Ears > Mouth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write well only because I read well.

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

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

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

To Be A Teacher
Blackout poem by Austin Kleon

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

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

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

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

Here is a simple test to explain my point:

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

Do you feel that racial intolerance is present in America?

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

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

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

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

Here’s another test:

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Alive

I used to believe a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did not find that magic solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are alive, too.

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

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

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

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

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