"The best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain."

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

We are Phoenix

At the end of the hallway, on the way to the teacher bathrooms, loomed the words, “In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.” That Junot Dias quote was my daily chastisement for a long time. It motivated me, but also reminded me of my deficits. I think I always knew I would, and could, make it through my two years of Teach for America. But, I wasn’t sure who I would become in the process, who I would be on the other end.  The quote taunted and motivated, because it was inevitable that I would become someone—or rather, I would become a different version of myself, and I didn’t know what sort of something I would become. I didn't know what sort of tale mine would be. I wasn’t sure of the ending. A tragedy? A comedy? A triumph? A Mark Twain-ian, satirical commentary? Perhaps, like all great stories, mine would have moments of each. And I could become the person to tell that multifaceted story. Or, it would be a one-sided, simple story of failure. My failure to become who I needed to become. 

“Is Boston your final destination?” asked the lady at the counter. In the context of flying and layovers and airports, it should have been a simple question to answer. In the context of moving to a new place, for an undetermined amount of time, however, the question was not that simple. I stumbled over an affirmative response, feeling troubled by it all, wondering why she felt the need to phrase the question in that particular way. “Will Boston be my final destination? How long will I be in this place? What am I getting myself into?” were all questions I posed to myself as I made my way to the gate.

I had a window seat that allowed me one last view of the mountains. Something about the mountains made the tears come. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the last time I was away from those mountains, it was the best, but hardest time of my life. I had a small feeling that this next stretch of time would be similar in some ways.

I may or may not have cried myself through most of that flight (a kind flight attendant may or may not have brought me tissues), as I contemplated my new life and my unknown future. I think I was also still nursing a bit of a broken heart over having to say no to something I really wanted.
Leaving family, friends, home, security, and the known was hard enough. Finding myself in a *difficult* work environment took the hard to the next level. I use the term “difficult,” in the most euphemistic of ways. Tears were my constant companions in those days. If not tears, then certainly frustration, anger, and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

My mom loves to tell the story of my first day of work, because it basically consisted of me sobbing wordlessly into the phone, huddled in the corner of my classroom, while she waited for me to stop crying long enough to tell her what happened. I wish I could say it was all uphill from there, but it wasn’t like that at all.

I used to drive with the windows down on my way home from school, because all of my emotions threatened to suffocate me in the small, enclosed space of my car. I needed space and air--I needed to remember to breathe.

I look back at the beginning, and I chuckle a little bit at the moments that brought me so much satisfaction, and the moments that crushed me.  They seem so inconsequential in retrospect. In those times, however, they weren’t. Simple things, like students sitting in an assigned seat, or a student not addressing me as the b-word anymore, or a student actually completing an assignment made me feel like the champion of the world.  I remember the first day that nobody swore at me. The entire day. Those small moments were the biggest victories. And, on the flip side, when those moments weren’t happening, the failures overwhelmed me. 

Memories of successful moments, luckily, overshadow the many negative ones leading up to the more lasting, long-term successes that I encountered.  Sometimes the negative memories still come to mind—no matter how unbidden and suppressed. I don’t care to put labels or descriptors to all of those, but I remember the feelings.  

Hoping is necessary, and dangerous, in such circumstances. I hoped so much, but the hope wasn’t tempered enough and I found the hope shattering far too often. Left with shards of hope, I would try to piece it back together, but it wasn’t ever quite strong enough not to shatter again.
I had an idea of the teacher I wanted to be in that school. I had an idea of the strength and hope that I wanted to feel. But I didn’t have it. I knew the kind of story I wanted to be able to write, but I wasn’t there. Yet.

I spent more time, especially that first year, feeling crushed and broken. Certainly not strong or hopeful.

Time, apparently, does heal most, if not all, wounds, because I can now laugh about many of the experiences I had in those first months, though I can’t say I found them overly funny at the time. Like the time it was really hot and the lack of air conditioning in the school drove one student to take off her shirt in the middle of class, leaving her in her bra, as she prepared to storm out. Not funny when you are the one trying to figure out how to handle that situation, but very funny months after the fact when you aren’t responsible for that anymore. Then you remember that this particular student has since dropped out… and you feel the negative things again…

Or, one of my absolute favorites, when a student spent her five minutes of silent writing time elaborating on all the reasons she hated me. As part of the daily routine, I let students share what they wrote, and she, of course, chose to share hers. She had some very vivid and colorful descriptions—which was also the feedback I gave her after she finished reading for the class. I laugh about it now, but I wasn’t really laughing then. She also ended up dropping out, but she still comes by the school to say hi sometimes and she greets me very warmly. We ended on a better note than we started, but she chose a different path, and I could do nothing more than stand by and watch her make decisions that she was too young to be making on her own. With her mother in prison, and a grandmother that was less-than-attentive, she had no choice but to make those decisions alone.

Being cursed out, or threatened, or raged at, criticized, or any number of behaviors that used to disrupt my state of mind, do not have the same effect that they once did. Sometimes I am saddened at the hardening that has taken place in me, and at the loss of innocence, but I’m tougher. I’m more resilient. I have been forced to push the boundaries of my love and hope.

Nothing makes you question yourself more than feeling unforgivingly angry at an adolescent that has every reason to merit your compassion, help, and guidance. Nothing makes you want to learn to love more than feeling like you don’t have any more love to give. Nothing makes you feel worse than realizing that you have been withholding the love that you should be giving, and the love that is needed. There were times when my charity failed, and I failed because of it.

There are a lot of interactions and relationships that I am still working through and navigating in my thoughts and memories. I have hope for future healing.  Which is probably the biggest thing—hope for future healing, and hope for the future. Hope for more charity.

I remember vividly how it felt to feel hope again for the first time, and I remember what it felt like to feel actually happy. I remember what it felt like to not be afraid in my own classroom.  I remember how it felt to experience all of those things, and everything in between, and I remember the void that it is when you don’t feel hope or happiness or security. They are tangible absences, much like the lack of sun in a New England winter.

I don’t think there were any significant moments, or climactic events that really turned things around. I think it was more a process of becoming. Becoming what they needed me to be. Becoming the teacher who wouldn’t flinch in their rage, who would push forward when they pushed back, who would take their hate and anger and emotions and diffuse them. Not that I always did that. I often still failed to see the needs behind the emotions and actions. But I got better. I became better.

Eventually, dread didn’t fill my heart as I got in the car in the morning to make the drive to work. At some point, they started writing more, reading more, and thinking more. We started discussing, and pushing and truly exploring ideas and issues. They started talking to me about their lives and their feelings, and they started seeking my approval. When I asked them to step out and have a conversation with me, they did. They started walking out less, pushing back less, and chiding each other more for off-task behaviors. I caught them reading when they shouldn’t have been, they took more risks with their writing, and they admitted to actually enjoying some of the learning we were doing.

They read independently, we read together. They talked to each other about what they were reading, they recommended books to each other, and they even took recommendations from me. They let me help them find the right books. If we didn’t find the right book the first time, they kept trying to find the right fit, and eventually we did. Waiting for students to stop talking actually became a management strategy I could use. In the past, wait time would have ended with them spending the rest of class talking. The days weren’t necessarily easy still, but they certainly were not as hard. The cloud wasn’t hanging overhead the way it had. Sometimes we even laughed and joked together. I learned to bachata at the prom. They watched Harry Potter movies when they came on TV.

The last Friday of school, I watched my students perform their own, reworked versions of Shakespeare plays. I watched as one group performed a prequel to Hamlet, which they entitled Claudius. It delved into the motivations of Claudius, and why he did what he did. I watched another group show how the characters in Hamlet all betrayed each other, leading to their own betrayal. They highlighted how Horatio betrayed no one, and was not betrayed. Another group did a bilingual version of The Taming of the Shrew, while others did a contemporary version of it. Students who used to refuse to read, or talk about books, or work in groups, and so many other things, had worked together to write and perform their own Shakespeare plays. They performed in front of the entire school, which was also the first dramatic performance in the walls of that school. They had made their own props, had pieced costumes together, and typed up scripts. One group even had some kazoos to announce the arrival of royalty in their play.

I used to say that seeing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre was life-changing. Any performance at the Globe that I saw in the past was completely eclipsed by seeing Shakespeare performed at Phoenix Academy Lawrence. That was actually life-changing. I understood in that moment why parents hang ridiculous assignments on the fridge at home, and why my dad used to tell me I had a beautiful singing voice, even when I would sometimes hit the most atrocious notes in my practicing.
They had done it all on their own. I had given them templates and outlining tools and space to brainstorm and work in class. I listened and gave feedback, and encouraged where I could. But I left it up to them. They did all of the thinking and writing and creating on their own. They kept on top of each other, and they made it all happen. I could hear them talking and laughing animatedly during rehearsals, and bouncing ideas off each other. They revised and reworked and readjusted casting decisions. They spoke loudly during their performance and owned the stage. And I sat and watched. Awe and joy and hope and love colored their performance, at least in my eyes, and I realized that my life had changed. I had changed. They had changed. We had changed together.
The last day of school, I sat in my empty classroom, looked at the walls that had become bare. The student work hung no more, the annotation guides, charts, posters, and all the teacher things had been taken down. Within just a few short hours from the final bell, it had become a sad and empty classroom. I cried in that empty classroom. Remembering the heartache, the grief, the hopes that had died, the hopes that had been reborn, the person that I used to be.  I cried more, however, with gratitude for the person that I had become.

The mission statement of the Phoenix Academy says, “Phoenix Academy Lawrence challenges resilient disconnected youth with rigorous academics and relentless support, so they take ownership of their futures and recast themselves as self-sufficient adults in order to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.” The students all know that a Phoenix rises from the ashes of their burned existence, and gets a new start. The Phoenix is the ultimate symbol of redemption, change, and becoming.

When I first started working at the Phoenix, it felt hard to picture the end. It always is. It is very rare that we get to glimpse the future and see the hints of what could be.  I don’t think I knew then what the story could be like, and I certainly didn’t know what it would be like. It was hard to picture change and redemption, and I had no idea what, or who my students and I would become.  What I know now, though, is that together, we became a storybook ending. A tearful, tumultuous, at times tragic, but overtly triumphant ending.

This is not a book, or really even a fully-fleshed out story. It is a tale of the Phoenix, and we are Phoenix.

I drove home from school that day with the windows down. My emotions were too grand and big to be contained, and I could finally breathe the fresh air.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Don't You Forget About Me."

I’m not going to pretend he was my favorite student, or even that we had a particularly close relationship. His attendance wasn’t great, and, quite frankly, his focus wasn’t either. He was a student that very cheerfully handled his redirections, and would tell me to “chill.” To which I’m sure I responded with something about how I “would never be chill about his education.” Was I his favorite teacher? Nope. Did I have high hopes and dreams and expectations for him? Yep. I was his teacher, after all, even if not his favorite. I was not a perfect teacher for him, and I didn’t do everything right. I know that, and will learn from that. But, I still showed up, ready to teach him, ready to fight for him—ready to fight for them all. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could give.

“18-year-old killed…” That was the headline of the first article I read about the shooting. The photos of him show his height and stocky build. They use “18-year-old” to make it seem like he was an adult. Which, technically, he was. But he really wasn’t. The articles speculate about gang activity, and it all clicks into place for people. “Ah. It is sad, and he is very young. But that’s what you get for hanging with the wrong crowd.” The assumptions and speculations abound, and people might acknowledge that it is sad, but there is still this air of understanding, almost. As if this was to be expected, because, I mean, look at his picture! He is big, and tall, and hangs out in a gang. It’s his own fault. Now, people might not go that far, but there is certainly a hint of that in their words.

The boy the papers don’t show, however, was the one that roamed the halls of our school. He was goofy, and smiley, and as laid back as it gets.  Like I said, I’m not going to claim that he was the most focused student in the world, but very few students are that student. He tried to do his work more often than he didn’t, he tried to help out classmates when he could, and he wasn’t a student inclined to curse you out. He wasn’t an angel, or a saint. He was more than just a gang member, or a thug. He was a kid. A good kid, even.  A kid who was involved with things far beyond his years. A kid who had friends, who loved basketball, who loved joking around. A kid who will be missed by a lot of people, myself included.

  I have experienced loss before, and each one brought a slightly different pang.  This is my first time experiencing the pain of losing a student, and it certainly has a sting all its own.

It isn’t just a sadness for this student, which is certainly part of it, but it is a sadness for all the students that it has been, and could be, through the years. A sadness for the hurts that exist in the world, and the wrongs that take away kids who are forgotten as individuals as they become statistics.
I think part of the sadness is also tinged with a little guilt. The guilt of knowing that you were one of the adults in his life who was supposed to help keep him safe. You were supposed to prepare him for the “real world,” and give him the tools, resources, and knowledge necessary to be successful. In this instance, we, the adults, failed. I failed.  At least it feels that way.

I am not prideful enough to think that I could have single-handedly changed this outcome. Nor will I ever think that my job as a teacher is to save students—or this student. I also know that no matter how much I would love to have the assurance that the children of the world are safe, that isn’t a reality. On any level. That isn’t what I mean by saying that I failed him.

My failure stems from the doubts and questions I had after his death. I started thinking about all of the *stuff* my students deal with on a daily basis, and I started to doubt that anything we do in schools can make a difference. How am I supposed to plan a lesson that is engaging enough to combat whatever is going on outside of the classroom? How do I try to get them to care about iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they are going to sleep that night, or when they fear for the basic security and protection? I can’t fix those things for them. So, what’s the point? Nothing is really going to work. Nobody can make a difference, and I certainly can’t.

It’s like that stupid “starfish story.” The one that is really sweet and touching if you are in the right mood for it. Or, that is totally irritating if you aren’t. I’m not right now. I don’t really like thinking about my students as these sad starfish, washed up on the beach, waiting to be thrown back into the water. Only some of them will be the lucky ones, and the rest are left to dry out, thanks to the changing tide. Because I saved a few of the starfish I’m supposed to be okay with losing the rest of them? That doesn’t seem like a great strategy.

Yet, the idea of saving ALL of the starfish is overwhelming to the point of debilitation. Also, I still have to call my mom to ask her things about taking care of myself, so I’m certainly in no position to be saving anyone. To be perfectly honest, the very idea of teachers “saving” students, or anyone “saving” another person makes me cringe.

I think the reason that idea makes me feel so uncomfortable, is because I know that there is someone who has taken the necessary steps to actually save everyone, and this is also where my real failure comes in—how I actually failed this student, and myself.

I failed to remember that there is a real Starfish Saver. Somebody who has already saved all of the starfishes. Through all the ages, through all the school systems, in all the places. I’m one of those starfishes, too. Some starfishes are hanging out on the beach, some are safe in the water. We are all doing these different things. We wait for the tide to come in and out, and we try to remember that, ultimately, the Starfish Saver has the capacity to save all of us.

While this was a comforting reminder for me, it still didn’t make me feel all the way better. I am working on building that hope for the future, and the eternities, but I still get dragged right back to the present. Yep, one day this student and his family and his friends will be just fine. What do we do until then? What is my role in this? What am I supposed to do for my grieving students? What am I supposed to teach them in a public school setting that makes a difference? I just teach my fellow starfish about the nouns and verbs they need as they slowly dry out? I quote Tennyson to them as we all wonder whether this tide is in our favor or not?

I know a lot of my colleagues are going to be spending time this weekend reading and pondering the words of inspirational, motivational , wise people, and trying to ground themselves in their own motivations for becoming teachers, particularly teachers in a situation like ours. In tough times, you have to remember why you did things in the first place, I guess.

I watched The Breakfast Club.

When I want to give up on education, when I feel like a broken teacher, and when I feel tired of feeling so many things about my job, this is the movie I watch. Not Dead Poets Society, or Stand and Deliver, and certainly not the abomination- of- a- teacher-movie starring Hillary Swank. For those familiar with the movie, you might wonder why I choose to watch a movie with probably one of the meanest teachers ever, who is not inspiring, or positive, or even nice. There are a few reasons, one of them being that it is just a great movie from the 80s.

The movie starts with the Simple Minds classic song, “Don’t you forget about me” a black screen, and white letters. The white letters are a David Bowie quote that reads, “…And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” This quote is dramatically smashed and blown to bits with 80s flare, and you get a nice glimpse of a normal-looking high school.

Then, you hear the voice of the “brain” who reads the essay they wrote during detention:

Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions.
You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct?
That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.

That opening is definitely another reason. It clarifies for me, as a teacher, what my role is and what it is not.  

My job is not to fix anyone, save anyone, punish anyone, redeem anyone, discipline anyone, and a whole slew of other things. These students already have plenty of voices telling them what they can and cannot do. They have people poking and prodding and pushing them. Some have that in more loving atmospheres than others. Some maybe feel smothered by the presence of the love they receive. And that has nothing to do with me.

When they come to me, they carry that all with them. No way I can sort through all of that for each of them—I’m not prideful enough to think I am capable of that, or that  I can change that for them.

But, I can try to avoid seeing them as I want to see them. I can avoid seeing them “in the simplest terms” or “the most convenient definitions.” I can give them a space for the many dimensions of their lives and personalities, and I can validate who they are, even if I can’t always validate all of their individual behaviors.

I can care about them. Even when that caring might not do much for them—just like caring about the starfish on the beach might not do that much for it. I think the starfish would still probably rather know that somebody saw it, cared about it, recognized its unique characteristics, and would miss it when it didn’t get saved by the tide. My job as a teacher is to look beyond the persona they create for themselves, beyond the labels their peers would give them, and actually try to see them as a fellow starfish on the beach that has baggage.  

Another part of the movie that always gets me is when John Bender is in Mr. Vernon’s office and Vernon is threatening him. Bender seems like a pretty tough kid, with a lot of stuff he is used to dealing with. He is not used to dealing with it from a teacher, though. Or at least on this level. You see the look on his face as he realizes that this adult who was supposed to be safe, wasn’t actually safe for him. It’s devastating, and you can see that he doesn’t actually know what to do.

Had Vernon acted differently, it might not have necessarily changed Bender’s life dramatically. At the very least, though, he could have been one less thing that Bender had to deal with and worry about. He could have been one less person to belittle him, or have low expectations for him. He could have helped Bender find a place to just be himself and not worry about it. This movie reminds me that being a good teacher, content stuff aside, just requires kindness. Which, to be honest, is not always easy, but it also isn’t actually that hard.

The last reason I am going to delve into, I already kind of mentioned. The fist-pumping song that has become synonymous with The Breakfast Club, that captures Bender’s moment of triumph perfectly, is another reason this movie is grounding for me. It captures perfectly the plea of adolescence, and, let’s be real, humanity in general. The song says, “Don’t you forget about me… won’t you come see about… will you call my name… will you walk on by?” All these desperate pleas and questions: Do you see me? Are you going to acknowledge our shared humanity? Are you going to notice and care? Please don’t forget about me.

Being alive can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think we actually need or expect that much from the other people on the beach. Maybe I can actually do my job as a teacher. I probably won’t ever be the perfect teacher, but I am certainly committed to trying.

As I mentioned, I didn’t have any sort of spectacular relationship with this student, but he was my student. I lectured him countless times about his tardy problem. I know I chastised him about side conversations.  The feedback that I gave on his last assignment was about the progress he had made. I cared about him, and I hope that all of those various interactions are evidence of that, in their own way.

 That assignment will never be returned to him, but I hope he knows that we saw him. He was noticed, and we cared for him.

The empty desk isn’t just an empty desk--it was his. He is not just a statistic, or a kid who got in with the wrong group of friends. Not just the basketball player, or the goofball. He was our student. He wasn't perfect. Neither were we. 

We won’t forget about him.

Monday, April 18, 2016

They Call Me "Miss"

I had to actively stop myself from skipping through the airport. It was Friday, my classroom was clean, I had finished grading about half of my finals and I was on my way home for spring break. A whole, blissful week off of school AND my sister was in the hospital, ready to have her first baby. It was even sunny outside. I couldn’t stop smiling and I was dangerously susceptible to doing some serious oversharing with random strangers in line. That happens to me sometimes when I get really excited. People ask normal questions like, “How are you?” and I have to work really hard to not tell them in great detail exactly why I am doing awesome. Really, you can sum it up just by saying, “I’m going home.”

As I spent my time in the airport, though, I was trying to figure out why exactly I get so excited about going home. I love my family dearly and I love spending time with them, but, I mean, I live in a cool place, I have some lovely people in my life, there are always exciting things to do and, generally speaking, I enjoy my existence in the Boston area. So why is it always so happy for me to go home and so devastating to go back?

I think my mother actually always gets a little nervous about me coming home, because she knows that I always have a really rough time my first week back. Not to mention the fact that she always has to watch me meltdown at the airport when she drops me off.
Which leads me back to my question: why is it so hard to go back again?
That question probably had a pretty obvious answer at the beginning of the year—the beginning of the year was… something else. There is a reason there are no blog posts from the beginning of the year. Or really from any part of the year until now. I used to use blogging to make sense of my life and to find patterns and think through experiences—it was like a more intense journal entry, or like a missionary letter. Something that only your mom reads and occasionally that one super supportive aunt or uncle. I didn’t do that type of writing at the beginning of the year, because putting those experiences to words in a presentable way for other humans was just beyond my capabilities.

Looking back now, I think I have blocked a lot of those experiences, but occasionally I get these flashbacks and I can’t help but laugh at how ridiculous the beginning was.
The first few weeks I couldn’t even get a whole class to listen to me and I had to find ways for students to do a lot of independent work that required minimal direction from me, the teacher, because, again, they didn’t listen to me. These were not my proudest moments, but I would give directions to the whole class with about 40-60% actually listening to me (and some of you might be thinking that I just didn’t employ my “wait time” well enough… but had I employed “wait time,” I would still be waiting!). I would carry on with my directions because I didn’t want to penalize the kids who were ready and willing to learn, so I would teach them what they needed for the lesson and then I would walk around and tell all the other students, the ones who weren’t listening, what they needed to do one-by-one. The students would move the tables and chairs wherever they wanted. Getting students to sit in assigned seats was a fight and I got called a lot of names that were not “Miss Pearce.”
Actually, the students don’t call me “Miss Pearce” still. They call me “Miss.” I don’t know if it is a Lawrence thing or an east coast thing, but they refer to all of us teachers, at least to our faces, as strictly “Miss” or “Mister.”

But again, they had a lot of other nicknames for me in the beginning. Especially when I gave them new assignments, or any sort of “new” thing. I don’t think they always handle change very well and they didn’t trust me to support them as they tried new things and did hard things. I was some white woman from Provo, Utah who didn’t know their lives, who didn’t know them and who they didn’t know at all. On a different level, they also knew that if they pushed hard enough, they could get teachers to quit. And then they would get away with doing less. They had seen that happen plenty of times before and they almost seemed to take pride in their handiwork. I think they looked at me like another teacher they could wear down and get rid of—another teacher that wouldn’t battle with them and for them every day. Do I blame the other teachers for not sticking around? Not at all. Do I understand why they would leave? 100%. This is in no way a negative reflection on those other teachers, just to clarify. Nor is it a criticism of the students. It is just a reality.

In a sad way, I think it actually helped me a lot when the teacher next door quit, because they saw that they hadn’t worn me down yet and maybe they started to think that they couldn’t. Sometimes I wasn’t so sure myself.  

They gave it a very good go, though. I still remember the day that I told them they were required to read a book outside of class. I legitimately thought that students were going to start throwing desks or chairs at me—they got very close to that. Or, the day that I switched the desk formation. That was worse than getting a new seating chart. A lot of yelling, a lot of storming out of class angry, a lot of name-calling.

I know a few people have heard me rant about “teacher films” and stuff, but some of you might be picturing classroom scenes like in Freedom Writers where the teacher comes in and the students don’t like her, but then one day they all have this moment where they get really angry and then take turns expressing their thoughts and emotions to the teacher and their classmates who are in rival gangs. After my first week of school I re-watched that movie and I couldn’t even handle it because IT IS NOTHING LIKE THAT. You don’t have to believe me if you don’t want to, but just do us both a favor and do NOT suggest to me that all I need to do is bring a Holocaust survivor into my school and suddenly all the kids will love me. Don’t tell me that what I need to do is let them write in notebooks to really express their feelings and don’t tell me that ONE DAY or ONE STELLAR LESSON will fix everything for them and send them off to bright and glorious futures. I’m not saying those things can’t happen, because hey, I believe in change and possibility. But I don’t think things usually happen in the Freedom Writers kind of way.

What Freedom Writers doesn’t show you, is that every day is a battle. You can have a great lesson one day and have students really on board with something and then have to start all over again the next day. Every single day, you have to show up, ready to handle whatever they bring to the classroom that day. Sometimes, that means their parent/significant other/friend got arrested the night before and they are a hot mess. Sometimes that means that they got evicted, or didn’t have enough food that week. Sometimes their house burned down to the ground and they lost everything. Sometimes their child was sick and they were in the hospital all night. And, yes, all of those things have actually happened to my students. Along with a lot of other things. They don’t always know how to handle all of those things, and so they don’t—they lose it a little bit. No matter how much you try to convince them that they can, in fact, relate to Hamlet, sometimes they just do not care. Because guess what? They just switched foster homes again or their mom kicked them out of the house.

I couldn’t solve all of those problems for them. The only thing that I could do was show up every day with the best lesson plan I could come up with and a chance for a fresh start. Every morning I greeted them as cheerfully as I could—I tried to let them know that no matter what they had done or said the day before, I would let them have a clean slate. And that was not always easy for me, either.

I wish I could say that I was just naturally that good of a person. But I’m not. I spent a lot of time on my knees, praying for a charity that I did not feel. Praying for a forgiving heart that I did not have. Praying for compassion that I didn’t want to give. And, begging for inspiration to know how to reach these students who were really good at pushing people away. One particularly bleak weekend, I sat down with my journal and forced myself to write something positive about each student.  I tried to cling to those positive pieces with everything I had, no matter how difficult they were and no matter what they did. But I felt like Sisyphus most days. My task, however, didn’t involve a rock and a mountain. It involved hoping for myself and my students that things would get better. 

I slowly worked towards a goal that never seemed to come. Every school break or holiday seemed to just derail us, too. The students would come back from a break of doing whatever they wanted and did not love the idea of structure and rules and we would have to start all over again.

Well, maybe not all over again. But we definitely had a lot of setbacks. Eventually, however, I was able to start actually teaching the whole class. Slowly, students started actually doing their work and most students actually started sitting in their assigned seats. I also started learning their patterns and how they operated. They started to learn some of my patterns. We got used to each other. I tried to be as consistent as possible, even as we tried new things. I learned lots of different arrangements and uses for four-letter words. I also learned that some of them are more hurtful than others. But, we made some progress.
They started calling me “Miss” more than the other names.

They fought with me about reading Hamlet and they complained about not being able to understand Shakespeare. But then they got used to it. They even started to realize that Hamlet had a lot going on and a lot of family drama, just like they did. They wrote poems about Ophelia and critiqued different film versions of the famous soliloquys.

They came up with their own commandments for their own versions of "Animal Farm" and they were outraged when Boxer was sent to the glue factory. They shuddered in horror at Elie's memories in Night and they wrote him a letter. They were distressed when the story ended in such an unsatisfying, yet fitting way. They thought Harry Potter was the dumbest thing in the world, but then they asked me to get copies of the other books so they could continue the series. They told me about watching the HP movies on TV on the weekends.

They told me they were sick of plays, but they read ahead in The Crucible. We read most of the play together, but by the time we got to the last act, most of the students had already finished it because they couldn’t wait. They liked that Rite of Passage had a lot of figurative language, and they liked that Speak was told in first person.

They liked being kept in suspense and they liked the surprises and twists. Sometimes I would hear them whisper things to their classmates like, “This is a good ass book, man.” Sorry for the language, but the actual words just capture it so much better.

They tell me when they don’t like my notebook prompts, they let me know when they don’t like activities. They tell me that I’m “mad whack” when I get too excited about something. Every day is still a battle. Lots of them still don’t do their work. Almost all of them sit in their assigned seats. Most of the time, they call me “Miss.”

Sometimes, they use more than their words to express things. I remember the first time a student hugged me. Which is normally a totally not okay thing for teachers/students, but this time, it really was. I also won't soon forget the student looking me in the eyes as he poured his drink on me. Or having a door slammed on me. Or the fight that happened in my classroom. Things like that happen and it used to take me a lot longer to recover.  Sometimes, you go to the bathroom and cry for a second. Then you make it look like you didn't and you go back out. They can sense weakness, you know. 

Sometimes when things like that happen, they think you won't come back. They think it will be the last straw. When you do come back, they ask you if you are okay. They tell you they are sorry and they tell you they are angry that someone, one of their own, would disrespect you like that. Most of them are ready to stick up for you. They get angry for you. 

In the beginning they didn't react like that. There was more indifference and, maybe, some mild concern. Then, a little more compassion and indignation. Now, protectiveness. Maybe even a little respect. Their reactions have changed throughout the year. They call me "Miss" and tell me they are sorry. When it was them, and even when it wasn't. 

With one quarter left of the year, they know that I will always say “good morning” and they usually say it back. They know that I will get excited about English-y stuff and that they will have to tell me that I’m weird. Sometimes they get excited, too, though they would never admit that.  They know that no matter what names they call me, I will still work with them, will still give them second chances and will still keep coming back. They know that I will expect them to work every day. They know I will listen to their problems and woes, and that I will sympathize, even as I push them to not let their problems keep them from achieving. “Wait time” actually works now. They have also learned that, sometimes, when they are being particularly unruly and when I’m about to lose my cool, I look up at the ceiling and take a second to regain some sense of composure. And sometimes when I’m doing that, they actually tell each other to be quiet. In the beginning of the year, that would have never happened.

When I left for this vacation, they told me to “be safe,” which I think is one of their most sincere well-wishes. Safety isn’t always something they come by and they hope that for the people they care about.

In the beginning, I would cry every time I had to go back to Boston. The names, the daily battle, the anger (theirs and mine) all seemed too much to go back to. Going home gave me a lovely respite. I was just Tara and people were nice and I spent time with my family who loves me. I could let my hair down and just be me, because people didn’t need me to be anybody else.

Going back, though, I needed to become “Miss” again. I had to be there in every way, ready to forgive and love, ready to support and encourage. I had to be ready to teach people who didn’t always want to be taught. The tears flowed, because being “Miss” was a lot for me sometimes and the wounds from the battle hadn’t healed all the way. I cried for them, because I knew that no matter how hard I tried to teach them English, they still had a lot of their own battles to fight and they still had a lot to overcome on their own. I could only do so much for them, and I wasn’t even sure I was capable of doing my part in all of this. I selfishly cried for me, but I cried for them, too.

The daily battle of being “Miss” still gets me down sometimes. I’m not going to lie about that. Most days are hard, with little specks of good. Things have changed a lot since the beginning of the year, and I used to cry every time I left from home to go back. Maybe this time I won’t, because now, they call me “Miss.” 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Airplanes and Charity

12:46 was the time that my flight was supposed to get in. It was going to work perfectly.  I would get in at 12:46, I didn’t have to wait for a bag or anything, so I could just go right outside to find my lovely friend who was waiting to pick me up. We would take our quick twenty-minute ride to the Salt Lake temple and I would be super on-time, early even, to the beautiful temple sealing that was to take place at 1:40. That was the plan. I knew it was a little risky, but most flights usually arrive early and I figured with a little faith, all would work out.

I had been praying for weeks that everything would work out with my flights so that I would make it to the temple on time. Cue the “get me to the church on time” music (points if you can name that musical!). 

Initially, when the flight from Phoenix was a little late in leaving, I didn’t think too much about it. Even when they announced that there were some mechanical problems, I wasn’t stressed about it. I had confidence that the Lord wouldn’t let me miss the wedding. It would be just fine.
But, as we waited for parts and as it kept taking more and more time, I started to feel very anxious. Our departure just kept getting pushed back and back. We took off an hour later than we were supposed to and so if we arrived an hour later than planned, I was going to miss the wedding. I’m not great at math, but I had figured out that 12:46 + 1 hour= 1:46. And 1:46> 1:40. I don’t know how to express that last part mathematically, but hopefully that gets the idea across!

As I sat there fretting and worrying, the lady next to me asked me something and I think I told her I was anxious about making it to the wedding and she responded with, “Yeah, looks like you probably won’t make that.” Thank you random stranger lady for your kind and comforting words. And thank you for teaching me to ALWAYS lie to strangers on a plane when it comes to them making the wedding that was the sole purpose of their trip.

With her words ringing in my ears and the time slowly ticking closer to 1:40, I will admit that I started to feel a little hurt. I had been praying for this and asking for this to work out since I purchased the ticket. How could this have happened? Of all the flights I have been on recently, there haven’t been any problems. Why would this happen?!
Then it just kept taking forever and forever. We didn’t land until 1:30 and at this point I was distraught. I think I was on my feet before the plane even fully landed. The nearest flight attendant seemed to be so shocked by my behaviors that she didn’t even react as I was on my feet, getting out my bag from the overhead compartment before they had even given us permission to undo our seatbelts.

I very ungracefully and ungraciously shoved my way to the front, muttering “Wedding! Late!” as I shoved past people. (*I like to think that I am a fairly well-mannered individual, but I was legitimately shoving past people towards the front of the plane. Even I was shocked at my own behavior.)  I was the first person to reach the door and it wasn’t even open yet, but the second it was, you best believe that I sprinted through the airport, church clothes and all, arms pumping, all the way to the waiting car. People were like diving out of my way and I was shouting, “Trust me, I’m a limo driver!” as I ran past. Not really, but maybe some of you got the reference.

I had discovered that they were running a little late with the wedding, so there was a chance I would still make it. My dear friend drove safely and swiftly to the temple and dropped me off at the curb. I did my best Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow impression as I ran in my heels to the temple door. Then I let my fast-walking skills kick- in through the temple halls. I tried to keep my patience with the ancient temple worker who was having a hard time hearing my question as to where sealing room 13 was… (Are you two still living? Just kidding! I’ll probably get struck down for that one…). I fast walked to the room and the temple workers outside were unsure as to whether it had started, so one of them peeked in…

And miracle of MIRACLES! I wasn’t there until like 1:50-something, but they still hadn’t started! They let me in and within a minute or two of being there, the advice-giving time ended and the ordinance started. I made it just in time.

I discovered later that the mother of the groom had forgotten her temple recommend and that was why the ceremony was late in getting started.

Though I was super pumped up about being on-time to the wedding, it also made me feel a little guilty. Because the first moment that it seemed like I was going to miss it, when the plane problems were not being resolved, I doubted in Heavenly Father. In my head it was kind of like this, “Man. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks and I’ve been praying for it. How could it not work out?! Why would Heavenly Father let this happen? He knew how much this meant to me. How could our plane be late?!” I let myself lose that trust in Him and His wisdom. 

In my mind, it was like I had this plan for how things should happen. The plane would leave on time, the connecting flight would be just fine, traffic would all be swell, etc. And when my plan wasn’t happening, I immediately doubted. I was walking on the water and then I wasn’t anymore. 

But Heavenly Father’s plan was maybe something like this: first plane will be fine, second plane needs to be fixed so they all don't crash and die, Daniel's mom will forget her recommend, Tara will run through the airport and she is slow at running in heels, so the sealer's advice will go a little on the long-side before the actual ceremony begins. 

Okay, so, maybe it isn't exactly like that. I don't actually know what "the plan" was and I will probably never really know. And I bet throughout my life, I will probably rarely know the actual plan. But, whatever the plan was, Heavenly Father got me to the temple in time for the wedding. 

This moment with the planes and the recommend and the Lord’s plan not being my plan all felt like this microcosmic parallel to my life and I realized that in a lot of ways, I haven’t been putting my trust in Heavenly Father like I want to. It’s like that difference between “believing in Christ” and “believing Christ.”

Over the past year, I have felt like I had all these different plans for my life. In my mind it was like, “Oh, this thing is happening to me, so I think I’m going to do this.” And then that didn’t work out, so I was like, “Okay, so I’ll try this next thing” and then it was like, “You really want this, but that isn’t what you are going to do.” Then it was like, “Go to Boston and do Teach for America,” and I was like, “Okay.” And then I started teaching and there was no way that I ever could have been prepared for the situation I found myself in. I hate saying that things are hard, but it was hard. 

And in that moment, once again, I felt a little hurt. Like, “Heavenly Father, I have tried so hard to do what was right and I’ve tried to listen to the spirit and be obedient, but why is this my responsibility? Why is this what I have to do? Why did it have to be so hard?” I had my plans and views of my life and how it should be and my trust in the Lord and His ways was tested a little bit. 

Somewhere deep within me, I hoped that it would get better, and I knew that Heavenly Father had a plan in all of this, but it felt like it was going to be two years of hard. With my limited view, I couldn’t possibly imagine how it would ever not be terrible. I couldn’t picture enjoying work at all.
But, luckily, the Lord kept working with me. I felt His love and support and also His patience. I felt like in a lot of ways I knew He expected me to keep progressing and growing, and I received direction as to certain areas I needed to work on, but I felt very reassured that He still loved me even though I felt like this broken person. I was not at my best and I knew that, but I also felt like I couldn't give more. I couldn't be more. I was doing my best in that particular situation and it wasn't much, but it was my best. 

In 2nd Peter (along with other places in the scriptures) there is this chain of characteristics and they all build on each other, and the chain starts with faith. All the other characteristics build on that foundation of faith, through diligence. I feel like for a while there, I was giving like the bare minimum of faith and obedience. All I could give was my obedience and nothing more. Everything else was too much. Or at least at first. But the Lord stayed with me and supported me and helped me start working my way past just mere obedience, just faith, towards the other attributes.

The little attribute chain ends with charity, “which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—but charity… endureth forever…” And I definitely had a long ways to go to build my charity in this particular situation in my life. I feel like loving people has never been a hard thing for me, but with my students this year… they tested me on my capacity to love. They still are, actually. But I feel like I'm at least getting closer to "brotherly kindness" on the scale, if not quite charity... 

It was funny to me, because in church one Sunday, this guy mentioned in his talk about how we will pray for certain attributes or whatever and the Lord will find ways to answer that prayer. Now, I know we have all heard joking about things like that, like, “Oh, I prayed for patience and then this situation happened and the Lord answered my prayer, just not in the way I expected.” So, while I have heard that idea before, when he spoke, I couldn’t help but remember the prayers of my younger self.

When I was a little girl, like elementary school status, I remember that I prayed for charity every day. I had read in The Book of Mormon about how we should pray for that, so I did.  I don’t think I quite understood how that whole thing worked. I think I was waiting to wake up one day and be like, “Dang! I’m charitable! Look at all the charity I have! I love everyone! And not just in a loving way, but in the purest, most Christ-like way ever.” I think it is the same way that you sometimes think that your sixteenth birthday will help you get out of your awkward stage.” Like, “Oh, I’m sixteen now, so I’m not awkward anymore and I woke up acne free and beautiful.” Just me? Oh, okay. Maybe I am the only one who thought that would happen for my sixteenth birthday…

But I’m sure other people realized a lot sooner than I did that praying for charity wasn’t going to suddenly make me this charity-machine. Just as my awkward didn't vanish at sixteen years. 

Sometimes I blame my younger self for my current situation, because Heavenly Father has definitely given me an opportunity now to develop my charity. All those years of charity-asking-prayers have been answered! Yay….

But anyway… the point is, I am a slow learner. And no matter how many times Heavenly Father reminds me that He is very good at what He does, you know, “bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man,” and making sure we are in the right place at the right time, I forget sometimes. 

My Plan A that involves on-time planes and no traffic etc, is not always the Lord’s Plan A. But his Plan A is the best. Sometimes when I recognize that I have forgotten to trust in Him and sometimes when I don’t “handle” situations with as much faith and whatever as I would maybe like… I feel a little disappointed in myself. And it makes me want to do a little better the next time. Luckily, though, the Lord stays with me and I think He might be a little sad that I don’t trust Him fully at times, but I also think He is very forgiving and patient with that too. And you know what, those 2nd Peter attributes can be developed with diligence. Diligence always wins the prize. I'm not trying to lose this match! 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Icebreakers and Plantations

One button. Just one little button. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to press just one, seemingly inconsequential button. “I Decline Offer.” They aren’t messing around with that button. It is simple, straightforward. But so hard to press. I think I have probably stared at that button for over an hour now. Not one hour straight, mind you, but a few minutes here and a few minutes there. It feels like some weird torture method, but it isn’t supposed to be like that—I just kept telling myself that I would just go on and press the button. It was going to be really easy. It was one of the last things I had to do before I left. But I still can’t do it. I buy stuff on Amazon all the time with one-click. But this one-click seems to be too much for me.

You would think that the fact that I am sitting in a dorm room in Massachusetts, tired from a long day of Teach for America stuff would make the button-clicking easier. It’s not like I am going to change my mind. In some ways, I feel like I couldn’t change my mind even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to, because I know I’m doing what is right.

Yet, officially declining the offer from Cambridge is harder than I thought it would be. I sincerely thought the hard part was over with that particular chapter, but apparently I thought wrong.
By the “hard part,” I mean the time when I actually had to make the choice. And I’m sure some of you are thinking that I probably should have just declined right when I decided. Truly, there probably would have been some wisdom in that. But you try telling Cambridge that you won’t be joining them after they send you an invitation to attend a “Week in Wonderland” where they will explore the works of Lewis Carroll! The owl-delivered letter was like, “We hope to see you in Wonderland, but if you cannot attend, we shall see you in the classroom the week after” or something like that. Oh, didn’t I mention that they send all correspondence via owl post? Okay, not really. But it basically feels that way. There was just something in me that couldn’t write the words, “Ope, sorry, I’m not coming to Wonderland. Don’t bother saving me any tea or crumpets.” I probably should have just operated by the band-aid method on this one—you know, rip it quick. But, unfortunately, I didn’t do that. And I don’t really know why.

At one point, I had even planned this super dramatic, over-the-top, perfectly melancholy moment to do it… I decided that once I was at the airport, waiting for my flight, I would pull out my computer and hit the button. It would be this bittersweet, super poetic, crying in the airport, climactic moment. And I would finally be able to hit the “I decline offer” button. Even then I couldn’t do it though. I will admit, however, to crying on the plane. I blame the lady at the baggage check who asked, “Is Boston your final destination?” Nothing like a perfectly normal, routine question to slap you in the face and remind you that you have no idea what you are getting yourself into… I managed to hold the tears back until I was actually on the plane, but I think the guy sitting next to me was slightly alarmed. Or completely oblivious. One or the other. I like to think that I cried delicately, but sometimes you have to sniffle a little bit…

But anyway. Still couldn’t bring myself to hit the button. The days kept passing, and still the button remained untouched. I got a few emails from Cambridge people and as I told them that I wouldn’t be coming, they all kept urging me to press the button.

And life moved on. We had our crazy TFA schedule to keep me busy and distracted—but not distracted enough to just give it up and decline. Also, for those of you who might not know much about TFA, the summer training that I am doing is referred to as “institute,” or “boot camp” and it’s basically like the MTC on steroids. For reals.

Then I found myself in a session on teaching English to English language learners and we were doing the typical first week icebreaker. Now, I don’t know if this just makes me a terrible person, but typically, I hate icebreakers. I get the purpose and point and all that, but if you ask me my favorite color, I will always answer that it is “black the color of my heart.” And let’s just say that the responses to certain icebreaker questions have way more “snark potential.”

By the by, I don’t actually know my favorite color, because I have answered “black” for so long and have never actually bothered to think about the real answer to that question. Maybe that is partly why I hate icebreakers. I can live my life not knowing what my favorite color is, so why should that be something that I share with you about myself? What does that actually tell you about me? Nothing. As most icebreaker questions are apt to do…

Anyway. Sitting in session, doing icebreaker activity. But something weird happened. This icebreaker made me actually start to think a little bit… We were all supposed to think about our names and give a little explanation as to where it came from and what it means to us etc.
And so I started thinking about my name. Tara. “What’s in a name?” Hmmm…

I feel like all little girls at some point in their childhood wish that they had a different name. Or maybe that was just me. But I kind of doubt it. Had I been given the opportunity of changing my name at that stage of my life, I should now be addressed as “Emily,” or “Samantha,” or some similar name. Instead, I have an American girl doll and a one-armed teddy bear that have had those names bestowed upon them, respectively.

I didn’t necessarily dislike my name, per se, but it just didn’t seem that great to me. As occasionally happens with names, especially when you have a name that isn’t super popular or familial in nature, you get asked where it came from. Obviously my name isn’t that unusual, but I also have not met too many of my people running around, and I do occasionally get asked that question. As a response to that, I share that it’s inspired by Gone With the Wind and then I throw in the additional tidbit that my older sister, Jordan, was named after Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. Now, I don’t think my parents had hopes that she would become like Jordan Baker, rather, they liked the name, just as with my name. The provided information is pondered upon for a moment and then I’ll get comments like, “I thought her name was Scarlett?” or “I don’t remember who that is…” That is when I get to chime in with, “Oh, Tara is the name of the plantation.” Nothing like being named after a plantation. (Disclaimer: my parents might actually have a different reason for the name, but since it is the name bequeathed to me, I have taken artistic license to share the story as I choose.)

So, I know Gone With the Wind is usually thought of as a classic, but let’s be real—Scarlett is kind of awful. After my first few encounters with the story, I just really did not like her at all, even down to the “fiddle dee dee!” There was nothing redeeming about her. At least until I watched it again in high school. I think I was a sophomore and I don’t know which events in my life contributed to my different attitude/opinions about Scarlett, but as I watched the movie again, I still didn’t necessarily like her, but I had this growing respect for her.

I mean, I’m sorry, but have you ever seen anything quite as powerful as Scarlett picking herself up from the ground, dirt smeared on her face, hair a disheveled mess—the once-perfectly-coiffed and dressed belle-of-the-ball declaring, “As God as my witness, as God as my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill. As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” And then you basically see her doing all those terrible things to fulfill that promise. But wow. Talk about determination. Gotta respect the woman for that.

Anyway, as I kept revisiting this story, the ending was (and is) always so interesting to me. And insightful. After all the hardships and trouble, Scarlett is determined to win Rhett back (but frankly, my dears, he doesn’t give a darn and that might be hard for her to do!) after he leaves. Scarlett is crying on the stairs and you start hearing these echoes of the past…          


There are just so many great things in there. But the one that has been at the forefront of my mind the past few weeks was this line: "Tara! Home. I'll go home, and I'll think of some way to get him back! After all, tomorrow is another day!" 

For Scarlett, her land, Tara, was this refuge and a source of strength. It was the thing that she loved most in the world and it was the solution to all her problems. The place that would make everything right. It was home--a safe place. 

In a lot of ways, Scarlett making that statement made me think a lot about a song from the broadway Beauty and the Beast. After Belle volunteers to take her father's place, she is led to her room and she sings this song... 

I feel like watching the scene is more impactful, but there are some truly terrible versions of that song online. So I went with a vocal version that I can live with. If you so desire, peruse at your leisure, but I warned you. I love this song and the reminder that, "Home should be where the heart is..." I also love the line where it says, "What I'd give to return to the life that I knew lately, but I know that I can't solve my problems going back." True dat. TFA people are super into snapping when they agree with comments. I refuse to snap, but if I were the snapping type, I would have snapped, cuz true dat.

With Scarlett O'Hara and scenes from Beauty and the Beast plaguing my mind, I probably (probably... haha! Who am I kidding?!) started overthinking things and I probably went way too far and things started getting really meta, because home for Scarlett was Tara, but does that mean that home for me was my name? Or what the name represents? The signifier? Or the signfied?! What is the significance of this for personal identity and identity development? Does that mean that if I am me anywhere, I am always at home? Does that mean that in each new place, I need to find the new me for that particular place? What does it mean?! I didn't draw any strong conclusions and the icebreaker activity ended and I was left with all these undeveloped thoughts. Cool. Another reason to not like icebreakers.

These thoughts, however, had to take a back seat as I was juggling all the TFA stuff. I couldn't press the button, I didn't know what my name meant, I didn't know where home was. I didn't really have any bosom friends yet. Things were looking super good. One might even say great...

And then I went to church. There was nothing all that remarkable about it, or rather, nothing out of the ordinary. It was a fairly typical church experience. But people were nice. And people went out of their way to say hi. They offered help and assistance and kindness. One might even say, "a cup was shared...." I might get struck down for that reference, but if you got it, you might too! (see this clip for more info on that... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDPi4buduY0).

I felt at home and I felt the peace that is a manifestation of God's love. Actually, I felt at home because I felt God's love. It wasn't in a big way. It wasn't anything overwhelming or earth-shattering. It was a gentle reminder of who I was. Who I am. A child of God, our loving Heavenly Father.

It was a reminder that I had done the right thing and He would take care of me, that He knows what is best for me. I think a lot of times when we are asked to do things that we don't really understand, understanding comes along the way. It's like this awesome treasure hunt, where you find the clues and the little hints. And one day we will find the "x" that marks the spot.

I'm still trying to figure out my new life here and figure out what I'm supposed to do, but I have learned that the idea of "being home" is just remembering who you are as a child of God. Our strength comes from recognizing that identity. Scarlett got her strength from Tara, from her land, and I will get my strength from not just my name, but remembering who I really am. As Wordsworth wrote, "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream? Our birth is but a sleeping and a forgetting: The soul that rises with us, our life's Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar: Not in entire forgetfulness, And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home."

After I got home from church, I pushed the button. And, you know, things might sometimes not be looking great, and sometimes you have to merge from the 3 to the 495 and you just don't understand how the numbers work. I mean, 3 to 495?! One time I saw an exit that was 32-31AB. I'm not even going to attempt on that one. But I digress... Sometimes your phone dies when you are driving from New Hampshire to Wellesley and you have to stop at random gas stations to get step-by-step directions. And sometimes you are teaching summer school in a new place and you only have like five students. Some days only two of those students show up... but then you go kayaking on the Charles River and watch beautiful fireworks with great company. Or sometimes you laugh on a school bus at the end of a long, non-air conditioned day of teaching and classes with your fellow teachers while questioning the bus driver's choice of music--which in this case is country. Sometimes you meet up with your newly returned missionary brother at the JFK airport. And sometimes you push a button and start to move on.

Sometimes things don't work out so nicely, sometimes they do.

But it doesn't matter. It will all be okay and we can worry about the bad stuff tomorrow--"after all, tomorrow is another day."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Floating Lanterns and New Dreams

I have had a really hard time writing this blog. I have been trying for days and days to make it right and to get down what I have been thinking and feeling, because let me tell you, I have never quite experienced a situation quite like this.
But anyway…
To start, I’m going to tell you a story about my brother John. A few years ago, he was trying to decide which university to attend. Forgive me a moment for being one of those people, but I’m going to be a proud older sister for a moment. My brothers are all awesome, and they not only rock it on the tennis court, but they are also super smart and really hard workers when it comes to school. So John had the tennis skills and the academics going for him—enough to be recruited by a bunch of top schools. We’re talking Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Notre Dame—and a bunch of other super legit schools.

Johnny boy went on all these recruiting trips and each time he went, he would get super pumped about the schools and he would decide, “This is the school for me.” And he would make the choice and plan on going to that school. But then he would just feel awful about it. He went through that process quite a few times. He was going to Harvard. He had decided. But then he felt awful. And this just kept happening. Finally, after all these different schools and decisions, he was finally like, “Fine. I’m going to BYU.” And that was the first time that he felt at peace and good about a decision. When people ask him why he chose BYU, he always just says, “Because Jesus told me to.”

You can’t argue with that. Leave it to Johnny Boy to just say things like they are. Jesus told him to, so he was doing it. And he never looked back. I was on my mission as all of this was happening, and I don’t think I ever asked how he felt about saying no to all those awesome schools that he dreamed about for so long. But this story will come into play a little later…

Now, as some of you may know… I’ve been trying to decide whether to go to Cambridge, Boston University/Teach for America, or stay here. 

I just can’t even tell you how many pro/con lists I have done. How many times I have tried to “picture” and “imagine” my future with the different paths. How many talks I have read about decisions, priorities, education etc etc. How many people I have counseled with and sought advice from. How many scholarships and applications I have filled out to make things work for all of the options. How many times I have tried to make a decision, but just kept putting it off…

Well, last week I finally reached a point where I couldn’t put it off anymore. This is not an exaggeration at all when I say that literally with all of my options I was given the deadline of “by the end of the week” pretty much. If it hadn’t been so stressful, it would have been pretty dang hilarious that I was forced into decision-making mode for all three options.

Now, this is where it gets a little confusing sometimes because you always hear that after you graduate from high school you enter like this “decade of decision” era. So you know that you are going to have to make tons of decisions, but I feel like there is this expectation that the decision-making gets easier. And you have people telling you things like “You’ll make the right choice” and “Heavenly Father won’t let you make the wrong choice” and “those all sound like pretty good options.” I’m not saying I don’t appreciate comments like that and I’m not saying they aren’t true. But sometimes when you are in the midst of decision-making you just hear President Monson’s words ringing in your ears that “Decisions determine destiny” and you just hope that you are doing your part to figure out what the right decision is. Sometimes you have been weighing options so long that you just get confused and start to question why you wanted to do ANY of these things in the first place.

Then you have like this little mini-crisis and start questioning your life up to this point (Kind of kidding, but kind of not!) and you start wondering what you are doing with your life… And sometimes you cry in your car. And if truth be told, you cry in your parent’s car as well. But we will get to that. Don’t even worry.

As you might have guessed, this blog is sort of my “declaration” of my decision. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not presumptuous enough to suppose that too many of you actually care and stuff. I like to think that my parents do and perhaps other relatives and friends. But just like all of my blogs, I write this more for myself. It helps me wrap my mind around the situation and sort through my thoughts and try to make sense of things that just don’t want to make sense. So just bear with me.

I feel like in order to properly tell this story, I have to give you a little background and I hope that I convey my thoughts as I would like. I know I have mentioned this before, but it really is such a defining part of who I am that I feel it can’t be left out. But when I was young, I was terribly awful at writing. Like so bad.  I was also really determined though and I was willing to work hard. I always knew that I wanted to study English and be an English teacher, so I knew that I just needed to figure out the whole writing thing. I was never interested in anything else and choosing something else never even crossed my mind. Something about literature just called to me and that was what I was going to do.

I honestly think that keeping a journal helped my writing progress in a lot of ways and I was lucky to have really good English teachers who gave me opportunities and who didn’t crush my soul too much. I wrote for the school paper and stuff and that helped me too. But, honestly, more than anything, I just had to stick with it. I just had to keep fighting. It was a battle of time and I was determined to win that battle. I am a pretty stubborn person, but being stubborn and being determined are just different manifestations of the same trait, I think. I was just stubborn enough to not give up because that was what my goal was.

I think because I was so bad at it, it made me want to be so good at it. I felt this need to prove that I could do it and that I wouldn’t give up. I was simultaneously compelled by my desire to be a good English teacher and serve and help others with my education, and my desire to not just be mediocre like I had been in my youth.

I always knew that I wanted a master’s degree, but I was always torn between pursuing the literature side of things, or the education side of things. I think my dreaming heart made me want to study literature, while my idealistic side made me want to pursue the education/teaching stuff. I made the promise to myself that if I ever did do a master’s in literature, I would do it at some ridiculous, way-too-good-for-me university. It was one of those secret dreams that seemed so out of reach for me. One of those dreams that you have a hard time admitting to yourself because you are so afraid you won’t succeed and you can’t live with that kind of disappointment. Sometimes it is just easier to pretend like you didn’t want it or think about it in the first place. 

I’m not always perfect at this, but in my life, I have always tried to make the “brave” choice. When it comes to taking risks and putting myself out there, I try to always think “What is the worst case scenario? Can I live if the worst happens?” And if I can live through the worst, I refuse to let myself back down. The funny thing about that, is that the worst is usually not actually that bad. And even when it happens, you can always pick yourself back up. I could give you cliché after cliché about this idea, but let’s just say that I tried to make sure that the “fear of striking out didn’t keep me from playing the game.”

So when it came to even applying for Cambridge, the doubts crept in and the voices telling me I wasn’t good enough chimed in. I’ve kept a pretty decent GPA and such, and done a decent job in school, but even with all of that, I just did not feel like Cambridge material. Why on earth would one of the best schools want me?

But I couldn’t help myself. I got the idea in my head and couldn’t let it go. I went for it. All in. And I remember one night in particular, I was driving home from something and thinking about my life and my goals and I was thinking about Cambridge. This is going to sound cheesy, but it was a real thing. As I was driving,  I was just filled with this absolute desire to go to Cambridge. I don’t think desire captures the feeling just right. But in that moment, there was nothing more in the world that I wanted than to get accepted into Cambridge. I felt so strongly that going to Cambridge would open all these doors for me so that I could try to make a difference with the things that I have learned. I knew that going to Cambridge would help me become a better instrument in the Lord’s hands and I wanted that more than anything. There was part of me that recognized that I also really wanted to prove myself. I wanted to feel that, for once, I was good enough at something and that I had overcome my past weaknesses.

Again this is one of those clichés, but as I sat in my car, I offered a very sincere and desirous prayer.  A plea to my Heavenly Father to please help Maria Nikolajeva and Zoe Jaques (those are the ladies that interviewed me-they also happen to be some of the best in the field) see my potential and give me a chance.  I begged for the chance to learn and serve in this way. I wanted it more than anything I had ever wanted in my entire life.

So when I woke up the next morning, November 25th at roughly 6:06 am, to an email from Cambridge, offering me a spot, I had no doubts that Heavenly Father had answered my prayers. I could see myself punting on the cam and taking a train to London on the weekends. I was already picturing my Christmas in Italy.

For me, the minute I got that email, I knew that I would stop at nothing to go to Cambridge. That is when I started the applications for grants and scholarships and everything I could find. I was even prepared to sell my soul for a summer and do summer sales in Missouri. Not to stereotype or be offensive or anything, but I have pretty much made fun of the “bro” club that usually is associated with summer sales for at least the last six years of my life, but I was ready to become a “bro” for Cambridge. It was worth it to me.

This is where things get a little sticky. See, this whole time (so basically from November 25th on) I had insisted upon the fact that I was “still trying to decide” what to do. I convinced myself that I was “keeping an open mind” and more importantly, an “open heart” and all that. But I wasn’t. But I didn’t actually realize that I wasn’t, until I realized, in a big way, that I wasn’t.

That moment came for me last week when I realized that I had to make a decision for reals this time. Because here’s the thing, about a week before, I had officially declared that Cambridge was my choice and I felt great about it and I was moving forward with that. But there was something about the decision that just didn’t quite stick. It’s not that I felt bad about it, necessarily, it’s more that the decision just didn’t really seem final to me. Which was weird, because Heavenly Father had helped me find a way to make it work financially, I had actually been accepted, and it seemed like everything would work out just fine. Teach for America was a thing of the past and I wasn’t really that sad about giving it up, to be perfectly honest. But the decision didn’t stick. I still kept having options and uncertain feelings come into my mind and heart.

At this point, I was just incredibly stressed out by the whole thing. I felt paralyzed. I knew I had to make a decision, but making a decision seemed impossible. And this is where crying to my parental figures comes in. I knew I needed help and I had thought things over so often in my own mind that I couldn’t think anymore. I had literally been praying/fasting/templing/scripturing about this decision for months. It weighed on my mind every single day. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about my decision. I don’t think I offered a prayer in that whole period of time that didn’t include something about the decision. I kept asking for guidance to know which option was right. Then after I had tried to make a decision, I prayed for that confirmation and that peace that I so desperately sought. The peace that comes when you do the right thing.
I don’t like to admit this, but I was in this dark place and didn’t know what to do. I talked with my parents for a good few hours and a good portion of that time was spent with me quite literally sobbing. I cry sometimes and stuff, but this was pretty bad. I think my parents were starting to get a little concerned, and probably a little annoyed at my dramatics. We had gone to drop Josh off somewhere and so we were in the car and my dad just kept driving around because I couldn’t stop crying. I also had a cold at the time, so I was a mess.  There was some serious ugly crying going on. Finally we had hashed through things so much that there was nothing left to say, still just a decision for me to make. I think I sobbed the whole car ride home and then just sat in my car crying. It was really pathetic.

Normally, I try to pretend things like that don’t happen, but I share that part of the story for a reason. And that reason is this: that night I didn’t necessarily understand my emotions, I just knew that I was upset and confused. But later, I came to realize that I totally lost control with the crying because I knew that I was going to have to give up something that I really wanted. I knew that I was going to have to give up on my dream. And it was hard for me. I wish I could say that I was super noble and everything, but I wasn’t. I feel that my reasons for wanting to go to Cambridge were noble and good reasons, but that was certainly what I wanted. I wanted to go to Cambridge. So though I was praying and things, I might not have necessarily been listening super well. Or, rather, I was asking the wrong questions. I was asking questions along the lines of “Is it right for me to go to Cambridge?” or “I’ve chosen Cambridge, will you help me find a way to make it work?” or “Is this okay?” That was the general direction of my pleas for answers recently. And those aren’t the questions I should have been asking.

I didn’t realize that, though, until Wednesday night, sitting in Institute. I’m sitting there, kind of paying attention, but also thinking about my decision. I have started up yet another pro/con list and along with that, I have my list of priorities. At the top of my list I have written down “Serve the lord.” And as I thought about that alleged priority of mine, I realized that I wasn’t doing a very good job of that. I was telling the Lord how I wanted to serve him. I was telling him, “Look, I’m going to go to Cambridge and then I’m going to do this…blah blah” and all that. When instead, I should have been asking, “How can I best be of service? Where can I go to best help others?” And at the same time, “Which of these options will be best for me? Which option will help me become the person that you want me to become?” I wasn’t asking these questions, but I started to that night.

When I started asking better questions, it didn’t actually take long to get an answer. But I also think that those months and months of asking the wrong questions helped humble me and helped me get where I needed to be when it actually came down to it. I think my tendency would be to berate myself a little for my foolishness, but at the same time, I had things to learn and I learned a lot from my months (and really practically a year) of indecision. I learned more about myself and I learned that sometimes there really isn’t a bad decision. I truly think that all of the options placed before me were good and I could see and feel that Heavenly Father had already helped me with each of them, and I knew that He would continue to help me. I sincerely thing that all of the decisions were “right” decisions. But this time it wasn’t a matter of “right” so much as “good, better, best.” And I guess one could argue that the “best” is always the “right.”

This brings us to Thursday. I had changed my tune a little, but I was still really at a dead end. I had just a few days left to make my decision and it felt like I was no closer. Could not think about anything. I have never quite felt so mentally blocked. I felt nothing about anything.

My parents knew I had to make a decision and, being the great people that they are, they kept checking in with me to see if I had decided yet. I was talking to my mom on the phone on my way home from work and I told her that I just had no idea, that I was completely blocked. She was about to say something and then stopped herself. She didn’t want to meddle or interfere, but I wanted to hear what she had to say and so I pestered her until she told me. What she told me was pretty simple, but she said, “You know, a stupor of thought is a real thing.” And my immediate reaction to that was, “Yeah, I know, but I have made all of the different decisions and I feel that way about all of them.” I don’t know if she was convinced, but as I hung up the phone, the thought crept into my head, “No you haven’t.” I tried to tell myself that at some point or another, I had chosen to do each of the options. But I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I had convinced myself that I was keeping this open mind, but I never actually let go of the Cambridge choice. I was leaving no room for any other options. So sort of flippantly, I flung back, “Fine. Then I guess I’ll just choose Teach for America and see how that goes.”

This isn’t one of those moments where it stopped raining and a rainbow popped out, there was no overwhelming feeling of peace or anything. If I’m being completely sincere, it was more this regret that filled me. Regret because something about actually making that choice made me realize that this choice was going to stick. I couldn’t think about making any other choice. Teach for America became the only probability for me. I can’t properly explain it, but it was like any planning or scheming for Cambridge became impossible. The only thing that I could think about when it came to Cambridge was how sad it was that I would have to say no.

Like I said earlier, I wish that I could say that I reacted nobly to this and that I felt so great and at peace and stuff. But I didn’t.  I couldn’t even bring myself to admit my decision out loud. I don’t think I even told my parents for a few days. I realized then that deep down I truly had known since Sunday what I would choose. I knew I would choose Teach for America and that is why I completely broke down. My dream of Cambridge meant a lot to me and it was a blow for me that I had to give it up.

Sometimes I think that I have this mistaken idea that once we make a decision and it is the right one, everything is happy and butterflies and everything. Don’t get me wrong, I think I felt peace for the first time in months at having finally made a decision. I no longer felt that weight of the decision. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t totally bummed. I didn’t want to talk about it. Like when my super cute colleague came and showed me her powerpoint presentation about “Why Tara Pearce should go study at Cambridge University, “ I had to fight back the tears.

I would get these texts from dear friends and they asked me what I had decided and I couldn’t even answer those texts because writing it down just seemed too real. If I sent a text saying I wasn’t going to Cambridge, it would feel like I was giving up on my dream. I had never given up on anything before, and it felt like I was surrendering.

Finally I started admitting my decision, but I still had a hard time being excited about it. When I would tell people it was kind of like, “Yeah, unfortunately, I felt like the right thing was this…”

Flash-forward to this Wednesday, back at Institute. I’m sitting there thinking about Jesus. I don’t remember any scriptures where Jesus was asked to do something and he reacted like I did. I don’t remember him saying things like, “Yeah, unfortunately, instead of going to __________________, I had to go and ______________ instead.” I hope that doesn’t come off as sacrilegious or flippant. It was just this moment where I realized that I was complaining about how the Lord had asked me to do my part. I told Him that I would go wherever and do whatever, but then the minute He told me what he would have me do, I started complaining about it.  I was not being very Christ-like.

So I tried to start having a better attitude and stuff, but it has not been smooth sailing. Finally, I started thinking about Boston and Teach for America and I was talking to a friend about the situation. This friend has taught in pretty rough circumstances and has been in situations similar to that of Teach for America. He reminded me that there are kids out there who have no light. They don’t have the hope of the gospel, they don’t have the support they need, they have experienced awful things, and many of them have given up.  My friend said something that will stick with me and serve as a reminder to me. He said, “Cambridge will never need you as much as those kids in Boston need you.” That was a very humbling moment for me.  First it was a great reminder, that truly, Cambridge could care less if I come or not. And then, to realize that really and truly, there are kids out there that I can go and help and serve. There are kids who need to be encouraged and strengthened. They need to be taught. They need to be taught more than English or history, or any other subject—they need to be taught about following dreams and believing in themselves. And I can do that. I may not be the best at anything, I pale in comparison to many, but I am very desirous to use the gifts and talents that my Heavenly Father has given me. He has told me how he wants me to use them for the next two years of my life and I am going to do my very best to help lift the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees. I have an opportunity to be a light. Not because I am anything special, but because I have been blessed with the knowledge of the gospel and of the saving power of the atonement.

So instead of feeling foolish that I turned down Cambridge, instead of feeling sad that I “gave up” on my dreams, I am going to proudly declare that I have been given a rare opportunity to go and work with kids who need me and that nothing will bring me greater joy. I really do believe that Heavenly Father knows what is best for me and He knows where to lead me. I’m just trying to have the faith to let him guide and the courage to go where He wants me to go. I’m going to move to Boston in June because “Jesus told me to” and I’m going to do it with a happy, enthusiastic heart.

In a way, it's like that moment at the end of Tangled when Flynn has been stabbed and is going to die and then Rapunzel is all, "You were my new dream." She was super excited about the floating lanterns and waited her whole life to see those. Then she found something else, something better. Different, but better. So instead of, you know, a recovered criminal with a slightly aquiline nose, I get a roomful of kids who will probably not want to learn English. Teaching them is my new dream, and I get to do it in Boston. Floating lanterns are overrated anyway.