Learning To Fight What Scares You

Fear is a central fact of my life and my ever-present companion. From the time I noticed that my list for Santa didn’t include the Barbies, makeup or other things the girls in my class wanted,  I knew I was different. No other girl asked for a chemistry set, a BB gun, and walkie-talkies. That, along with the stacks of Spiderman comics in my closet, set me apart and made me afraid that I wasn’t the kind of girl anyone in my family expected.

This led into a pernicious and lingering fear of being judged. When you grow up Southern Baptist, there’s a particular way to gossip about people and still seem godly: the prayer chain. It sounds kind of like this: 

“Lord, we just want to raise up Lorene’s daughter, Father God, and her drinking. Lord Jesus, we grieve that her babies have different daddies, even though all the men she knows are nice…”

For my Meemaw’s sake, I knew a baseline expectation for me was to stay off the prayer chain. Waiting in line at the grocery store in my small town, I heard people talking about my parents. They were one of the first couples to get a divorce – and it was an epic, operatic production involving both those in high standing and those in low places. I learned to achieve to distract away from all the unpleasant truths about my parents and myself.  Continue reading Learning To Fight What Scares You

Face The Monster & Fight Back

The story of Hansel and Gretel has long been my guide, but only recently have I consciously been aware of it. It seemed to describe my life so well: adults who couldn’t be trusted, or adults who abandoned you, or adults who would, given the chance, eat you up whole.

Teaching it to bored, jittery seventh-graders helped me remember that it’s a story about conjuring hope in the midst of fear.

What I love about the story is that it centers on the bravery of children. Of their courage, their ingenuity, and their resistance. The first time they’re abandoned, well, it’s to be expected in their crazy family. Hansel knew that, which is why he picked up the stones to guide them back.

Hansel’s reaction to overhearing his parents’ plans to abandon him and Gretel always spoke to me. He models acceptance of what is, but plans for contingencies.

My anxiety — when it’s bad — makes me catastrophize. But in my better Hansel-mind, I remember that I can guide myself out. I can find home, no matter where I’m at. It’s in my power to pay attention, to be brave, to accept that the circumstances of fear and pain and panic are temporary.

Also, Hansel didn’t act alone. And I suspect a lot of his courage was a response to needing to protect his sister. She returns the favor for him when she pushes the witch into the oven.

It’s Gretel who really calls me to courage. She faced down a cannibal witch without the muscle of her brother. Like Hansel, she decided to plan rather than despair. And when it came time to do the thing she didn’t think she could do: BAM! Into the oven went the monster.

The witch underestimated Gretel. She thought, since Gretel was complying with her orders to feed Hansel, and her willingness to eat crab shells, proved that she broke Gretel’s will. But she didn’t. She just made Gretel more creative, more disciplined, more committed to the plan. But it’s that act of final resistance — that act under her own strength — of pushing the witch into the oven — that’s what sticks with me. That’s what I imagine, even five decades on in my life, when I have to do the thing that scares me.

I channel Gretel. I face the monster. And I fight back.

Image: Theodor Hosemann/Wikimedia Commons

Losing The Ability To Listen and Discuss

This has been one of the saddest weeks, nationally, that I can remember in years. Two men executed by police and now five Dallas PD officers killed by snipers during a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

A constant in all cases: guns. When you pair rage and fear with a gun, horrible irreversible things happen. This is something we tolerate and I’m not sure why.

We are in love with guns and we are afraid. We believe that guns will save us, that guns grant us respect, that guns settle scores for us. And they certainly do scare people. I’ve seen them pointed at people and know how quickly it can shift an attitude. I know how I feel firing one.

When you don’t get the respect you think you deserve, a gun will make people fear you — which can feel like the same thing as respect, if only temporarily: If I cannot make you respect me, I will make you fear me.

I understand the impulse. I’ve watched my own fear and rage hold sway over me this week. But I know that words and actions are more powerful. They’re harder — much harder — but no one dies. No one gets paralyzed or blinded or crippled. Guns can’t kill the biggest monsters. They can’t kill fear or hate or rage or prejudice or bigotry. They can’t kill objectification and marginalization. They can’t kill blame.

People say they are “tired” of “political correctness,” which is what they consider any objection, criticism, or discussion of these issues. Yet they seem to have boundless energy for killing, for defending killers and guns. That’s because a gun is fast. A gun doesn’t think. A gun doesn’t have to be patient or tolerant or put up with your bullshit. A gun is a way of saying, “Shut your mouth. End of discussion.”

As someone with little to no patience for discussion of difficult issues, I can see the attraction of trying to solve problems with guns. I want to claw my face off when I’m forced to listen in a conversation. I want to be heard. My skin crawls when I have to understand the other person. I want them to understand me. Especially if I completely disagree with him or her.

We are not “tired” of discussing these issues — we just don’t know how. We’ve lost the ability to truly discuss. All we have are shouted talking points, pithy tweets, maudlin Facebook posts. We’ve lost the ability to sit with people, to sit with complex topics, to sit with our own complicated hearts.

Image credit: Discussion by Tim Nelson/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

The F-Word

Last month, I went to Washington, D.C. to interview as a finalist for the National Teacher of the Year. The process was quite intense.98408751_b5a5712914_z

Like diving into ice water full of bitey little fish

The interview portion began with a mini-keynote speech. I’ve been asked to share that and so this post is a bit longer than usual. If you’re interested, I’ve reprinted it below with some modifications (removing student names/editing for space):

I don’t want to offend you, but I have to tell you that I will be talking about the f-word today.

And that f-word is a four-letter word that’s as obscene as any you’re likely to be exposed to because that f-word is fear.

And I know a lot about fear. I was raised in it by a father who drank to escape it and a mother so fearful of life that she isolated herself from even her children. I come from the fallout of fear: domestic violence, addiction, abuse and neglect. However, what I know about fear is that even though my parents were both strangled by it, they encouraged me to be brave where they could not. And thankfully, I had teachers who made school my sanctuary.

Like Mrs. Belton, my seventh-grade teacher, who taught me to write when I wanted to scream, or hit back or quit. Because I lived in a small town, I’m sure she’d heard about my parents’ very messy, very violent divorce – one of the first in our community. I heard strangers talking about them in the grocery store, so I’m sure she knew. So when I came to her in tears one day, telling her that my mother was uprooting us from everything and everyone we knew, she said, “You’re still part of this class, Shanna. You’re still my student. You write us a letter every day and tell us everything.”

I’ve never forgotten that kindness. It went deep into me and shaped the kind of teacher I am. In fact, I repeated her words to [one of my students] when I signed her drop sheet last week.

And in this story are the lessons that I’ve learned as I’ve done battle with fear throughout my life: we defeat fear with authenticity and connection. I mention this because to me, the greatest obstacle we are facing in public education is fear.

As teachers, we have to face down normal fears of a lesson falling apart or the possibility of losing control of a class. But the fear I’m talking about as a problem goes beyond that to the fear of judgement over student scores or fear of being the one who will tank the school’s performance rating…

The fear is compounded by critics who insinuate that teachers – especially those who work with students in poverty, students in trauma and students who struggle with language and learning disabilities – are bad teachers because their students don’t perform as well as other students. As Parker Palmer has written, this fear manifests in a deep insecurity that whispers, “You’re not just a bad teacher, you’re a bad person” because for so many of us, our identity is so knit to our work as teachers.

Our students are likewise worried by fears of failing and not understanding. They fear being the one who won’t graduate, who will look dumb if they have to have extra help. They fear that in a fundamental sense, they will lose at life. This is why so many decide that the surer bet is to drop out.

Palmer warned that this toxic mix of student and teacher fears creates paralysis in education. And this paralysis comes at just the time when we need our best selves, our best ideas, our creativity  and innovation to face the challenges inherent in our complex world.

But the good news is that we can overcome this paralyzing fear. We overcome it with authenticity and connection. Teachers and students need to know that we CAN because that is our history as Americans, as educators, as students who overcome the odds. Together, we can co-create classrooms that ignite both teachers’ passions and students’ promise. I know that this can be done because of my experience – all in Title I schools – as well as the experiences of innovative and dynamic teachers across this great country.

We are our best selves when we risk being real. Dr. Brene Brown, a social work researcher, says that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And she’s right. Teachers are artists of human potential. And like art, learning is messy. At my school, we’re two years into a special collaborative partnership driven by inquiry where small teams of teachers examine their practice and research, experiment and find solutions.

…When we risk being real, when we do one small brave thing by saying to each other, “Here’s what I’ve tried, what have you tried?” That vulnerability is what saves us. It’s what’s always saved us. It’s why, at my school, we don’t give up when a student doesn’t get it from the 19th or 20th way. It’s what brings us together to co-create the 21st way. This is the best of teaching … that encourages teachers to step up and be brave for each other.

We also need to be authentic in our products…At my school, I created the conditions for students to apply the standards to real problems in our communities. They generated solutions that no one else had tried. One of the most effective projects was created by a group of bilingual students. Their breast health presentation helped a Spanish-speaking woman to get her malignancy treated. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

…When we teach from curiosity, hope, empathy and honesty, we are embracing real courage. And that’s what our students have to see. Because it’s what they’ve lived. Right now, there’s a 6’3” linebacker… waiting for me back in Amarillo who has major problems with reading comprehension. He’s down to his last chance on a test in April that if he doesn’t pass, he won’t graduate. I owe him my courage, my collaboration with others, my stubbornness that won’t let this fear take us into paralysis. If he can show up every day willing to face this fear of failing, then I have to honor his courage with my own. I have to be a gladiator for him. All of us have to be gladiators for these students. We honor their courage with our own. We must give them the courage to keep moving forward in their struggles because this is who we are and this is the most important work there is.

If students like …, or like …, a 17-year-old who reads on a third grade level can keep coming back to school, if …, a refugee student whose parents handed her over a razor-wire fence into Thailand to immigrate to America because they believed in our ability to teach her, can be vulnerable enough to make myriad mistakes in her English on her way to graduating, if …, who walked past addicts and prostitutes to enter [college], if …, a student born in the dark of a hospital with no electricity can be admitted to [college] because he didn’t let fear of being from a Title I school in the Texas Panhandle hold him back, then surely we can be courage for all students.

…When we risk being authentic in our process, our products and our purpose, we teach our students faith rather than fear. We make a way for our best selves and their limitless possibility. We teach them the most important lesson: it can be done.


Image Credits

The Fear (Homage to Francisco Goya) by Corneliu Baba

Reene’s Swan Dive by Nelson De Witt