student, and that student let the secret slip almost instantly. As the rumor mill goes in middle school, the secret reached everyone’s ears by the end of the lunch period. After school, the student with the secret came to my room to talk to me about the day’s events. As she expressed her hurt over having her secret revealed, the other student walked in.

This ought to be good, I thought.

The student asked if he could sit with us, and I motioned him to the open desk at our table. After taking his seat, he sighed heavily, and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I told one person, and they told everyone, and I see now that I was wrong for telling anyone in the first place. Please forgive me.”

“Why should I?” the girl implored. “You broke my trust. How could I ever give it back to you?”

The apologizer looked to me, as if I had some magic solution. “Mr. Taylor, can you help me?” he asked.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” I started, unsure of where this was going. “She will probably not forgive you for a long time, if at all. What you did was wrong. I am not going to rub your nose in it anymore, because it seems to me you are sincerely regretful. You don’t need guilt on top of guilt. What I will tell you is that this—you coming and apologizing—says a lot about your character. You have more integrity than I do, and I respect you for that. For now, you need to find comfort in the fact that although you made a mistake, you realized it and did the right thing afterward. That is more than I can say for many students and most adults I know, myself included.

I wish I could tell you that the two students mended their bond, and that they remained friends. I cannot speak to this. I have not seen them talk since it happened. The girl told me after he left that she could not forgive him, and I told her that she had every right to be angry, that she did not have to forgive him immediately, but that eventually it might be necessary in her healing process.

The hard and necessary part about apologies is that the admission of wrongdoing makes you very vulnerable in the hands of the person you hurt. You are giving all of your power to someone who was damaged by your words and your actions. The odds are not in your favor, nor should they be. You are the wrongdoer, after all.

However, I am starting to believe that the strongest people left in our world are those who own up to their mistakes, swallow their pride, and apologize to those they have hurt. After all, every single one of us is guilty of hurting others. The only difference between us is those who have owned up to it and those who have not.

The strange and beautiful thing about being on the giving end of an apology is that you also begin to find more grace in your heart to forgive others. When you have been the transgressor, you know the fear of not receiving forgiveness, and so become more understanding of the human capacity to make messes. It doesn’t mean that you excuse people for their mistakes; but you don’t hold a grudge either, the equivalent of drinking rat poison and waiting for the other person to die.

I am not one of the strong ones yet. I owe some apologies, I owe some graces. I have yet to hone the character that Didion notes is so rare in our world. For someone who usually only looks for an apology from his students to make things right, I sure keep a lot of people waiting on mine.

I think I will start this week, resting in the comfort that although I may not receive forgiveness, I might develop some strength in saying sorry.