The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Transitioning to Decision Making

 This week, I graduated with my Masters in English Education.  I have been overwhelmed with the support of my family and friends as they have all wished me sincere congratulations. My parents and my in laws all came to my graduation and even threw me a big party (and bought WAY too much food, I might add).  At first, I kind of felt a little silly to be having a big party and whatnot -- I mean, I am already an adult and I already did the graduation celebration when I got my B.A., but my M.A. did feel like an even bigger achievement to me. I mean, when I started the program, I was one of three mothers with small children at home, but oddly... I was the only one of the three who finished. Really, I could not have done it without the support of my family and friends, so celebrating with them was wonderful, and all of the congratulations have felt really good.  Thank you to all of you who showered me with gifts and well wishes.  I used most of these gifts to purchase myself a Kindle Fire, which has been on my wishlist for  like two years, so I am really excited for it to arrive next week.

    And now, I come to terms with the transitionary phase of entering this new chapter of my life. What to do with myself now?

     For the past two years, I have settled into this routine of teaching, grad school, and parenting, with little time for much else, except on breaks.  When my parents staged an intervention in 2011 and tried to talk me out of going back to school, I had promised my mom that I wouldn't do anything else, and I kept my promise -- no other activities or commitments.  I cut down on church commitments. I resisted the urge sign up for travel opportunities through work. I cut down on my commitments at work, saying "No," more than I thought possible. I did no performing, not even at church (okay, I sang once and did one monologue). In some ways, it has been comforting knowing exactly what my life consists of. Few decisions to be made, as there was no time for anything. Instead of having to decide if I wanted to spend my time on something new (a committee, a conference, etc.), I just said, "No," and the decision was done.  Had I not taken this approach, I probably would not have made it through the program. (I guess mother really does know best).

      Over the past year, as things really got hectic, I even sort of stopped going to the gym regularly (which was not something I planned on, nor that I am proud of).  I haven't been to yoga class in so long I don't remember when the last time was. On my break in January, I had started taking some jazz classes and thought I might continue on nights when I got out of grad school early (unfortunately, they were on the same night), but I was always so tired after that I just went home.
      I thought perhaps it was serendipitous that the local cultural arts center was planning auditions for one of my favorite musicals the same week as my graduation. I saw this as my opportunity to break the fast, if you will, but alas it was not to be.  I got really nervous and blew the audition... and there was also no way I could compete with other hopefuls who have dedicated their lives to theatre. Although theatre is my passion, I have instead followed my calling to teach. I just long to have something for me again, something to nurture my artistic self, which is at the very core of who I am as a person. Thus, getting the "Thanks, but no thanks," call on Thursday night was particularly heart breaking.

      I have given up a lot of myself over the last five years. My mom always criticizes me for trying to "have it all."  A couple of years ago, I would have told you that there is nothing wrong with me trying to have it all. In some ways, "having it all," becomes a feminist manifesto, and like it or not, I guess I am more of a feminist than I ever intended to be; however, as my favorite modern feminist, Sheryl Sandberg points out, "No matter what any of us has—and how grateful we are for what we have—no one has it all. Nor can they. The very concept of having it all flies in the face of the basic laws of economics and common sense. Being a working parent means making adjustments, compromises and sacrifices every day... Just as expectations about work hours have risen dramatically, so have expectations of how much time mothers will spend focused on their children. An employed mom today spends about the same amount of time reading to, feeding and playing with her children as a non-employed mother did in 1975. " (from her book, Lean In).
      She is right.  Life is naturally about compromises and sacrifices, but I have spent much of my life fighting this reality. When I was 18, I read a book, Let Your Life Speak, by Parker Palmer, and it sparked a change in my life that has been molding me ever since, guiding me to become who I am. I have since discovered that this profoundly wise man is a teacher, and in his book The Courage to Teach, he says, “By choosing integrity, I become more whole, but wholeness does not mean perfection. It means becoming more real by acknowledging the whole of who I am.” As I have grown as a person, more fully accepting who I am, I acknowledge this about myself -- my inner being longs to change the world.  Teaching is the business of changing the world, one student at a time, and it is an incredibly gratifying job... overall. The day to day life of a teacher is, however, rather thankless. My days are long. I take work home (lots of it, although I am getting better at getting it done at school, which I didn't even think was possible in my first two years of teaching).  I plan constantly in my head. And students can be very harsh sometimes. Like this month. This month has been hard. 

      During teacher appreciation week, my friends' photos of thank you notes and pictures were hurting my heart because my students were in a foul mood. I had just assigned their final project of the year -- a speech -- which they deemed to be "too hard" and were punishing me for assigning and fighting me for not "helping" them more.  I put this in quotation marks because I provided them with a TON of guidance and opportunities for tutoring and extra help, but students today tend to be a little put off by projects that involve creative thought.  They'd far rather you tell them what to do and give them a formula to do it.  When you assign something like, "Give a 2-5 minute speech about something you feel passionately about," they panic.  If you gave them a worksheet to fill in the blanks and asked them to just say the speech, they'd be okay, but asking them to produce original thought about topics we discussed in class... that involves quite a bit of thought and so they fought me on it, although I created videos modeling my thought process and gave them tons of samples and guided them through types of evidence to use as support, several of them kept saying things along the lines of, "Can't you just give me a list of choices?"  This is the problem of a bubble-test driven world. 

    But little by little, they've come around.  They've written unique, creative speeches on the importance of making friends with Muslim people, and the benefits of participating in traditions from other cultures, and the problem with society's objectification of women. One student is sharing her personal experience with the dangers of "sexting" and another student is talking about how he does not define himself by his homosexuality and so his peers shouldn't either. I didn't ask or even suggest this kind of bravery, but the students have come into their own and are excited for this. When they were practicing with their speeches this week, one group of typically low achieving boys started yelling and cheering, while one member of the group appeared to be doing a victory lap of some kind with his head wrapped in a towel.  I went over to see what was up, certain one of them had just made a terribly inappropriate joke.  When I got there, they shared that the student with the towel on his head had worked on his speech a lot since the day before, adding a visual aid (his towel wrapped head), to make a point about people's often incorrect stereotypes of Middle Eastern people. Although they had given him some harsh criticism the day before, today they had all agreed that his speech was a "Yes" on all areas of the feedback sheet (hence the victory lap).  I laughed as I walked back to my classroom to print an article I thought he would enjoy. 

      It's moments like these when I remember why I do what I do.  The seniors are giving their distinguished grad speeches this week and one senior, who will enter UC Berkley this fall as at least a sophomore, if not a junior, spoke about moments that had changed her life, like learning that you truly can climb a mountain if you put your mind to it (literally and figuratively) as part of my honors English "Buried Life" unit (its related to literature and research and a bunch of other English type things, I swear) and learning responsibility and leadership by assistant directing plays in drama. She spoke about teamwork and the importance of the entire ensemble and what being supportive really means, and she spoke from a place of sincerity and grace that I have seen a million times as she has happily understudied any missing cast member at any given time.  I have learned so much from this amazing young woman's outlook on life, yet there she was honoring the learning experiences I had facilitated.  When I look at the $24K in student loans it has taken to get me to this point... I can honestly say it is worth every penny. (Of course, I'm still in the deferral stage, so you might want to ask me if I feel the same in six months). 

     Perhaps the most touching graduation congratulations I received was from a former student who told me that he was proud of me and that I inspire him to pursue ambitious goals. Wow...  I thought about that all day.  It is one thing to tell students that they can do anything they put their minds to and another to show them that it is true. 

     So what am I putting my mind to now?  #103 on my buried list.  Get back on stage.  

     I need to act again.  So I am trying to thicken my skin, recover from rejection, and move on... 

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