My Speech Before the Movie Remember the Titans

I sat cross legged on the desk in front of the room. It was a minute passed the start of class and I was silent. Some students had just come in and were getting settled. I waited. My silence had an effect on the room. Conversations in the back of the class slowly stopped. The students in the front of the class looked at me wide-eyed. When I had 99% of their attention I said:

Before this job I was a crisis counselor. And one day, when I was on-call, I went to a house and the student they expected me to counsel was 350lbs. And she was stark naked. I stood in the doorway of her apartment building, and she was naked, developmentally delayed and didn’t speak English because she wasn’t from this country originally. And I thought to myself, “what the fuck do I do?” Because nothing in my schooling prepared me for this. (class erupted into giggles).

And I’m sitting here in a similar situation. Because this is the first class I’ve taught where, on an individual level, I really like everyone. I came to be a mental health counselor because of a belief in unconditional positive regard, and that means that no matter how many times you fail your English class, or keep having anxiety, I will not judge because I see the essence of each one of you and it is amazingly awesome. And yet, I work for an insititution that systematically oppresses young people, and expects conformity over individuality. And so I’m torn. Because on an individual basis I think that most of you will be ready to progress, but for some reason the classroom dynamic isn’t there, and so I really don’t know what to do. But I’m sitting here wanting you to know this, because I have a tendency to hide behind anger and annoyance and if you were all just dicks to me I could write you off and not be upset if you failed. But that’s not the case, and so I don’t know what to do. But I do know that yeserday a teacher called one of our students (not in this class) pathetic, and worthless, and I am extremely protective of you because I want you to achieve your goals…and be successful…no matter how you define that for yourself. But my job is to make an assessment on whether you are ready to advance to the next classes, and we aren’t there yet as a class. And I needed to be vulnerable and share rather than blindside you at midterm evaluations. Because I have enjoyed getting to know each of you, and I enjoy joking and our discussions, and your writings…and yet it still seems like there’s something missing. And so we can discuss it as a class, or we can just take some time to think about it, but I’ve never been in this place before, and I feel stuck and don’t know how to move forward.

I could have heard a pin drop the room was so quiet.

And then when I was done, a student spoke, and he said:

“yeah, it seems we still sorta have a highschool vibe in here.”

And another asked if it meant they needed to just be quiet and listen more, and I said that wasn’t it entirely. And another said that she felt I was a different type of teacher, that I cared, and that the other professors won’t care and could just fail them. And another said she really liked how comfortable people were sharing and that it felt good to her.

I told them they weren’t getting in trouble, and that this wasn’t a bad or shaming lecture, but that it was something I was feeling and wanted to share. And the body language was at least 85% engaged and seemed to be in agreement, even though some of their honest verbal feedback had a slight edge of defensiveness (which is understandable).

And so, not to beat a dead horse, I left them sitting in that place of vulnerable sharing and without a resolution to get started on our lesson for the day (as I’m still subbing for my co-teacher) and we watched Remember the Titans, which was supposed to go along with our lessons on diversity, but also, in a strangely coincidental way, went along with this idea of rising to a challenge, and changing, and becoming a team and people that we can be.

Results are pending on whether this worked. Or if they even heard me. Or if the students I wanted to hear me heard me. But I did something different today, leading from a place of honest vulnerability, rather than my typical sarcastic bravado and flippance. I hope they noticed. I hope they heard the message at the heart of it…that they are worthy.

The Weight of Empathy

I am feeling Sad.

I’m not sure where along the line it happened, but my heart opened up to this new batch of students and I am stuck holding a tension of hope/optimism for their future and the dull realization that even if they ‘pass’ my class they might not ‘succeed’ here in the college level.

I posted to Facebook this Sadness, and my professor friend, Russ, asked the great question about my Sadness:

Is it the line of work or the inherent belief or feeling that things should be better?

My response was:

Both, probably. I’m not an inherently optimistic person, but with young people I see the future and it’s amazing…and then I also see how they themselves, and life, and the very institution that I participate in is also contributing to a cycle where the future collective and theirs individually isn’t as amazing. Its an overwhelming feeling sometimes…

I’m not naive enough to think that I can solve it all…the years of self doubts or self-fulfilling prophecies or labels or external circumstances that left them in the situation they’re in. I’m not naive enough to think that the institution I work for even has their best interests at heart, for public education, and even institutes of higher education, are maybe not about creating thinkers or individuals but WORKERS, which is a rough tension because they want jobs (ya know?!). I meet these wonderful young people, with their whole life ahead of them, and I can see dazzling futures ahead of them…and I can see how they have so many obstacles in their way…some of which are put their by themselves.

For example, I pulled a student aside this afternoon and said that I really liked him, that he was smart and probably shouldn’t even be in a college prep class like mine because his work is exemplary, but that other teachers aren’t going to like his behavior, and I really don’t want him to have to repeat my class. His response?

“Oh. I’m sorry. Was my behavior bad today?”

Because individually he is probably the most respectful student ever. But he was sharing his ear buds with a friend. And they were really into their beats and got sidetracked by whatever social media device was handy, and they were relating to each other and it was fine if it had just been ONE student. But the self awareness doesn’t extend past their own chest. There’s an inability for them to see how their (for lack of a better term) dickish behavior is compounded by the dickish behavior of other students, and suddenly the environment of the classroom becomes one of supreme DICKISHNESS.

It’s true.

They contribute to the overall climate of the class, and it’s heading in a sinking ship direction. I’m not sure how to steer the ship back into safe waters…where they’ll be allowed to express themselves, but also conform. Because we all have to conform. I don’t get to wear pajama pants to work. Or no pants to work. But that’s what I’d like to do, you know?

And when I push ¬†aside my annoyance, and get to a deeper, more true spot, it’s my empathy and big Sad that these students are maybe ignoring the SOS calls and heading straight into another iceberg in their life. I know it’s not my job to save them, but my heart wants to save them. I want them all to be successful in ways that they can’t even imagine for themselves. I’m stuck in the tension of seeing them so clearly and also having to uphold a standard of conduct and academia that will result in them ‘fitting in’ in college level classes.