This is a scary blog post to write. I’ve been writing about race for a couple of months now, and every time I do, my body revolts. My eyes blink uncontrollably; my hands tremble; my heart feels like it’s trying to crack open my rib cage and escape. The fear of exposing my racism hijacks my rationality and rides roughshod over my nervous system.
At the same time as I’m coming unglued, I feel a desire to be recognized and congratulated for my posts. My brain serves up images of me leading other white folks out of racial ignorance and into some sort of enlightened state. I look desperately for signs of affirmation from people of color that I’m “doing the work.” My need for approval is itself a manifestation of white supremacy. I want to be recognized, to be praised as an example of what it means to be an anti-racist white guy. No matter how hard I try to ferret out these impulses, they always return. Often within the same second.
Right now, this is the best that I can do. No matter how many times I rewrite these sentences, there’s no way to out-write the orbit of my own ignorance. I’m not disparaging myself, just trying to work through what happens inside of me when I try to talk about race. It will take more than reading a few books and and writing a few blog posts for me to come to terms with hundreds of years of white supremacy. It’s likely that I’ll never be able to understand my participation in systematic oppression and dominance. That’s the power of ideology. My whiteness isn’t like an article of clothing I can decide whether or not to wear. I exist through my whiteness.
I was one of those white people who was shocked by Charlottesville. My ability to be shocked by bigotry comes from living and participating within a culture of white supremacy. When I say white supremacy, I’m not referring to hooded Klansmen or racist family members, but the social institutions (politics, medicine, education, law, etc.) that work in tandem to grant white people material benefits by subordinating people of color.
After Charlottesville, I started speaking up on social media about issues of race and white privilege. I posted graphics of white supremacy, shared anti-racist classroom resources, and spoke up about the importance of white people putting in work. A few white men reported my posts to Facebook for being “racist against whites.”
White folks also began popping up on my social media threads to call me out for “sermonizing” and “causing divisions.” At first, I was surprised. Why would something so simple as a self-explanatory image or a post about racism draw such ire? And then I remembered: white fragility.
The men commenting on my posts and reporting me provided textbook examples of how whites struggle to comprehend and discuss race with any level of complexity and nuance. White folks also lack the stamina necessary for serious discussions around race. I’m no different. Working on this post has hollowed me out. Sustaining the mental energy required to write this post has left me gasping for air.
I’m able to call out fragility in these men because I recognize it in myself. For instance, a few days ago I read “White People Have No Place in Black Liberation,” a phenomenal essay exploring the inextricable link between Whiteness and oppression. (Support the author and the publication here) The essay is painful to read because it feels like a personal attack. The essay’s conclusion, “…our focus is always on Black folks figuring out new and better ways to get free—independent of white people and capitalism and the entirety of western empires,” triggers an existential howl from the depths of my whiteness. What about me? Can’t I help? People of color need me! I’m useful! That author sounds mean.
My brain is literally and figuratively unable to think about what it means to de-center myself. It’s like trying to speak a language I haven’t learned yet. So I sit with my feelings and monitor my reactions and defensive posturing. I don’t feel bad about feeling bad, and this isn’t a pity-post. The experiences I’ve described here represent absolutely nothing compared to what people of color must experience on social media on a daily basis, much less “in real life.” As Robin DiAngelo notes, my Whiteness “affords me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they navigate mainstream society” (177-178). I must do better and I will do better.
I recently watched a video of minister, author, and teacher Reverend Dr. Raymont Anderson discuss pain, spirituality, and healing. He mentioned how caterpillars transform into butterflies; they dissolve themselves in their own acid before rebuilding anew. Caterpillars use specialized diagram cells to regenerate their new wings, eyes, and antennae. The maps they need for their journey are contained within. But what happens if the directions I carry inside are faulty? How can I reinvent myself if I’m always going to the same place?
Image Credit: CC0
Women of color have publicly rebuked me three times. I didn’t appreciate it when it was happening but now I’m thankful for these experiences. They helped me begin to remove the space suit of privilege that keeps me hermetically sealed from inequity and oppression. This post is for white folks like me. Learn from my ignorance.
I attended my first step show in college. I was astounded and captivated by the rhythm, the discipline, and the air of celebration in the packed auditorium. A woman of color in front of me noticed some of her friends behind me, prompting a delightful outburst of joy and hand signs. (I would later come to learn that hand signs are a part of sorority culture.)
Wanting to join in on the conviviality, and not knowing any better, I locked eyes with some of the women and attempted to replicate the hand gestures. Their faces dropped as they saw what I was trying to do. Stop. This isn’t for you, one of the women behind me said. My face flushed fire engine red as I pinned my hands to my sides and sat down. Mercifully, I was quickly forgotten as the women went back to enjoying the event and each other’s company. My white shame was overwhelming.
The next day I recounted the story to a friend in an attempt to figure out what happened. What had I done that was so offensive? My friend gave me a quick rundown on the Divine Nine. He said that the rituals and knowledge of African American Greek and fraternal organizations were closed off to me because I wasn’t a member. Fascinated, I pressed him for more. But no matter how hard I pleaded, he refused to yield. This isn’t for you, he echoed. As a privileged white male, this was the first time in my life when I was denied access to knowledge. The situation caused me to reflect on the history of slave masters denying African Americans access to education, rightfully compounding my guilt.
Three years ago I created a Twitter account for professional purposes. One morning a lively discussion about racist curricula and school discipline dominated my feed. I found myself nodding along and cosigning on everything that was being said. Without thinking I charged into the conversation, inserting my unsolicited voice into a space it didn’t belong. Even though I thought I was helping out, I had no business butting in.
With all due respect, one of the discussion participants Tweeted to me, please stay on the sidelines for this. I froze. So great was the embarrassment that I raced to delete my comments, unfollow everyone involved in the conversation, and close my laptop. I slunk down into my chair, saturated with the same white fragility I experienced at the step show. I wasn’t upset at anyone but myself, but I still didn’t “get it.” I must have been misunderstood, I thought. After all, I was just trying to help!
Last summer, determined to “get it right,” I barged into another Twitter conversation about the representation of girls of color in the movie Moana. I had just finished the revelatory Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. The conversation was about the hyper-sexualization of girls of color in popular media, a topic Morris explores throughout her book. Spurred on by the privileged notion that I had an inalienable right to participate in every conversation and speak on every topic, I fired off a few pedantic tweets about the book and how it refers to hyper-sexualization as “age compression.” It did not go well. The discussion leader immediately called me out, rightfully excoriating me and demanding that I get off of their timeline. My privilege stood between their words and my own understanding.
Determined to get to the bottom of what was going on, I sought out people of color on Twitter and followed them. Academics, pop culture critics, authors, organizers, students, it didn’t matter. At the time, my goal was to figure out what was going on in order to be able to join discussions without getting called out. It had nothing to do with critical consciousness; I just didn’t want to get shamed.
But the more I followed and listened, the more I started to “get it.” The discussions I was inserting myself into were not mine. I realized how I was treating conversations among people of color as something to be commandeered and dominated for my own gain. As if every public space was simply another venue for me to broadcast my own beliefs, whatever those beliefs may be.
This blog post is written to white people like me. People who need to talk less and listen more. People who need to remove themselves from the center and elevate others. If you’re interested in improving, here are some quick and easy ways to get started.
- Be mindful of the social media accounts you follow and rebroadcast.
- Read or watch a quick primer on privilege. It will help.
- Talk with the women and people of color in your life. Develop relationships with them and listen to them.
- In case you hadn’t heard, online spaces can be extremely toxic and hateful for women and people of color. When you see white people engaging in inappropriate and disrespectful behavior, engage them. There’s no value in ‘feeding the trolls,’ but there’s value in holding each other accountable and assuming that once we know better, we can do better.
- Stop talking and listen more!
If you find yourself getting rebuked, take the loss. Lick your wounds, dab your white tears, and move on. Head back into the conversation, but this time just listen. As white folks we must keep each other in check and amplify voices of color. It’s not about us.
I experience life through a series of shifting grids. Everything about the way I process information suggests right angles, coordinate planes, and compartments. Anytime I meet someone new, I assault them with a barrage of out of context and somewhat inappropriate questions: What music do you listen to? How was your childhood? What’s your relationship with your family? What were you like in high school? What are your favorite shows? My brain yearns to place everything and everyone into various interconnected frameworks. Everyone’s answers also act as a mirror, allowing me to engage in continuous rounds of self-assessment to make sure I stay within one standard deviation of what I consider to be normal.
The tendency to fix everything to a grid permeates every aspect of my life. When I was little kid, I told my mom how I enjoyed tracking syllables with my left hand. I would take sentences and count them off into alternating groups of 3, 4, and 5. The goal was to make the final syllable of every sentence end on a particular finger.
Heavy metal, my favorite genre of music, fits seamlessly into the grid. Every band taking up residence in my brain combines jackhammer force with the precision of quartz chronological movement. “Still Echoes” from Virginia metal band Lamb of God is a perfect example. Listening to the drums, guitars, and vocal patterns feels like spiraling out from the center of Fibonacci’s golden ratio pattern.
For this reason, my jogging playlist always contains a single song on repeat. No surprises and no shuffling. Just the same two minute chunk looped. It takes a certain kind of song to stand up to this obsessive level of routine. The song has to be relentless and consistent in beats per minute. Although I try to mix it up every few months, I keep coming back to the staples: Slayer, At the Gates, Lamb of God, In Flames, and Darkest Hour. The one exception here is Usher whose banger Scream enjoyed a couple summers of looping.
I’ve been listening to the first two minutes of Darkest Hour’s The Sadist Nation during every run for the last five years. It never gets old or loses its edge. Every listen is a fresh marching order, a call for muscle and sinew to propel the body forward. 1’s and 0’s, on’s and off’s, starts and finishes. I can’t stand jazz for this reason. The organic ebb and flow of improvisation, the rhythm changes, the fluidity of it all claws at my need for repetition and symmetry and containment.
Schools are perfect for me. In most schools, everything that happens slots nicely into a grid. Bell schedules, assignment schedules, curricular planning, everything is rationalized and consistent. I love it. Every school day is a perfect assemblage of self-contained rituals. I can tackle anything as long as it’s fixed to some sort of repetitive grid.
Ritual and repetition help me manage my ADHD. They place boundaries around everything. During summer and winter break, I keep to the same schedule. Wake up around 5 and play video games until 9. Then, work on writing until around 11 when I do some form of exercise. My afternoon is lunch, nap, reading, then YouTube until my wife gets home. Every day. Without such a setup I drown.
I’ve always been an all or nothing person. I recently had my wisdom teeth removed, an experience that left me swollen on the couch for days. I didn’t brush my teeth. I collapsed on the bed every night in the clothes I had been wearing all day. My diet consisted of slurping down ice cream, apple sauce, and ex lax whenever I felt like it. After a week of being off the grid, I was able to begin inserting modules of routine back into my schedule. Mercifully, my life is once again fully contained within blocks of reading, writing, exercise, and socially acceptable hygiene practices.
My contained existence brings me joy because it allows me to meet life on my terms. Within constraint lies my personal freedom.
I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.
“Here,” she said, holding out her hand, “quick, before they start to melt.” I pinched a handful of the small opalescent orbs from my girlfriend’s outstretched hand and flicked them into my mouth. Within seconds the Dexedrine disintegrated underneath my tongue, providing my nervous system with its first taste of amphetamine. For the next four hours we sat rooted to the bench in the middle of one of the parks in my neighborhood. We had freshly lit new cigarettes in our mouths before the ones we were smoking had a chance to burn out. The amphetamines she boosted from her older brother gave every cigarette a candy-like sheen. We smoked and talked and smoked all afternoon until the rush-hour commuters began to clog the highway bordering the park.
I didn’t touch my dinner that night. Not only can stimulants repress your appetite, they can make the tiniest scrap of food hit your stomach with the weight of a Thanksgiving meal. I fidgeted, tapped my feet, and dismissed myself as quickly as possible. That night I couldn’t sleep; the aftershock of the chemicals wouldn’t wear off for another 12 hours. I spent the next day in a neurotransmitter hangover, lurching from class to class as my swollen synapses struggled to function without its regular ration of dopamine, serotonin, and acetylcholine.
I was immediately hooked. Amphetamines made everything exhilarating. It didn’t matter if I had to complete math problems, vacuum the rug, or play the guitar; a few doses of Ritalin allowed me to take part in and enjoy the grist of life in a profoundly enjoyable manner. At least, it did for the first few hours. The brain-on-fire high was always followed with a painful period of self-enclosure. I wouldn’t want to move or participate in anything. Even talking hurt. It also was instrumental in reviving my academic career. My SAT scores shot up 400 points and, for the first time, I was able to meet deadlines. I needed it, but I was unable to control myself around it.
When my girlfriend broke things off with me a few days later, I knew I had to find more. My own brother, then about to graduate, had been taking Ritalin for many years. Never before would I have considered sneaking into his room and taking anything, much less medication. Yet that afternoon I rummaged through his things with feral intensity. I burned through my brother’s monthly allotment in days. I just assumed it was an endless resource he could refill at a moment’s notice, not realizing that I had just screwed him for the rest of the month. I began to steal Ritalin from my best friends, digging through their backpacks whenever they went to the bathroom.
Within a week or two of finding my brother’s medication, my parents called a family meeting. I kept my eyes glued to the empty pill bottle sitting on the dining room table, nodding along as my mother explained about insurance, controlled substances, and how the former restricted access to the latter. It was decided that I should talk to a psychiatrist. My mom had been thinking about having me checked out for ADHD for years. She was concerned because I would test into the ‘advanced’ classes only to drop out of them when my classwork failed to measure up. Teachers told her that I was ready for the harder material, I just made too many simple mistakes.
After I was in the system I was hooked. My grades went up and my academic self-efficacy grew. But I couldn’t out-think my growing addiction to them. I would gulp down a month’s supply in days, requiring me to make up stories to my psychiatrist about how I wanted to try out different types of medication. Ritalin didn’t last long enough. Adderall lasted too long. Each new prescription I scored bought me another week’s worth of uppers. By the time I cycled through enough medications, the month had passed and I was able to go back to Ritalin. It took only a few days before I’d memorized the correct sequence of directional commands to navigate the complex phone tree at my local pharmacy. Welcome to the CVS Pharmacy. Press Zero for the pharmacy. Press 4 to check to see if your refill is ready. Please enter your social security number and press pound. Please enter your medical ID number and press pound. Please enter the prescription ID number and press pound. Your prescription is now ready.
This lasted until college when my mom had to drive to my dorm (I went to a local school) once a week in order to drop off the week’s supply. We would meet in the parking lot and exchange plastic bottles. It was the only way I could manage. But by my senior year I was back. I would implore girlfriends to hide my pill bottles only to wait for them to fall asleep before I tip-toed around their apartments. I learned where to find things (bottom of purses, sock drawers in closets) and how to hunt for something at a moment’s notice (an impromptu phone call, someone at the door).The abuse continued until I was taping eyeballs closed at night, placing the tape horizontally, of course, and gulping gin in order to fall asleep.
Over time I somehow developed the ability to manage my addiction to stimulants. There was no single rock bottom, just a slow ascent out of the heart-rending static of methylphenidate addiction. When I quit drinking I knew I had to cut down on the Ritalin. As I matured and entered into the work force, the rhythms of adult life required me to maintain a consistent and dependable sleep schedule. While I still relish the rush of the day’s first dose, I’m able to keep my addiction in control. My daily allotment (30mg) would have been an appetizer ten years ago. Luckily my body never developed much of a tolerance.
Even though my Ritalin use is under control, I am still addicted. They are crucial to my success. I have no idea what life without Ritalin feels like. I’m just too scared. While I’m sure my brain would eventually adjust after a rocky period of chemical imbalance, I’m not willing to risk it. I don’t see a need to. I have no guilt about using medication to improve the quality of my life, and I function at acceptable levels of adult capitalist productivity.
Stimulants have become a necessary component to managing my life with severe ADHD. When they wear off it’s almost impossible to concentrate. Everything I access through my senses seems important and worthy of examination. Every object, aberration, corporeal figure, audio cue, etc., screams at me, beating down my senses with the incessant demand to be noticed and accounted for. My working memory is non-existent. I move through life in an impenetrable fog, able to experience only what’s directly in front of me. And I can’t stop talking. The words just spill out. I used to have a hand-written sign taped above the television that read ‘STOP TALKING’ as a reminder to try and spare my wife from my endless commentary.
I originally wanted this piece to move into what it’s like teaching with ADHD, but I’ll leave that for another post. I wanted to explore a part of my life that has helped me survive while providing me with so many opportunities to fall.
My fingers sweat from the effort of forming a basic chord. My right hand holds the plastic pick as if it were made from some alien material. Like I do every year, I spent portions of the summer hunched over my guitar in an attempt to recapture some of my past musical glory. Now that school is back, I have put my guitar back in my closet where it will sleep patiently for the next eleven months. When life calms down, I tell myself, I’ll be able to devote more time to it. This is, of course, not necessarily true. Life is always busy, but carving out regular time is often a matter of discipline and priorities. Doing something other than attending to school simply isn’t a priority. It hasn’t been for at least ten years.
Paul Thomas recently wrote on his blog about his experiences with regret. In the post, Paul explores the rise and fall of his identity as a visual artist. His essay reminded me of one of my own past lives, that of a guitar player. My first memory of the guitar dates back to 6th grade when when a science teacher held a guitar club after school. Although I didn’t join, I would often hang around outside his room to listen to multiple off-kilter renditions of Stairway to Heaven or the Am – G repetition of Nirvana’s About A Girl. Before long, the six-string instrument began showing up in the bedrooms and basements of my friends. It was as if entrance into suburban puberty included a complimentary guitar and Green Day song book. I pleaded with my parents for an electric guitar (acoustic guitars hurt my fingers and just didn’t seem as cool) and was rewarded with a Peavey Predator, a decent intro-level instrument.
For the rest of middle school and high school the instrument and I were inseparable. After coming home from school I would plop down onto the floor of my bedroom, plug into my amp, and practice my favorite songs by Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer. This is around the time I started taking Ritalin, so I spent hours rooted to the floor, the typewriter-key movement of my left hand the only sign I was conscious. I took full advantage of the private lessons and guitar summer camps my parents wonderfully provided. My guitar could be heard in high school musicals, various talent shows, and the corners of every local guitar store. While I wasn’t going to be the next Steve Vai (one of the most celebrated and accomplished living guitarists), it was clear that I had some facility with the instrument.
Playing guitar provided me with an identity, a way to construct myself and understand how I fit into the world of adolescence. It helped me orient myself by creating a center of gravity. My relationships, values, ideas about the future, and predilections orbited around being a guitar player. I wanted to escape the feeling of never being good enough by committing myself to one thing completely. If only I could play faster, I told myself, if I could just pick the strings more clearly then I might be able to become something that didn’t hurt. The identity of guitarist supported me and protected me until college, when I decided to minor in classical guitar in order to explore my new-found interests in psychology and sociology.
College was my first introduction to what journalist and author Chris Hedges refers to as a life of the mind. I traded in my metronome for highlighters and attacked my studies with feral abandon (Also, the notion of playing the intro riff to Megadeth’s Holy Wars 500 times in a row loses a bit of its luster when you live with roommates). By the time I graduated college in 2004, I had downgraded my guitar from the focal point of my room to a dusty afterthought sleeping underneath my box-spring mattress. My fingers had forgotten how to navigate the terrain of the instrument. Instead I identified as someone who was serious about learning. College and graduate school had primed my mental machinery, but it wasn’t until I began teaching in 2008 that I found a subject robust enough to be my everything. I calibrated every aspect of my identity to the rhythms of classroom life.
This is how it’s been for the last eight years. Education is all I allow myself to be interested in. In some ways my obsession drive to give myself up completely to something is a coping mechanism, a way to ground myself and contain my neuroses. I choose not to have much of a social life beyond the occasional lunch and dinner dates with my wife’s friends, and I’m not interested in finding hobbies or expanding my horizons. I have come to peace with the knowledge that I do not live life to the fullest.Teaching makes this easy. The unreasonable demands placed on teachers create a situation where there is always something to do.
As with any obsession, my monomania works until it doesn’t. I’ve struggled to unhook my self-esteem from the predictably unpredictable rhythms of school life. In the post mentioned above, Paul describes how he lost parts of himself in his quest for a practical adult life. He describes the tension between who he is vs. who he feels he should be. While I have also denied myself the chance to explore alternative aspects of my identity, I have done so in an attempt to outrun feelings of inadequacy.
He concludes his post by saying,
Regret of the kind that is not from hurting another is our inability, our refusal to recognize our thing—and then to embrace it as our happiness. Our thing includes “the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth,” suffering, but it is not ours to seek ways to avoid human suffering, but like Sisyphus, to commit to it with all our body and heart.
I have tried to use commitment to education as a way to construct an identity buttressed against not feeling good enough. I have allowed myself to be carried away by my obsessive belief that I can find relief from my suffering in just one more professional book or article. My attempts to study away the struggles that make me human have prevented me from living fully as an educator and a human being. To be clear, I do not regret my infatuation with school life. Along with pleasures both cerebral and visceral, education provides me with an identity I’m proud of. A self that feels expansive and limited only by time and my ability to understand. Perhaps this post is a way of telling myself that while I’ve committed to education with body and heart, it’s time to find fulfillment from the joys and the frustrations. By isolating one from the other, or attempting to use one to shield myself from the other, I’m doing my commitment a disservice. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
The panic was inescapable. I paced back and forth inside a deserted classroom, sweat trickling down my sideburns. In five minutes I was due in the cafeteria to present myself for my first ever back to school night. I could hear the excited burbling of my coworkers’ voices outside in the hallway. Everyone had gathered for our final meeting before heading downstairs. I knew I was supposed to be there. I could hear the head of school asking, “Where’s Anderson?”
When the pressure became too much I popped my head out of the door and caught the attention of Ms. Cannon, my school’s Chief Academic Officer. My face must have communicated my situation, because without a word she rushed into the room. I proceeded to have my first breakdown of the year. I couldn’t do it, I told her. The work was too much. Between the lesson plans, hallway and cafeteria duty, and 6 AM – 6 PM hours, I was breaking. Between gasps of air and heaving sobs, I told Ms. Cannon that this was the first time in my life when I couldn’t work my way out of a hole. I’d been used to just buckling down and burrowing through whatever obstacle sat in my way. I didn’t know what to do.
Without uttering a word she took a seat and listened. As soon as I finished she asked what I needed. I wasn’t sure, I said. Okay, she replied, let me help you plan the next two weeks’ worth of lessons. Will that be enough time to get yourself above water? I nodded. Great! she exclaimed with a smile. Within minutes my eyes were dry (enough) and I was delivering a brief presentation about myself to a standing-room only crowd of eager parents. I never did manage to get ahead of my work, but that didn’t matter. From that night on Ms. Cannon would provide me with guidance invaluable to my development as a professional.
Ms. Cannon was always willing to listen to me talk. As part of my school’s professional development plan, Ms. Cannon met with individual teachers every week to discuss lesson plans and data results. She would listen to my fears, assuage my doubts, and ensure that I had the resources I needed to continue on my path. I also spent hours sitting in on Ms. Cannon’s classes, typing up extensive notes on everything she did. Whether she was handing out papers, leading a discussion, or encouraging students who were having a rough day, Ms. Cannon exemplified the teacher I wanted to be. Witty. Passionate. Respectful. And in complete control of her content and teaching pedagogy.
At this point in my career, I’ve been fortunate to find individuals who don’t mind answering my questions or pointing me in the right direction when I’m stumped. I wrote about some of them earlier in the year. But unlike the educators I wrote about in that post, Ms. Cannon and I no longer have contact. After I left the school our communication ended. Our time together changed me in powerful ways. She helped me become myself.
Scholars such as Gert Biesta and Hannah Arendt have spoken of education as a process of becoming. The concept tasks teachers with creating spaces and activities that push students to articulate who they are. Education as becoming cannot be static. Nor can it result from a sole focus on content memorization. We must take risks and confront that which challenges us. Only by responding to what is challenging can we articulate ourselves into existence. Ms. Cannon pushed me to articulate who I was. The school in which we worked was filled with amazing teachers, and as a new teacher I wanted nothing more than to replicate the success of my colleagues. Every few months I would take on someone else’s mannerisms, vocalizations, and body language. I thought that if I could only act like someone else I would be able to feel successful. Ms. Cannon helped me recognize myself and develop a teacher identity free of mimicry. Never underestimate the power of being told that you’re good enough.
A recent status update on Facebook inspired me to write this post about my time working with Ms. Cannon. I took the above screenshot of two voicemails she left on my phone a number of years ago. Like other Millennials, I find voicemail about as useful and appealing as landline telephones. But I’ll probably hold onto Ms. Cannon’s two voicemails for a long time. I haven’t listened to them in years; I don’t really need to. The time that these voicemails come from no longer exists, but they still resonate with power. Expressing gratitude to someone you no longer keep in contact with is an interesting endeavor. The intended audience and purpose of this post are somewhat murky. It feels important to continually ground myself in gratitude and acknowledge everyone who has helped me along the way.
I’m reminded of the quote (often erroneously attributed to Maya Angelou), “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” I no longer remember much of what Ms. Cannon told me. I cannot, however, forget the feelings of confidence and positivity she inspired within me.