Recently, I wrote about what it means to me to be a warrior of kindness. That phrase is paired with another in the speech I quoted from: warrior of hope.
The whole idea of using warrior in the context of a person doing battle with the difficulties of life comes from Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer. Her writing – while not about teaching or education – nevertheless speaks to me in my experience over nearly 14 years of teaching.
Chodron writes, in her new book Living Beautifully:
“Your desire is to make a difference in even one person’s life, so that they can feel that someone is there for them.”
Yes, exactly. The most idealistic part of me strives to be that.
However, here is the dark truth of teaching:
“Then before long, you find yourself so activated by the behavior of young people that you totally lose it and can’t be there for them anymore.”
This is a paradox that causes guilt, pain, and burnout. You want to make a difference, but the kids ________ (fill in the blank with whatever is wearing you down in the moment: don’t care, disrupt, don’t listen, are rude, are disrespectful).
I understand this paradox down deep. Often, I fill myself up with all of this inspiration and desire to make positive change in the world by helping young people.
Then, I go to school.
In some sort of cosmic joke, it seems that when I feel the most inspired, I have the kids in the worst mood show up in front of me. And not just kids – adults. Everyone simmering in this low-temperature anger that just makes me want to sit down at my desk, avoid eye contact, and watch the clock.
This is such a painful experience because you make yourself vulnerable. When you try to give to someone in a way that you wish someone had given to you, and they don’t want it, or worse, they don’t even value it; that feels like someone stripped off a layer of your heart with a rusty knife.
What is so clear in our minds and hearts are not so clear in theirs because they have no context for why you are doing whatever you’re doing. They don’t know who you are or where you came from. They don’t understand what this willingness, this vulnerability costs you. They just see you in front of them being open and friendly when they feel none of this.
And that’s what it feels like with adolescents. Smaller children have different ways of being demanding, of being constantly needy. They repeatedly go off track and ruin all of my halcyon visions of the perfect school day: me bathed in golden light, a soundtrack from Ingrid Michaelson or some such indie loveliness playing, and later, viral distribution on the Internet of my serene, super-competent self.
Then there’s all the people that surround us. The adults who bring all of their issues to work with them. It’s like someone with one of those giant backpacks who interrupts what you’re doing with your own baggage, your own plans, and says: “Hey, do me a favor and hold this.”
And without waiting for you to say yes, they start handing you things, some heavier than others. Before you know it, you’re standing there with all of your stuff, plus theirs, and then you see them walk away, lightened.
Who knows when they will come back for all this stuff they’ve just given you? Years of my career have felt like this. Just when I get my stride, here comes some well-meaning colleague or administrator who adds to my already overloaded luggage.
This is what teaching feels like for me more than I’d like to admit. That’s why I’m drawn to the warrior image. The idea of doing battle against these feelings, these circumstances by engaging their opposites.
A warrior of hope believes things will be better. Maybe not right this second, but maybe by lunchtime. A warrior of hope fights hopelessness with the sword of history. The history of all those times when it did work out, when it did get better, when the letter arrives years later telling you what a difference you made in one person’s life. The history written on the faces of those whose pictures are on your wall: the warriors who came before you, like a grandparent or a mentor, who showed you a lifetime of skill in defeating depression. The history in hugs on days when you don’t expect them, in tiny notes left on your desk, in name after name called from the podium at graduation.
Your history is your sword, fellow warrior.
Remember and be brave.
Bonus: “Soldier” by Ingrid Michaelson – ready to be the soundtrack to the video montage of your awesomeness: