“Don’t Let Me Hurt Them”

It’s not as bad as it sounds.  I’m not completely end-of-May-exasperated on the first full day of school.  Though I readily admit to this very thought shouting in my consciousness at year’s end, it also floats into my mind at the school year’s beginning.  In August, it has a completely different context.  It’s one of my breath prayers – those one-liners you say on the run or in desperate moments.

Help me. 

Here I am. 

Show me what to do.

I’m listening. 

Add to that list:  Don’t let me hurt them.  I know the power of the tongue.  I’m a wordsmith, a writer and an English teacher.  Every job I’ve ever had paid me to use words and I know their power.  That’s their attraction for me, the mysterious, surprising capacity of the endless combinations and context in which they dwell.   They can bless and curse;  expand life or diminish it.  They wound and they heal;  they love and hate. They encourage or they demoralize. They empower and enthuse; they also reject and refuse.

When you love and own and practice words the way I do, there is tremendous potential for good or evil. In the course of the day with my students, I can instruct and encourage, comfort and cast vision, or I can confuse, unnerve, embarrass or demoralize.   Just writing those last four words frightens me.  The rate at which I run my mouth, often before my brain is engaged (as my father used to say) is dangerous.   Teenagers can be snarky and sarcastic and funny.  They complain and speak about things of which they are ill-informed. The tendency sometimes is to want to get in there with them.

But I can’t.   There is not a balance of power.  I’m the adult. They are “not quite yet”.  I’m the teacher, the giver of the grade; they are students who have to do what I assign.  The temptation to become one of them in conversation or to get a laugh at another’s expense is one I must not give in to.  The opportunity to teach them the high road in civil discourse and in personal relationships is mine. So is the chance to comfort the hidden hurting ones who walk through my door every day, whether they tell me those hurts or not.  My minister often says, “There’s pain in every pew.”  So it is in my classroom – in every desk.  I pray I am never the instrument which inflicts more.

I know the power of words, get drunk on it at times,  have run away with those words without thinking of the consequences. I’ve lost count of the times in my life I’ve had to ask forgiveness for using them carelessly.  So I’ll begin this new school year the same way I do every year, with this simple prayer, “Don’t let me hurt them.” 

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Bolt or Trust? Art, Writing, Frustration, Learning – Part 2

My teacher gave me homework to do. “Make a color chart,” she said. While I practiced my strokes on my canvas, she meticulously cut painter’s tape and made a grid on a white board. She then labeled several paint colors and told me how to mix them to see how the colors blend. I was to move down the chart adding varying amounts of white and across the chart mixing each subsequent color with the first which was Sap Green. She squeezed out paint samples on a board, covered them in Saran Wrap, and sent me home to mix color.

A fews days later after dinner one night when I was too tired but didn’t realize it, I sat down to mix color. I worked diligently mixing each one with white and putting them into the squares on my chart. I then mixed each color with Sap Green, not realizing until I was almost finished the entire chart that I had been mixing cumulatively across the chart, so instead of Sap Green and Cad Yellow, then Sap Green with Lemon Yellow, then Sap Green with Barium Red, I had been mixing Sap Green with every color across the chart at the same time. No wonder I wasn’t finding a color I liked. Suddenly, it was late at night; my kitchen table was a big mess, I had deprived myself of sleep to do this and it was all for naught. I wanted to cry. I had done it all wrong.

I cleaned up and went to bed. My first waking thought the next morning was how I had messed up this whole chart that my teacher spent so much time making and used up all the paint she had given me and had done it completely wrong. I felt about five years old. Really. “I must not have listened to her directions well,” I chastised myself. Later in the day I sent her a picture and a text and told her what I had done. She was ever encouraging and told me to bring what I had to the next lesson, assuring me we could use it and all was not lost. I didn’t believe her. I’d looked at the colors again in the daylight and I didn’t like any of them. They weren’t real colors; they were mixtures of things that shouldn’t go together.

A day or two later I took myself to Hobby Lobby. I decided to buy a few tubes of paint and make my own chart before I went back. At first I got all excited being in the art supplies’ section, the way I used to feel in my parents’ office supply store picking out new school supplies at the beginning of a school year. I loved new notebooks, fresh paper, and new pens. Still do. But my excitement quickly faded and an anxious feeling set in. I didn’t know which paints to buy, or what kind of board to use. And there were so many different kinds of supplies, brushes, cleaners, canvases, tools —a whole new vocabulary to a hobby that I’d have to get acquainted with if I kept pursuing this art thing. Again, the “bolt” feeling came. I almost walked out without a single tube of paint. A voice in my head said, “Don’t start another new thing when you have so many things unfinished at home.” Visions of photographs yet to be put in books, music to practice, gardens to weed, and writing projects stalled in the drafting stage filled my head, along with lesson plans, laundry, dusting, and cleaning out closets.

Art won. Experimentation won. In the paint aisle at Hobby Lobby, I made a decision to continue my experiment in learning about process, to press into the newness and unknown field, to get comfortable with messes and failures as part of learning, to put myself in a practice of doing something out of my comfort zone. I bought the paint and I came home and started over.

My empathy for my students grows with every attempt at mixing color or putting it on canvas. What seems easy to me – putting words on paper- feels to some of them like my moment in Hobby Lobby. They’d rather just bolt from that blank page. Only they can’t because this is school and I am going to give them a grade. So despite feeling inadequate or overwhelmed or frustrated, they dig in and do what I ask and trust me that they can do it even when they don’t see it happening.

This is particularly impressive and inspiring to me as I think I should be the stronger and more capable among us. My art experiment is proving otherwise. I’ve had my canvas painted. At fifty-one years old, I have several layers of life’s color and texture by now. At seventeen, most of my students still have significant white space on their canvas. Whole swaths of their lives haven’t been experienced yet. So I’m learning from them, and their trust inspires me, and I’m going back for another art lesson.

Teacher as Student: The Growth Mindset- Learning Empathy and Humility

I’ve been in Atlanta all week attending an AP Institute. This training is for a new class I am teaching next year, and the subject- Language and Composition – is my favorite strand of the English curriculum. I’ve been looking forward to this week for a few months and I expected it to be interesting, intellectually stimulating, and fun. It was.

It was also challenging and humbling. I walked into a roomful of strangers Monday morning at 8:00, many of whom had more education and teaching experience than I, though they are younger people. At noon, four hours into knowing these people, we headed to the cafeteria on the campus where our training was held. I thought of my freshman students who every year write about the social terrors of the lunchroom the first week of high school. As I filled my water glass while trying to balance my plate, I wondered where I was going to sit, which table would have a space for me. I felt my freshmen’s pain.

Without realizing initially what was happening to me, I was being put through the paces my students go through each time they start a new class at a new level. Our instructor, Valerie Stevenson of San Diego, CA, a master teacher, wasn’t about to just show us course material and how to construct a syllabus for this class. Oh no! She had us taking the sample multiple choice test, writing a synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis, and an argument. If that wasn’t enough, she handed us sample student papers, instructed us in the scoring guide, and told us to score them “the AP way.” My first attempt at that was unnerving. Let’s just say I didn’t have a clue what I was doing and it showed the next morning when I brought my homework to class.

When I whispered to her during the break that I had given the “9” paper a “5” and that I felt I might not be cut out for this work, she laughed. “So you are not good at it yet,” she said. She and I had previously discussed Carol Dweck’s  The Growth Mindset, required summer reading for teachers at my school and on Valerie’s recommended resources list. I’d read that book last fall thinking about all the parents I knew who should rear their children to have this ‘growth mindset’ instead of instantly thinking they should make A’s in everything from the beginning of a course. I’d read that book with my nose in the air, never once seeing myself as that student. “I bet you were that student who was usually good at things the first time and when you hit something hard, you lost confidence and backed away,” Valerie said. Bingo! Ouch! Was this woman a psychologist, too?

“It’s the growth mindset,” she said. “You’ll get better with practice. Can you see, now that I have explained it, why it was a 9?” I answered ‘Yes’. “Then you are going to be fine,” she said, “If you are seeing, then you are learning.” She was so breezily confident in me and unworried about my future in her profession that I decided maybe I was taking myself and my performance in the moment entirely too seriously. Then she went on to confess that she made a “D” in seventh grade English. This woman, this master teacher who has made a name for herself across the country as an English teacher and AP Consultant, made a D in seventh grade English. Another teacher standing nearby, a seasoned AP teacher attending her second institute as a refresher course, confessed to failing Freshman Comp as a college freshman. Carol Dweck’s book was standing in front of me.

I’d bought into Dweck’s arguments when I read it, but I hadn’t really experienced it personally in recent memory. I’d used the concepts with my students, ninth graders beginning high school, repeatedly telling them it was OK not to be good at something the first time you try. I had not put myself into a situation where that was possible.

Empathy and humility. Who doesn’t want to have those virtues? Yet acquiring them is another thing entirely. We don’t just ‘muster up’ humility or empathize by an act of our wills. Rather, these qualities are worked into us as human beings by the circumstances of our lives. At every turn, though, we will unconsciously avoid the very situations designed to make us humble and empathetic creatures because the situations are uncomfortable and unpleasant.

My ‘going back to school’ this week met my expectations as interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun. It exceeded my expectations by being challenging, and humbling. I’m practicing to become a good AP Lang teacher and grader and more importantly, an empathetic teacher and human being. I can see it; but as Valerie said, “Not yet.”