The Sweet Spot of Self-Talk

I once thought that grade school bullies were my worst enemies; that was before I picked up their tricks. Only one year of my life was spent being bullied by others, but it was plenty of time to learn how to bully myself for the next ten.

When it comes to self-deprecation, I can downplay myself with the best of them. Attribute any good quality to me, and watch me bat down that compliment like a wasp is headed for my face. A typical exchange goes down like this:

Praiser: “Ben, I hear you’re a great rapper.”

Praisee (me): “Someone must not listen to a lot of rap.”

It’s one of the most common defense mechanisms of our modern world: in case anyone may not find you worthwhile, be the first to suggest it’s true. My self-esteem went from minimal to nonexistent in just one year of elementary school. In response, when other people tried to take my value away, I started taking it before anyone else had the chance.

It worked too. Even today, a lot of my friends appreciate my ability to cut myself down with a pointed comment about my socially awkward style of living. When my roommate attempts to convince me that a girl likes me, I reply, “Yeah, from a distance!”

In some ways, the ability to make fun of yourself is healthy. If done correctly, you may actually possess a high self-esteem that allows you to self-deprecate without self-loathing.

If you aren’t careful, however, you can easily cross that thin line between humor and reality. The fear that others may see through your #flawless social media presence to the #flawed real person pushes you into a dangerous territory where you try to protect yourself by beating yourself up.

Have a talent? Tell people you’re “not that good” or that you “just do it as a hobby.” That way, if they don’t think you’re good, they won’t think it means the world to you.

Have an amazing personality trait? Tell people it’s “not that big of a deal” or that you haven’t really seen it yourself. “You’re so funny!” they say. You look away sheepishly and reply, “Really? I’ve never thought that about myself.” Then, if someone doesn’t see that trait in you, they at least know you don’t either and don’t blame you for others being misinformed.

This modern form of self-loathing is often misnamed as humility. I was raised in church all of my life, where the word ‘humility’ is often thrown about but never properly defined for teenagers already neck-deep in self-hate. Don’t be proud or boastful? Uhh, easy! Don’t take credit for the goods things you’ve done? Check! I’m the best Christian ever!

I cannot pinpoint this blame on any preacher or church leader. On one hand, I was told to acknowledge that all good things come from God and not me. On the other hand, I needed more reminders that I am a good thing that came from God. “God didn’t make no junk” never really resonated with me, as the bad grammar probably turned me off to the message. Instead, I went on believing/pretending that hating myself meant I loved God more than anyone else.

I heard somewhere that to “love your neighbor as yourself” means you must first love yourself to know how to love your neighbor. We always focus on how to love our neighbor, but forget that the simile compares the love you should have for your neighbor with the love that you have for yourself.

By this logic, if you hate yourself, you’ll treat your neighbor the same. If you cannot give yourself grace, how will you possibly offer it to others around you? We have internalized the message that forgiving ourselves for some failures is impossible, and so we withhold the same forgiveness from others. It is a poisonous cycle, one that we must reverse to even possibly change the way the world is now.

i_KENDRICKLAMAR_FINAL
Kendrick Lamar’s single artwork for “i.”

Kendrick Lamar recently released a new song called “i,” in which he raps about depression he’s faced since adolescence and a world out to crush his spirit. He responds to these struggles with a rousing battle cry in the chorus: “I love myself.”

In an interview with Hot 97, Kendrick stated that he wrote the song for “these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don’t want to live no more.” For those who don’t see the light in themselves, Kendrick offers three words to change the language they use when speaking about themselves.

But I also feel as if Kendrick knows something about true humility as well. The title of the song is a lowercase i, which is printed clearly on the single artwork as well as the hat he wears during the interview with Hot 97. The lowering of the case seems to indicate that self-love does not equal pride. Loving yourself doesn’t mean you place yourself on a pedestal; it just means you recognize your worth despite your flaws.

I started teaching an afterschool session with high school students about life after graduation. Each week we talk about different aspects of the college application process or college life. Today we discussed interview etiquette, specifically how to answer questions that ask you to speak well of yourself.

“There is a sweet spot of self-talk,” I told them. “On one end of the spectrum, you can speak so poorly about yourself that no one will hire you or accept you into their college because you let them down before they got the chance to know you. On the opposite end, you can speak so highly of yourself that no one will accept you because they can’t teach someone who thinks they have it all figured out.”

A girl shot her hand up and asked, “But how do you find the balance?”

“Uhh…” I hesitated. How much should I say about my decade-long journey to love myself with a lowercase i?

I considered the pros and cons of spilling too many beans about Ben to my students, and then I went for it: “Look, I used to get bullied, and then I used it as an excuse to bully myself for a long time until I realized that until I loved myself, I wasn’t going to be able to accept love from others or give love to others. So I just stopped bullying myself. Well, I didn’t just stop. It took me a long time. Like, a really long time. It wasn’t anything specific about me that I started loving. I just realized that I am worthy of love and I need to love myself. I’m full of flaws. But I also can talk about the good things I’ve done and be proud of them and not get a big head about them. I guess I’m saying all of this so that it doesn’t you a decade to get to where I am. Cut the corner and start speaking well of yourself now, and eventually you’ll believe it. Just don’t be a jerk about it when you do.”

I’m not sure if this was the answer she was looking for, but she started taking notes after I finished rambling. I’m no expert on how to self-love yet, but I have picked up a thing or two. And I love myself enough to believe that the ripples I set off in my students will be waves by the time they reach someone else.

You Are Alive

I used to believe a lie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did not find that magic solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are alive, too.

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

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

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

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

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The 27th Line

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more about love, respect, and how to change the world than any other event, person, or experience in my lifetime. They are incredibly intelligent, highly talented individuals who encourage me daily to be a better person.

I don’t need a test to tell me how valuable they are to our future.

If they pass the STAAR tomorrow, it may say a lot about their growth as students. It may provide some evidence of their success in middle school. It may slightly indicate some part of their intelligence.

But it won’t measure their worth as humans. It won’t tell the whole story.

There has been a lot of criticism in recent years about the way education waters down learning the common core, the way teaching has turned to content and skills that may not matter at all.

We have imprisoned creativity and labeled imagination worthless. We have boxed children into standards that say next to nothing about their abilities. We have mislabeled intelligence as the ability to answer multiple-choice questions.

Today, I reminded my students that no one—not the world, the government, test-makers, parents, friends, family, nor society—gets to tell their story if they don’t let them.

I sometimes hesitate to post stories about my students because it communicates to you that I believe my students’ stories are mine to tell. Just because I teach them and always speak highly of them does not mean that I always share the story about them that they might share about themselves. I try to do them justice, but I sometimes fall short.

Part of the reason I write about my kids, and tell my version of their story (because really, it is our story), is because there are far too many negative, incorrect narratives about them. Some of my students are unaware of the way society portrays them, but most of them are fully aware of the way the world sees them. They need fighters in their corner. They need someone to point out stereotypes of them and tell them, “This isn’t you.”

Since becoming a teacher, I have heard a thousand ignorant comments about how people see inner-city children. I have been devastated by friends who assume certain stereotypes about my children because they have never heard a better story about them. I believe it is my responsibility to tell the world a different, better, truer story about my children.

Don’t take this as me saying that I get to tell my kids’ stories for them—they are the only ones with the power to do that. All I have the right to do is tell my story, which often involves them as leading characters.

But when I was their age,  bullies had told me so many untrue stories about myself that I had started to believe their fairytales. If it weren’t for the people who told me a different story, I would never have become the man I am. I wouldn’t be the Ben Taylor who knows his story is important and worth telling to others. I owe the same to my kids.

Because of this, a day before the Writing STAAR, I read the essay below to them to remind them that their worth cannot be measured by any test, standard, or person. Perhaps you can find some hope in it too, if you have found yourself answering to the wrong measures of a person’s true value.

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In case it is hard to read from your Internet device, here is the full transcript:

You were born into the wrong times. In this age, they box you up, label you, and sell you for the price they think you’re worth. They size you up by how well you can shrink your brain to multiple-choice responses. If you cannot fit within their definition of intelligent, they will call you otherwise. They will work to ensure that opportunities aren’t handed to you by the same measure they are handed to others, that more doors close for you than open. They ask you to to tell them how smart you are in 26 lines–never mind that your story already stretches beyond lines and pages and books.

In the short time you have been on this earth, you have held the weight of love, felt the sting of heartache, known the joy of laughter, bitten into the sorrow of loss. You are not a statistic. You cannot be measured or weighed or labeled or boxed or held down. You are what is right in this wrong world. You will alter perceptions and destroy the shaky foundations of stereotypes. You were born into the wrong times, but you will make them right.

Whatever happens tomorrow–whether you pass or “fail”–will ultimately not define you, because you cannot be named anything you don’t answer to. Who you become is your decision. It is your story to tell, so make it a story worth telling. Many of the pages are blank, but rest assured: you are more than multiple-choice answers, and you are more than 26 lines.

You are the 27th line.


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