Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Past Brought Me Here

“Be curious enough to keep an open mind to what’s happening around you in society. You can look at yourself and the world at the same time.” – Jochen Zeitz

Several months ago I bumped into someone I haven’t seen since my first unfortunate attempt at college at The University of Texas (that’s Austin, for you folks who don’t know). This was twenty-two years ago. I haven’t seen her since the day I left. We knew we recognized each other from *somewhere* but weren’t quite sure where. It took us a while to trace it back to UT. And then the natural question:

“So, what are you doing now?”

“I’m an English teacher,” I told her.

There was that pause. I get that pause a lot. “Oh,” she said. “Really? You?”

“Yeah, me.” I pointed at myself. “I am.” I didn’t understand why this seemed to flummox her. “Why does that seem weird?”

“Well, ok, now don’t take this the wrong way because really this is a compliment, but you just always seemed like you would be doing something really cool or fun.”

In case you didn’t pick up on that, that’s what we call a “Backhanded Compliment”. It’s an insult designed to look like a compliment. Also keep in mind it was just uttered to me by someone I hadn’t seen in 22 years. She insulted me, and she insulted my profession by saying it was neither cool nor fun.

“Cool or fun, like a lion tamer?”

“Well, noooo. Just, I don’t know. Something neat.”

“Okay,” I said. “Well, what do you do?” I asked in my turn.

“I am the loan manager for ----------- Banking,” she said.

We sat in what passes for the food court at our mall and chatted. She was escorting her nephew and his friend on a tour of colleges through the area. He was checking out UT Tyler and TJC with his guy friend while she killed time shopping.

We had eaten our pizza slices and were sipping our Cokes when she said to me, “Ok, now tell me, really. You were part of that group that was always going off and getting crazy, and were just loud and weird and fun. How did you get to ‘teacher’ from that?”

First of all, let me say, I wasn’t “going off” or “getting crazy”. I wasn’t. That’s a false allegation and I deny it. Second of all, she just called me weird, which, yeah, ok, but again, 22 years. That being said, my group of people was a little stupid. We were college freshmen, we were away from home for the first time, and we may have overdosed on freedom a little. Or a lot. We might have walked from the dorm to Sixth Street at night. We dared each other to wear OU or A&M apparel and walk Guadalupe (if you were a true local you pronounced it Gwad-a-loop) to see how many expletives we could each collect without anyone actually laying hands on us. Harmless, really. There was much group lollygagging about campus. There may have been statue decorating. I will never admit to bubbles in the fountain. We went to the go-cart track a lot. We went dancing. We were evicted from a furniture store. Not our finest moment, but it was a hot day, we’d had a long walk, and those recliners were comfortable. Once, we even caught a purse snatcher and the little old lady proceeded to beat the crap out of him.

But I wasn’t wild.

This stuff, really, is all terribly tame…right? College shenanigans?

I guess not from her point of view. Nidia was a bookish sort, as I always had been. She lived on the same dorm floor as I did and I included her in every invitation. She declined. She wanted to come with us, but just never did.

In college, Nidia was just as I had been in high school: quiet, withdrawn, just on the fringes of things, wanting to take part but not quite knowing how. When I moved to Austin – a new city, a new school, a new beginning – I took it as an opportunity to allow myself to change. I asked myself what I didn’t like about high school, what of that was in my control, and how I could make it better going into college.

While my choice of English teacher would have surprised no one who knew me in high school, the quiet, loner, bookish sort wasn’t the box I was automatically ticked into in Austin. I allowed my own voice, my own personality – so long repressed for the sake of getting along – to emerge. I let myself have fun (ok, ok...sometimes a little too much), and laugh, and play. I had access to phenomenal libraries, I debated literary meaning with TA’s and classmates, and I even got to be an artist for a moment.

I grew.

I grew because I allowed my mind to grow. I didn’t cling to the way things had always been, to the thoughts I had always had. I embraced the possibility of “what if?” What if I do this one thing that scares me? What if I ask a question no one else is brave enough to ask? What if I’m more talkative than I was when living at home? What if... What if... What if...

What if we don’t assume that people everywhere are raised with the same ideas and ideologies that we are?

What if we reach out to someone who is alone, rather than leaving them alone?

What if we look for commonalities, rather than differences?

What if we don’t label people without understanding who they truly are? Better yet, what if we just don’t label people?

I teach English not to teach grammar, and diagramming, and punctuation, though those items are important. I teach English because communication is imperative. Because understanding is fundamental to a functioning society. I teach English because literature is life: it records, it documents, it reflects.

Most of all, I teach English for The Moment. Every student has a Moment, and teachers can see it when it happens. There is absolutely nothing more satisfying than The Moment when a student Gets It, when that student’s mind begins to open, begins to change, and suddenly an entirely new light begins to shine from that student.

I could not possibly be doing anything cooler or more fun.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Positivity Project

“Take your mind off the problems for a moment, and focus on the positive possibilities. Consider how very much you are able to do.” – Ralph Marston

My youngest daughter had been a bit of a grumpus lately. At the beginning of the school year she loved her new school, but as the year progressed, the reality of a sixth-grade workload emerged. She no longer came home chirping about all the great things she noticed about her school. When I picked her up, she remarked upon the irritating kids who constantly interrupted the teacher, the girl who deliberately blocked the aisle just to pick a fight, the way her English teacher holds them even after the bell has rung so she often runs late to dance class. I heard all this and more. What I heard little of was joy. Happiness. Positivity.

And while all of what she said were valid concerns and I took them as such, I believe outlook plays a vital role in our happiness.

So Sunday night before we said our prayers I asked her about this negative attitude. I asked her why she only ever told me about the bad things at school.

“I’m just used to looking for the bad things,” she said.

It had gotten to be a habit, this negativity. She had closed her eyes to any positivity around her. And if you knew this child, you would know how strange that is. She is so caring, so thoughtful. She had always just oozed joy and happiness and sunshine. But that had stopped, you see. She began only looking for the bad, so that was all what she saw.

I asked her what good things she could think of about school. She thought hard for a few minutes. “Nothing,” she answered.

“Ok, then. I think it’s time for a project,” I told her.

My kids are used to things like this from me. We come up with a lot of projects.

“This is The Positivity Project,” I told her. “If you always look for the negative, that’s all you are going to see. But if you start looking for the positive, you’ll be amazed how much of that you’ll find.”

Her task, beginning the next day – Monday – was to look for as many positive things as she could find: students asking good questions; someone making someone else smile, picking up a piece of trash, holding a door for someone; teachers explaining something well. Any positive interaction observed, I wanted her to make note of it and tell me about it at the end of the day.

The other part of her task was to avoid sarcasm. It was becoming a little too constant. If someone spoke to her sarcastically, or asked her a question that she would answer in a sarcastic manner, she could not respond that way during the project. She had to answer pleasantly, and not even look sarcastic. Oh! This one chafed her. “What?! How can I not use sarcasm? What if they really deserve it? And how can I be nice if they’re being sarcastic to me?” I just told her that was the challenge. To be kind. To be positive. She didn’t believe it was possible.

She accepted my challenge, though. “How long will this project last?” she asked. “As long as it takes to change your outlook,” I told her. The first day, she only had a few positives to tell me, but that was great improvement over having nothing good to say.

“Well, what did you think about searching for good things all day?”

“It was hard not to be sarcastic,” she said. “But I did it!”

Later that evening she came to my room to talk. “Mom, I really don’t want to say this. But…you were kind of right. I was positive today. And I had a good day. And I’m going to do it again tomorrow. Because I know I can find more things to tell you. I know I can.”

It’s not an instant cure. We are three weeks into The Positivity Project and of course all the negative things are still there: the girl who blocks the aisles, the ELA teacher who lets them out after the bell rings, the boy who snatches the chocolate out of her lunch when she’s not looking.


In spite of that, she continues to look for the positives in each day. Some days it gets hard to find many, but she makes sure that she always has something good to tell me about every day now. She understands the difference it makes when she takes the time to look for the good. Positivity is a choice; it is deliberate.

To live life every day with purpose, even a purpose so small as to simply look for a single positive interaction, is to live deliberately, gracefully, and joyfully. Seeing her reconnect to that joy is an indescribable joy of my own.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Road to Walking

“I don’t know; I think I’d be gloomy without some faith that there is a purpose and there is a kind of witness to my life.” – John Updike

It was a slow walk.

When people make choices for you, it can take a while before you really understand how heavily those choices affect you. And when people make those choices because they love you, and they believe they are doing the absolute best thing for you, it complicates matters even further because you simply cannot hold it against them.

I had no choice in religion when I was a child. I slid straight from my mother’s womb into a kneeling position in the Catholic Church. I was baptized, blessed, and anointed before I could even roll over. There is nothing inherently wrong with being Catholic – or any denomination or religion – but I didn’t choose it.

Throughout my childhood I recited all the right words. I sat, I stood, I knelt, I went through the sacraments. I was told what to believe. Constantly. I was given no allowance even to ask why I was being asked to believe it, or what I might believe on my own. I was expected to believe because I was told to do so.

Every Sunday, I was required to go to church. I began to dread it. Every Wednesday, I was required to go to CCD. I double-dreaded it. It wasn’t petulance. It wasn’t me just digging in my heels because I wanted to eat cereal and watch TV. I was not very skilled at questioning when I was a child. I was too literal. I asked, “Why do I have to go to church?” The answers ranged from an irritated “Because I said so” to a Pope-based explanation of why Catholics attend church every week and on the high Holy Days.

I did not know the right questions to ask, or the right words to use. I didn’t know how to make those in charge of my welfare understand that forcing me to parrot responses was destroying any faith I had. I was learning. I was learning to accept what I was told, that I was not allowed to question, that religion was based not on faith, but on repetition.

Church became a hollow experience for me and I stopped going as soon as I could. I wasn’t going to go unless I knew why I was going, and to do that I needed to figure out what I believed.

This was a slow process.

I believe it took so long because for so many years I was taught that Church = God, when in fact the two are not equal on any level.

This realization came upon me when I was lamenting, yet again, the way nominal Christians (not all Christians, but those who operate in name only, and not in action) in my hometown were treating those they perceived as less-than. There was such vitriol, such judgment against the homeless, homosexuals, those of other religions, those on government assistance, or others who somehow fit out of the “Christian” box. Rather than coming together to aid, support, offer a hand up, a kind word, a comforting smile, there was condemnation and an exclusionary sense of “you’re not one of us.” No. This is man-made. This is not God-made. The tables in the Temple need to be overturned.

Church was not a haven. And I no longer found my God there. But…

If I live my life outside of church, why would I lock my God inside a church?

From this point on, I have had no church home. I have not found one that truly loves and accepts all God’s people. My life is my church, and I try to live as honestly as I can. My faith in God is strong. I do not feel the need to declare a denomination of faith, some sort of divisive doctrine. Faith should be unifying, and I simply have faith.

I am an imperfect person. I have a lot of flaws and I get things wrong a lot of the time, but I try to leave people a little bit better than I found them. My walk of faith has been slow, almost imperceptible at times, but in it, I have grown, and wherever there is growth, there is life, and wherever there is life, there is hope. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Motive, Not Malice

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” – Maya Angelou

I don't talk politics in my classes, for several reasons. But on a recent Thursday, I was giving my English classes a lecture on Social Commentary, how to write it and how to deliver it orally. We were talking about one of the ways to impart social commentary: the humor piece. “Want to read satire that is sometimes so subtle people don’t even realize it’s satire?” I asked them. “Take a peek at, and of course look up the well-known and brilliantly satiric Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.” Then a student mentioned Alec Baldwin's portrayal of President Trump on SNL and suddenly The Great Divide opened. It was clear that I had both vehement supporters and non-supporters of President Trump in this class.

I had not anticipated a political discussion today. This was a complication I had not foreseen in this lecture, but they were starting to snark at one another pretty heavily and I needed to step in.

"Why do you think Alec Baldwin portrays President Trump?” I asked.

“Because he doesn’t like him,” was one response.

“Because it’s funny,” was another.

“Because he gets paid to,” was a third.

Think about this,” I implored. “The answer is the same whether you are a supporter of President Trump or not. Whether you like him or not. This is what satire does. So, why, when it's not always funny, when it's sometimes downright painful, but when it's so spot-on, why?


They were trying. They had those looks on their faces that students get when they are trying to figure something out that is *just* beyond their reach.

“Okay. How many of you have heard the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’?” I asked them.

One student raised his hand. One. Really? Wow. So I told them a very abbreviated version of the story:

Once upon a time, an Emperor – a vain and silly man who loved all the best things – ordered a new set of robes. The dressmakers who came to make his clothes fooled him, though. They could spin material that was lighter than air, they said, so fine it was lighter than a spider’s web. But people who were uncommonly stupid or unfit for their post would be unable to see it. Who would ever admit they couldn’t see the cloth? When the clothes were “revealed” to the Emperor, he couldn’t see them (because they did not exist). But instead of admitting that, and perhaps catching the dressmakers in their hustle, he was afraid people would think him incapable of office. So he remained silent. Thus, all those around him remained silent. He “dressed” in his non-existent clothes and went out for a procession. Finally, it took a child to speak up. “But he hasn’t got anything on!” the child said. “He’s naked.” The Emperor continued, with every step realizing what he was.*

This is why Alec Baldwin portrays President Trump, I told my students. He shows us precisely the behavior we closed our eyes to. He shows us what we chose not to see. We saw the clothes that we pretended were there. Alec Baldwin is the child in the crowd repeatedly telling us “But he hasn’t got anything on!” President Trump, of course, is the Emperor.

And with that, they understood. We didn’t have to talk politics anymore because the politics itself didn’t matter. Not today. Today was about a larger point. Today we saw a motive where before I think they had just seen malice. I tell them, that is Social Commentary. They are living it. They are part of it. It moves and breathes as each of them moves and breathes. And as long as they have an idea, then the idea for change lives on.

*Credit to Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes," 1837