Using Your Pain to Tell Your Story: When Students Teach Teachers

This week’s post is a slight detour from my month-long research and writing about chronic illness.  Next week will be the final installment on chronic illness.


Even though Dina, the girl who always wore sleeves, has been a student in my class since September, I really meet her for the first time last week on a cold, January morning.

On January 18th I facilitated my 5th Write-a-Thon for my students. The Write-a-Thon is a voluntary, two-hour writing event where students are allowed to write on any topic, in any genre they wish.

It’s an event designed to encourage teenagers to express themselves, discover their voice and tell their story in a welcoming, enjoyable environment free of the judgments and the awkwardness that define high school.

With donations from student writers, the Write-a-Thon raised $200 for the Special Olympic athletes of our school.

Halfway through the event, during the 15 minute intermission, I like to catch up with some of the students to see how they’re doing and hear what they’re writing about.

So I started a conversation with Dina. The girl who often came into class early, reading some YA title as she waited for me to start the day’s lesson. The girl who sat in the front row and sometimes traded smiles with Paul, who sat across the room, when the lesson became boring. The girl I hardly knew.

But when my conversation with Dina was over, I was left humbled and inspired and thankful I finally got to meet her.

Write about your pain

For a long time I believed that I hadn’t suffered enough to be a writer.

I was never a drug addict, never traversed the Iditarod Trail, never abducted by aliens.

I felt I was to pedestrian to be a writer.

As twisted and as selfish as it sounds,the writer in me secretly wished something bad would happen so I had some real material worth writing about. (As if living is not suffering enough.)

Real writers, I thought, suffered romantically, cinematically. Their addictions and tribulations spawned our favorite books and movies.

I felt that until I suffered hard I would always be short on material.

Then something happened.

I got sick. And my sickness caused brain damage. And my brain damage stole my coordination and blurred my vision. I was told I would spend my life in popping steroids to temper my chronic pain. I was told my I could lose my sight, my ability to speak at any time. I was told I was destined to suffer.

Congratulations– I guess. I got what I wished for.

I, an average middle-class white kid from the sprawling lawns of suburbia, finally had something worth writing about.

A few days before the Write-a-Thon I read a personal narrative Dina wrote for a class assignment that made me want to talk to her.

So during the intermission I told her how much I enjoyed her writing. How her writing has a maturity, a grit and gravity that I rarely read in student writing. How I admired her ability to write so openly about her depression.

As the other students ate bagels and talked, Dina sat down in a chair alongside my desk. I remember it was unseasonably warm. I had my sleeves bunched about my elbows. But Dina’s sleeves were ringed around her wrists. Where they could usually be found.

I asked Dina if writing was an outlet for her. A place to go to find strength, to find peace.

She gave me a half smile, looked down and sat quietly. Then she held her index against the corner of her eye as if she was holding something in.

Then she took a deep breath, removed her finger, leveled her eyes into mine and let this out:

“I was taken from my mom when I was two. I’ve lived in seven different foster homes. I’ve seen a lot. Been through a lot. Which has made me a really distant, a really closed-off person.  When things got bad I use to self-mutilate. You know, cut myself.  But I write now. Writing takes the pain away. Writing is where I go when I want to cut myself.”

Where there’s a scar, there’s a story

Pain is a fine place to begin your writing. But you can’t end with pain. You must use your pain as a means of finding a higher purpose.

I cleared my throat, found my voice and asked Dina what her plans were after she graduated high school?

Without acknowledging the scars that run like railroad tracks underneath her sleeves, along the underside of her forearms, without considering the nights she was forced to sleep on a basement floor of drug infested foster house, without recalling the time she watched her one foster dad stab her one foster mom with a fork over and over and over again until the kitchen floor pooled with blood she smiled and said, “I want to be a social worker. I want to help foster kids the way I wished somebody would have helped me

When the students began the second writing session I felt embarrassed that it took me so long to meet Dina and hear her story.

At 17, Dina already believed in her pain. She knew it was the pain that helped her find purpose. And she knew it was her responsibility to tell her story, to share her pain so that others may find their own reasons to believe and that she could find the peace she was looking for.

As the students wrote, I began writing this story. Humbled and a bit unnerved that I, their teacher, had so much more to learn.

Be well,

Jay

(Please Note–The student’s name in this story has been changed.)

Teaching Students the Power of Vulnerability

This week’s post was inspired by Teacher Appreciation Week.


It takes more courage and less time to admit you don’t have the answer then to pretend you do.

For most aspiring teachers, writing a Philosophy of Education is not only a requirement, but a pedagogical rite of passage.

I remember, 15 years ago, in the swarms of early May, littering my philosophy with the theories of Skinner, Maslow and Erickson and thinking (albeit foolishly) I had arrived as a teacher. I thought that because I could regurgitated theories and infuse chic educational language into my philosophy I was bound for classroom success.

But 15 years later, 3 high schools later, and thousands of students later here’s what I have learned:

Underneath all the best practices and strategies and theories and high-stakes testing and educational bureaucracy remains one critical component for successful teaching: Vulnerability.

A few years ago…

…at Back to School Night, a parent approached me, shook my hand and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”

I smiled, “Well, teaching is tough but I enjoy it.”

She shook her head, leaned in and whispered, ” No. Deal with teenagers. They’re scary. I can’t wait until mine graduates.”

When I first started teaching…

…I was afraid to show weakness in the classroom.

I thought not knowing the answer to a grammatical question or the definition of some ornate word like sophistry would trigger not only the quick death of my teaching career but a storm of teenage mockery.

So I fashioned an authoritative front–polished shoes and a tightly knotted tie.

I deflect questions I didn’t know the answers to with responses like, “I’ll answer that later.” And would either not answer the question or conduct some stealth research and pass off the answer like I knew all along to fortify my position as the all-knowing teacher.

Why?

Because teenagers, like Back to School lady said, “are scary.”

However, little did I know, the all-knowing, impenetrable  teacher was uninspiring, unreliable and further forging the many falsities that narrate the realistic fiction novel known as High School.

Fortunately, something happened.

11 years into my teaching career, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder– Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disorder that can, if not monitored, be fatal.

In my first few visits, the doctors told me it didn’t look good. They told me to get my affairs in order.

I was a 33 years old,  a husband, a father of 3. I was suppose to be a rock. Strong. Brave. And here I was standing feebly at the most vulnerable intersection of my life.

Enter Vulnerability

Struggling with the diagnosis, I returned to the classroom. I had to. I had to go back to what I knew, to the stability of the school day.

I think it was the sudden awareness of my own mortality that made me realize it was okay and even acceptable, to tell my students I didn’t have all the answers. That much of life and literature is and always will be a mystery. And that the mark of a good teacher is having a willingness to learn alongside of their students.

Since my diagnosis, I constantly reinforce to my students that life, like high school, comes to an end. And with the gift of time it’s our job, our responsibility, to question and think and explore and share our stories and have courage to blast beyond the limits of rudimentary theories.

One the first day of school this past September, I introduced myself to new batch of students by telling them how I once stood 30 feet away from my literary hero, Tim O’ Brien and how I lacked the simple courage to introduce myself to him. How I missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

I wanted them to know that vulnerability is the essential root of the thinker and learner.

I wanted my new students to know that– before the syllabus was handed out– they weren’t being taught by an educational cyborg. That my wounds are both fresh and real. And how the seminal teenage belief that vulnerability is a weakness is completely and utterly false.

~

With education changing at a blistering pace, technology and quantified data research now dominates best practices.

And I do believe classroom education should be pillared with research, poignant questioning and differentiated instruction.

But underneath all the pedagogical verbiage, education has and always will be powered by human connection.

An electric connection that jolts you to know vulnerability is both a strength and an essential pillar of learning.

Be well,

Jay

Prince Harry Taught All Men a Life Saving Lesson

It’s an old story. A bit cliched. But still a worthy one…

A man and a woman are in a car.

The man drives as the women navigates through unfamiliar territory. They have no map, no cell phone service. The woman acknowledges the pending darkness and lightly suggests, they stop and ask for directions.

The man keeps driving, keeps his focus, pretending not to hear her.

The sun is all but gone. The street lamps start their work.

The woman looks out the window and clears her throat. She protests, this time with a bit more force, causing the man to snip. He insists he knows where he’s going. He speaks in phrases like, “we just got turned around a bit” and “no big deal” and “any second now”.

The woman runs her hand through her hair and exhales. The man wonders if the heat is on as he, grips the steering wheel and glances out the window hoping for something familiar– a landmark, a sign, a motion from God.

The 17 Year Old Male

A high school classroom serves as a great observatory for human quirks.

It’s always interesting when I ask my 12th grade students about their life-after-high school plans. The females often confess they don’t know. They have some ideas but are mostly unsure. A lawyer, maybe.

When asked, males are quick to verbalize their plan. Business or engineering or medicine or general awesomeness, for sure.

As if, to the 17 year old male, being lost, confused and unsure is a sign of weakness.

Prince Harry Finally Talks

by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images

This week, in a New York Times article, Prince Harry explained how, for almost 20 years after Princess Diana’s death, he struggled with anger, with depression. And how his behavior was often erratic and destructive.

Harry, 32, attributed his recklessness to his inability to address his mother’s death.

An now an advocate for mental health, Harry credits his recovery to counseling and finding the courage to do what so many man can’t– talk.

“I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well.” –Prince Harry

 A Moment of Honesty

A few weeks ago I had an conversation with a male friend of more than 20 years.

The friend, I assumed, was doing well.

Then, over a drink and an hour conversation, he opened up about his crumbling marriage. How he’s been married for twelve years and that it had only been good for about three.

He explained how he’d been living a life of silence. A silence that drove him into a depression.

His eyes filled with tears as he looked across the table, held his drink and said, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who to talk to.”

The Condition

For most men, self-expression is hard. And only gets harder with age.

The longer they cling to a prolonged silence, the more difficult it is to talk. Men often consider stubborn stoicism as dignified and respectable. Yet they often fail to see how their hardness taxes themselves and those around them.

As a male writer I’m torn.

Because I know in order to write well, to produce meaningful work,  make others feel–I have to feel. Yet the square-jawed history of men has conditioned me not to. To remain quiet in pain. To accept my feelings as weaknesses. To emotionally alienation myself to remain accepted.

When you’re 17 years old, you’re inclined to define courage as being bold in the face of danger. You also think courageous men are always decisive and strong.

And it’s shocking to learn that 20 years later, remnants of that teenage ideology still remain steadfast in me.

The Tension Mounts

The sun is down now and the man still refuses to talk.

The woman eyes him. There’s been a growing distance between them for some time now.  Why can’t he just stop? Ask for help? Why doesn’t he ever talk?

He wants to say he’s been conditioned not to. He wants to tell her about the misaligned tenets of masculinity. He wants to tell her vulnerability is something men don’t do yet long for because they secretly know talking could very well save their lives.

But for now– the man and the woman stare out different windows, wondering how they got so lost, listening to the engine hum, driving aimlessly into the darkness.

Be well,

Jay

A Vulnerable Man

Last week a former student, Owen C., posted a nice message on the Write on Fight on website. Owen congratulated me on the website and then he wrote something that hit a nerve, something I had to respond to…

“You’re not afraid of having emotion. You’re not afraid of sharing. You’re not afraid of being a person. Even at the cost of your male identity, adult identity, or whatever else.”– Owen C.

Though I’m humbled by Owen C.’s comments I feel the need to clarify a few things. In order to do so, we have to do some time-traveling.

So Dear Reader, pack up the Jansport, gas up the Honda Prelude and lets Electric Slide back to 1994.

I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do–not care.

Cool kids spend their weekdays not caring and their weekends in the woods  drinking, fucking, and  fighting or at least that’s what I hear them talking  about on Monday.

My teacher, Ms. Mini Skirt is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.

I don’t  like high school much. And I’m not  trying to be cool Dear Reader but the only class I can tolerate is English class– partly because of the writing, partly because of the mini skirts.

It’s 1994 and I’m 14 and I’m thinking… if I was gay I’d probably be a writer. But I’m not gay. I like Ms. Mini Skirt’s crescent moon calves. I like girls. I hope to make out with a girl someday, maybe in the back seat of a Honda Prelude .  I’ll probably grow up and be a roofer or a welder or something that will callous my hands, offer me lung cancer and leave me with a permanent metallic tang.  Because that’s what meat-eating  heterosexual males seem to do– chose professions that assert their masculinity.

Ms. Mini Skirt clacks her heels about the classroom.

The full moon eyes of sexed-up cool dudes watch her moves. She clacks by their desks and they salivate and release low growls like little hungry wolves. When Ms. Mini Skirt clacks about my desk the cool dude behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, is growling at my back. Ms. Mini Skirt floats over my desk and hands me my essay and smiles and tells me I have talent, that I write with emotion and that I should keep writing.

Then she spins and clacks away and before I can smile middle linebacker whispers “fag” in my ear.

Now in 1994,  in my catholic high school, “fag” was by far the most commonly used insult among boys. The word wasn’t so much a decree of someone’s sexual preferences but more an announcement that a boy was weak. And in 1994 just like in 1894 (and we can safely assume in 2094) boys, men have a real problem with showing weakness.

It’s been 22 years since Ms. Mini Skirt told me I have talent.

Its 2016 but it might as well be 1994 because every time I begin to write I hear her click clack  and I also hear the low guttural growling of teenage boys and every time I begin to write the middle linebacker whispers “fag” in my ear.

Every time.

When I  finally brave up and face my demons  and write the first word something happens, with each passing word I write,  “fag”  fades, losing its power and bite and I feel strong and middle linebacker’s  voice becomes distant until its gone as if he’s being dragged away by  rival wolves  into the dark woods  where the cool dudes drink, fuck, and fight on the weekends.

Here’s what I’ve learned– it takes more effort and energy and pain to hold things in then to let them out. For a long time I foolishly thought showing emotion meant to be weak.

But here’s the truth– not writing, not facing the truth made me feel weak and cowardly. Now if I had my choice, my prose would wear Carhartt jackets and Timberlands. I’d write whiskey-soaked , rough-and -tumble stuff like Chuck Palahniuk ( Fight Club)  or Cormac McCarthy ( No Country for Old Men)  as a declaration of my masculinity. But I can’t write like those men. I’ve tried and failed.

I have desk drawers packed with  pages of me pretending to be someone else.

I have to write vulnerably in order to write truthfully. And embracing my vulnerabilities has given me greater courage to accept truth.

Please understand– openly discussing my vulnerabilities is not easy for me–it’s tough stuff, it’s uncomfortable and  goes against everything thing Clint Eastwood taught me about being a man.

But since I’m fairly out of shape, I figure embracing my vulnerabilities has got to be less exhausting than running from the truth.