Thursday, August 20, 2015

"You're going to fail, and that's okay. Failure is part of the growth process."

Most of the people in my life know that a lot has changed for me in the years since I graduated from Elizabethtown College. I became a teacher, which was my life's ambition for as long as I remember, and I was able to connect with so many amazing young people and educators. I was able to learn from the diverse experiences of others, and I was able to learn from the experiences that I had. With every new year, new job, new experience, I became a new version of myself. Then I realized, in a painful moment, that teaching was not what I thought it was, and that in the end it was not where I would find happiness and fulfillment. In a blink, that stage of my life was done, and I was forced to create a new identity. Anyone who has done this knows that after a big decision like that, there comes a period where you are adrift, unfocused and confused about life and where you want to be in it. 

I found a new job, one that I'm happy to say I love very much. More than that though, I learned that I was more as a person than my job description. "Teacher" had been my identity, and without it I was forced to reevaluate. In the course of that I made a startling discovery. Teaching was what I had been doing, and it was something I enjoyed, but it isn't the whole of who I am. Little by little, I began to see that I could be many things. I could be a teacher and a student. And I don't mean a teacher in the traditional sense, where you stand in front of a classroom, or a student in the typical sense, where you learn from a teacher. I could be a teacher of life. I could move people's minds not by feeding them endless facts, but by demonstrating a positive way to live. I could learn on the ground, from other teachers of life, who can be both young and old. In fact, I have learned the most from people under the age of 18.

As part of this journey, I found that for the first time in my life, or at least since puberty, I began to actually like myself. I began to appreciate myself for both my strengths and my weaknesses. My strengths allowed me to provide a good example, and my weaknesses allowed me to remain a real, fallible person for the young people that watch me every day. Some may wonder why it is important to be fallible. Isn't it better to be invincible in the eyes of others? Isn't it better to at least seem like you have all the answers? No, it isn't. If you want to be a leader, be a teacher of life, it is essential that you remain transparently fallible, and I will tell you why.

Bi-monthly, the youth leaders at the Inner Harbor Project receive an evaluation from both me and the Youth Executive Leaders. As part of the evaluation process, I always have them write down a couple of goals that they have for themselves (work and personal) in the next two months. When it's time for evaluations again, we revisit those goals. Did they accomplish them? If not, why not? What can we do as a team to make those things happen? If they did hit their goals, then we create a couple new ones. Then I send them back off to the races, where they work on those goals for the next two months.

On the surface this seems simple. It's the same thing done in schools across the nation, after all. So let me tell you what makes it different. In my role as the Youth Coordinator, I am constantly visible. In the summer I spend 7 hours a day working with groups of young people. We eat lunch together sometimes, definitely snacks, and share a large part of our lives with each other. And you know what? They know my goals too. They know that I'm working on budgeting better, and that I made mistakes along the way financially. They knew immediately in January when I began nutritional cleansing, and have watched every step of the way as I struggled to give up soda and incorporate healthy foods and exercise into my life. They know that I want to go back to school, and that I value learning as a tool for lasting success. And you know what, they're as young as 14 years old and they support me every single step of the way, just as I support them. And you know what the result has been? SUCCESS. 

I sometimes sound like a broken record (even to myself), but I am constantly telling them that the most important thing in life is to keep improving. When it comes to learning and growing, you should never be "done." If you think you are, take a step back and reevaluate. It's possible that you may need to take another look at your identity to see if you are living the best possible life you can live. So you know what? It's not important for people to think you're invincible, or that you have all the answers. The truth is that no one does. Pretending you do is holding you back from benefiting from the amazing experiences and support systems available to you! It is ok to be still working, still learning, still racing for the highest prize. Along the way you're going to find successes that you didn't even know you were working toward.

I went to an amazing conference this weekend. It was a celebration of success, absolutely, but even more than that it was a celebration of failures. What? A celebration of failures? That's right! One of the speakers said something there that I thought was really profound. He said, "You're going to fail, and that's okay. Failure is part of the growth process." Not only is failure okay, but that's where the best ideas come from! And don't hide your failures, because someone else can learn from your journey.

The last few years have been stressful, trying and at times unbearable. But you know what? They were also beautiful, enlightening and above all, worth it. So when you get discouraged because you've failed again, remember that there are support systems out there for you, and that the people in them can benefit from all of your experiences, good and bad, just like you can.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"I grew up in a neighborhood in Baltimore that was like a war zone, so I never learned to trust that there were people who could help me." -Jada Pinkett Smith

On one of my first days as the Youth Coordinator for the Inner Harbor Project in Baltimore, I was sitting around the table in our office with the Youth Executive Leaders. These are teenagers, so I was still a little nervous about my new authoritative role in their lives. It was important that they respect me, and I knew from my experience as a teacher that respect was almost always earned in those early days. I ended up being relieved at how easy our relationship was from the beginning. 

During that roundtable discussion, I ended up learning what a "chicken box" is. It's simple really, fried whole chicken wings and fries, topped with ketchup, hot sauce and salt and pepper. It's a Baltimore tradition, and trust me, it's delicious. The YELs then told me that I wasn't allowed to truly live in Baltimore if I'd never had one. Clearly I needed to know where the best place was to get a chicken box, and a debate ensued, everyone advocating for their favorite. The one thing everyone agreed on though was that I shouldn't go to those chicken places because it wouldn't be safe for me. That week, the youth leaders at the project brought me a variety of chicken boxes from all over the city, so that I could choose my favorite. They were all awesome, and it was hard to choose a winner! It was a fun week, and "What is a chicken box?" was the first of many lessons that the teens here would teach me about their Baltimore.

I say "their" Baltimore, because it's become increasingly clear to me that the Baltimore that my kids live in is not the same Baltimore I grew up loving. It's not the Baltimore of Camden Yards, Fells Point and Inner Harbor attractions. Their Baltimore is scraping together change to catch the bus to work, sitting in overcrowded classrooms that are, in many cases, without clean water, air conditioning and/or proper heating, and neighborhoods full of abandoned row homes and peeling lead paint on the walls. They grow up watching teens on television who are either comfortably living in the suburbs or affluently living in cities like New York, and until Kerry Washington debuted as Olivia Pope on "Scandal" a few years ago, strong, important black characters were largely absent from the small screen. 

It would take far too long for me to elaborate on all of the historic factors that have contributed to the amount of poverty and hopelessness here in Baltimore, but I would like to highlight a couple of important points related to the "American Dream" that most of us grow up believing in. In the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore, and poor areas all over the country, there is no such thing as the American Dream. If we compare the route to achieving success to a fire escape, then kids that are born into poverty (all poverty, both rural, suburban and urban) have to first find a way to reach the ladder, which is dangling ten feet above them, and pull it down, rather than having it readily accessible from the ground. 

I grew up hearing the common phrase "If you work hard enough, you can do anything," and I believed it. I believed it all the way up until I took my first teaching job at Harford County's Alternative Education School. It only took me a few weeks to realize that much of what I believed about the American Dream just wasn't true. As the CEO of Baltimore City Schools said in his recent Baltimore Sun editorial, "most of us remain in or near the socioeconomic level in which we are born." That means that if you're born poor, you're most likely to remain poor. Success stories, like Jada Pinkett Smith's, whose quote I used to title this piece, are few and far between. Many of the kids that grow up poor may not know the statistics of the issue, but on some level, they realize that it's not likely that they'll become superstars or CEOs. All they have to do is look around their neighborhoods for proof. I credit the great job my parents did with the fact that with the exception of not having central air conditioning, I was largely unaware that we weren't affluent when I was growing up. Many of the kids I went to grade school with were not so lucky. 

Adding insult to injury in the case of childhood poverty, over a half a million children in the U.S. are believed to have lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can lead to learning disabilities, behavior issues, organ damage, low IQ and death. Where does the lead come from? It comes from the peeling paint on the walls of the homes that children are growing up in. The story is a lengthy one, and has its roots in the 60s and 70s, when landlords (or slumlords) were buying up houses for cheap, and then dragging their feet when it came to bringing them up to code. All the while, families were living in these houses, and toddlers, who are well known to ingest anything and everything, were putting those peeling paint chips in their mouths and drinking water from lead pipes. Sadly, there are many houses in Baltimore today that are still not up to code, and as a result, Baltimoreans like Freddie Gray and his twin sister Fredericka are suffering from lead poisoning.

I've taught more than a few students with lead poisoning. They've been diagnosed with everything from ADHD to emotional disturbance, and in many cases are put into "special schools" that are little more than holding cells until they can be turned out into the streets, many times with a reading level far below that of a high school senior. Because they have behavioral issues, many of which are a result of the lead poisoning, they are often deemed "too hard to handle," and as a result are shifted into In School Suspension and expected to learn independently by reading to respond to questions. Because this has happened from an early age, they've never really learned to read at all, and so they become frustrated and defiant, continuing the cycle of punishment until they either drop out, age out or graduate. This is also a large part of the school to prison pipeline theory, which I won't get into here.

In an article for the Baltimore Sun, Ruth Ann Norton, from the Green and Healthy Homes initiative said "This is the toxic legacy of lead based paint. Our kids are ill-equipped to stay in the classroom, finish school. They're very unlikely to go on to higher education..." I have seen this firsthand, and it is both heart breaking and true. By the time many inner city kids reach high school, they're so disenchanted with school that they're counting the days until they can legally drop out. And this also true in a lot of cases where lead poisoning doesn't play a part.

I want to ask you, the reader, a favor. Close your eyes and pretend for a minute that you're a toddler, living in Baltimore's Sandtown neighborhood. You're two, maybe three years old, you rarely see your mother because she works two jobs, and you've never met your father because he's been in jail for dealing weed since before you were born. You spend most of your days in the care of your oldest sister, who's twelve, but she's in the fifth grade because she misses a lot of days of school. She has to, because someone has to take care of the younger kids while mom is working. "The younger kids" include you and your other older sister, who's five. Your oldest sister struggles in both reading and math because of the inconsistency of her education, and so she avoids them at all costs, because she has come to associate school with frustrated teachers and failure. That means that no one is reading to you or your other sister. Mom is too tired when she is home, and your oldest sister just doesn't want to. All of this means that you are going to enter school already at a deficit in comparison to more privileged children. 

Fewer than half of children who are born into poverty arrive at school ready to learn, as opposed to 75 percent of those from families with moderate and high income, according to a study done by the Brookings Institution. This is the very first achievement gap that students experience, and when you add to it other factors like lead poisoning, having to care for younger siblings, and large class sizes, the gap just seems to get wider as they get older. Is it any wonder that kids like Freddie Gray grow up without any real hope of a legitimate career? When you're reading at a fourth or fifth grade level at the time you graduate from high school, what are the chances that you'll be able to obtain even a minimum wage position? This is the kind of hopelessness that kids in Baltimore, and in other places across the country, face every day. Can you begin to see why it may seem like dealing drugs is the only way to make money? 

The situation facing the students enrolled in public schools today is dire. Even beyond socioeconomic and environmental factors, standardized testing has added another level of pressure to students who already consider themselves to be failures. The closing of many Baltimore City Schools has increased the number of students in a classroom, and teacher absenteeism is an epidemic in a school system where those large class sizes and standardized tests can make even the most accomplished, passionate educator feel overwhelmed and despondent. Plus, keep in mind that most teachers take a passionate, vested interest in the welfare of their students, and it's traumatizing to see the system fail them again and again. According to the U.S. Department of Education, thirty-five percent of teachers in Baltimore City miss ten days or more on average per school year. Teacher attendance is closely linked to student success.

Politicians and laymen alike continue to say things like "young people are the future," and yet as the years pass it seems like less and less is being done to help prepare those young people to be successful, contributing members of society. If a child who is bright and capable when they enter school has been beaten down and left behind to the point that they drop out before graduating, clearly something is wrong. Many of my students who had been "given up on" by the traditional education system were in fact some of the most creative, brightest kids I've met. Yet in most cases, by the time they reached me in high school, the damage to their self confidence was so complete that they were dispirited, unwilling to believe that they could turn their academic experience around. 

After the riots that shocked the nation last week, the question shouldn't be "Why haven't these teenagers been locked up?" The question should be, "How did we, as a community, fail these kids, who so obviously believe that they have nothing to lose?" More importantly, people should be asking, "What can I do to help?"

There are two Baltimores. Most of the people I know only experience the fun one, the one full of baseball tradition and Natty Bohs, crabs and Ravens football. It's the Baltimore I grew up with. That's the Baltimore that many lamented "losing" as unrest tore through the streets of the other Baltimore, the one that many would prefer to ignore. I know, because before I began teaching here, I ignored it too. Not out of malice, but because it was easier to ignore it than deal with its disparities. It's the Baltimore where my youth leaders live, in the neighborhoods where some of their houses are poisoning them. It's the Baltimore that many Marylanders sweep under the rug of their consciousness because it might challenge their ideas of fairness and justice. Now, in the wake of the last couple weeks of protest, is the time to bring the other Baltimore to light. We as a community need to admit that the system isn't working, and begin to fix it for the young people that are the city's, and the country's, future.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.”

I seem to go through these periods of time when the words that I wish I could write down just get jumbled up in my head behind a wall made of excuses and stress. Lately, I've felt like my life has been careening forward and standing still all at the same time. To ground myself, I went back and read all of my blog posts from the beginning. I'm not going to sugar coat it, I cried a little more than once. The past year has beein incredibly difficult, mostly because I transitioned from the classroom to an office. I believed that I would spend the rest of my life in a classroom of some sort, and to reach the point where I was too beaten down by the school system to continue seemed like a failure of epic proportions. 

Since I made the decision to become a Youth Coordinator for the Inner Harbor Project, lots of things have changed. I work full time in the summers now, which was an interesting transition, because it didn't leave me as much time for a second job. I channeled the creativity that used to go into bulletin boards and lesson planning into a side art business, which ended up being a great stress reliever as well as a way to bring in extra cash. The new Youth Coordinator job ended up being amazing, and I'm so happy to be able to work so closely with such a talented group of young people. They've picked up where my former students left off in teaching me how to not take myself so seriously, and how to persevere.

Over the last few months I've lost a decent amount of weight, which has led me to become more honest with myself about the depression I have always felt that centered around my weight. It also brought another part time job with it, and I have been happy to help other's achieve their health goals through Isagenix. My job at the project has become more intense recently, in a wonderful way, and in combination with the other side projects I have going on, I have become busier than I have been in a long time. The best part about it is that it all seems so productive. I'm helping others and growing my skills as a professional in ways that I never dreamed would happen. And if I miss the classroom occasionally, it's ok. I just talk with the kids that I work with now and am reminded that I have made the right choice.

On a personal level, it has been difficult for me to adjust to the way that my friendships have evolved. I have friends now that have these beautiful children, and while I am happy to be able to follow their progress on Facebook (thank the lord for social media), it has become harder to communicate with those friends. Their worlds are now totally different than mine. Honestly, it makes me sad, and I'm still not quite sure how to break the ice with them that has formed as a result of neglect.

Other friends are settling down, and it's been weird to realize that they aren't as available as they used to be. Being the only single friend is no joke, and trying to figure out how to make new friends as an adult is the worst! I feel like this post has become a rambling update on my life, but maybe that's what was needed. I don't have any philosophical points to add here, nothing profound or particularly interesting. What's interesting to me though is the way my life still seems to be evolving in a way that I wasn't expecting as I head into my 27th year. Happiness is a journey, not a goal, right? So here's to the journey, let's hope I don't get lost.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print." -Barbara W. Tuchman

What was your favorite book growing up? No really, what was it? I'll wait.

If you're above the age of 25, you probably have to sift through, at the very least, the books you read in school. Maybe you read "The Giver," "The Diary of Anne Frank," or "The Great Gatsby." If you're me, and many of my friends, the number of books to consider and discard is exponentially higher. For example, George Orwell's "1984" remains one of my absolute favorites to this day, and I read that in Mr. Frey's ninth grade English class. Today, students may actually leave schools without having read and absorbed any great literature, and it's to the detriment of our society as a whole.

Even now, reading through quotations from "The Great Gatsby," or "Catcher in the Rye," fills me with the desire to read more, to become smarter, in effect, to become even more aware of the human condition. That's what literature is, after all. It is evidence that other people share your emotions, your stories, and your worries. Maybe even more importantly, it is a reminder that there are those who have more worries than you, people whose lives are hampered by trauma and experiences that defy imagination. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT. I don't care what you say, or how well a movie is done, you can't truly understand Nick Carraway's stress in "The Great Gatsby" without reading the novel. You can't feel Katniss' terror and depression in "The Hunger Games," and you certainly can't understand the complexity of Scarlett O'Hara's character in "Gone With the Wind."And trust me, I get just as excited as the next person to see my favorite stories on the big screen, but always, there is something missing. 

As a teacher, and I know, I know, I write about teaching all the time, the number of books-to-movies out there is somewhat troubling. Sure, I enjoy it, but all my students see is an excuse not to read the novel. When they're 25, will they be able to remember realizing that money can't buy you love after watching DiCaprio's Gatsby? Will they have turned the excitement that they felt at watching "The Hunger Games" into a passion for freedom and the importance of the government protecting its citizens' rights? Somehow, I doubt it.

In this world where it's as easy as the touch of a finger to a smart phone screen to watch a video, why would anyone remember any one in particular? When you can watch entire television show seasons on Netflix in a week (guilty), why use the extra energy to open a book and read for fun? 


The frequency of students who read only when forced to in school (and sometimes not even then) is increasing, and with it, this anti-intellectual age in America is gaining a stronger foothold. Susan Jacoby wrote an article called The Dumbing of America for the Washington Post in 2008 that is scarier than most horror movies I've seen. In it she posits that Americans are in danger of losing our "hard won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations." 


Six years later, America is still on a set path to intellectual destruction. The easier things become for us, the less likely we are to go the extra mile. Where are the students who want to write the next great American novel? Most of my students want to be professional athletes, and when prompted to consider other options, answer "I don't know," or "I'll just find something." 


I was looking back over my life today while I created an autobiographical PowerPoint to show my students, and I realized that in middle school, I was already well on my way to college and a career. I read books, wrote poetry, played the violin. I look at my students, glued to computers or smart phones, and wonder whether they will make it, or if the only ones who do will be the "elite" one percenters who are fortunate enough to be enrolled in private schools. 

We as a nation are not preparing future novelists, or scientists, or presidents. We are allowing technology use to dull the senses of our students, encouraging rote test taking strategies and skills, and killing creativity by removing it from curricula. 

What is going to happen to us when this generation of American citizens are tasked with the operations of the country? This needs to change, and it needs to begin now, and at home, because God knows the education system is sluggish at best, and possibly heading in the wrong direction altogether. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness."


What does it mean, exactly, to be "inspired?" It's a word that is thrown about by literati, artists and musicians alike. It is a word that rests in the pocket of every (lucky) passerby on the street. It is found all over tumblr, in pretty little graphics that are undoubtedly pastel in nature. Those graphics make their way to Twitter, to Facebook, they're captured in screenshots and posted to Instagram. For those among us who have been lucky to feel, however fleetingly, inspiration, those graphics remind us of better days, or maybe heighten the emotions we are already feeling. 


Inspiration is akin to love, in that it's deeply felt, many times temporary, and somehow always escapes description. It's "indescribable"in that cliche way that boggles the minds of poets and painters, because it truly can not be seen, it can not be described, visually or otherwise. It can only be FELT.

Ah, the frustration of these human FEELINGS!

What's worse than not being able to describe it, even worse than not being able to draw it, or paint it, or sing it, is not being able to feel it. Like love, it isn't something that you miss until one day, it's gone. GONE. You look for it in books, you look for it in the National Gallery of Art near the Monets and the VanGoghs (because if it isn't there, it must have truly disappeared). You check for it in your favorite playlist, outside on a nice spring day (if it's available). Nothing. In desperation, you start looking for it in crowded bars, among the music and lights and general noise of it all. At this point, you're at the point of giving up the search, because really? In a bar? The only things you're likely to find there are sticky floors and inappropriately wandering hands. 

The saddest part is, YOU ALREADY KNOW THIS. 

This is a journey that you've taken before. If you're a writer or an artist, it's probably an epic journey that you take often. If you're not, you may not even realize what it is you're searching for. You might make a mistake and THINK that you're searching for love. WRONG. You might think that you're just searching for your next adrenaline rush. WRONG. It's inspiration, people. You're looking for that flighty little fiend, the fairy of the old stories that makes you happy in one moment and miserable in the next. 

And yet, despite the stress and despair, we continue the search. WHY?

Well honestly, I'm pretty sure it's the same reason that we continue to chase love, and that still more elusive dream, happiness. Because it feels good. Yes, it all comes down to the basic human desire to feel good. Not to mention, inspiration is a powerful tool. Inspired people invent awesome new technology, they write beautiful books that impact our hearts and minds. These people create music so profound that years later, generations later, we'll still remember it. Who wouldn't want some of that?

I know that I do. 

I know what you're thinking. "You've presented a problem with no solution! Where is this 'inspiration' that you speak of? I want some!" I know friend, I want some too. I've come to a realization though, and I used Ray Bradbury's quote as the title for a reason. "It's lack that gives us inspiration. It's not fullness." That empty feeling that you have? It's on the journey to fulfillment that you'll find your inspiration. It's the struggle, and the sadness, and the search that provide the spark with which great American novels are spawned. 

Maybe you won't write the next Grammy Award-winning song, or paint the next Mona Lisa. Maybe I won't either. But maybe, if you raise your children with inspiration, or influence someone that crosses your path, they will. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

So, this is my life. And I want you to know that I am both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be. -Stephen Chbosky

Today I sat in an Irish pub in D.C.'s Chinatown. I had just come in out of the rain, my previously curled hair disheveled and touched with an annoying frizziness. Apparently I need to invest in an umbrella that can fit in my cute but somewhat impractical cross-body purse. I sat down at the bar, alone, and asked the bartender for a Guinness and a menu, please. While I waited for my drink to be poured, I twisted my hair back out of my face and took in my surroundings.

I've never been to Ireland, but the inside of that pub is what I imagine that Ireland is like. It was dark, crowded with knickknacks and Gaelic phrases. The beers on the taps in front of me ran to international favorites, with the typical Irish brews highlighting the group. My beer and menu were placed in front of me, and as I perused my options, a thought occurred to me. 

This is my life now. This is my life, and for the first time since the days of stressful collegiate bliss that marked the last time that I was truly out of my hometown, I have more answers than questions. I can sit at a bar, drink beer and write all day long if I want to (or more likely, if I have the money to). I can go home at a reasonable hour, and make dinner, or I can stay out all night. I'm sure my mother would tell you that I did these things at home anyway, but somehow, it's not quite the same.

When you're young, a teenager or maybe a college student, the answers to all of life's problems seem so easy. Of course you can single-handedly hold down a job, go out every night, and save the world. There is good, and there is bad, and all of the world should simply fall in line. Bills will get paid, the dishes will get done, and your friends will be your friends until the end of time. When you're young, all things seem possible.

Somehow, when you reach the other side, when your bubble pops and that black and white world is washed in gray, there are no answers. Suddenly, you can't find a job, and you're back to waiting tables or cashiering or doing whatever you can to make a few bucks. There is no glamorous apartment and nightlife waiting, because you had to move back in with your parents. And you try to be grateful, but it's hard, because this was not in the plan. Save the world? Ha! It's exhausting just trying to save yourself!

The hardest truth to accept is that sometimes your friends, those people that you laughed with, and cried with, and jumped over life's hurdles with, aren't going to be your friends until the end of time. You start to realize that it takes a certain type of connection to create lasting friendships. As sad as that undoubtedly is, the silver lining is that you learn, at long last, to appreciate the friends that do stay in your life. And after that bubble of youth and naivety has exploded as fairy tales do when faced with reality, you find yourself searching, sometimes in vain, to find the possibilities in front of you.

The years between high school and twenty-five are exciting, sad, and excruciating. They are some of the best years of your life and some of your darkest. They're saying (whoever "they" are) that people are now experiencing "quarter-life crises." Ask anyone between the ages of 23 and 30, and they'll tell you that it's true. If it hasn't happened to them, it's happened to someone they know. Come to think of it, they might tell you that they can feel it coming on. Because these days, treading water in an unsteady job market can drive the most sane person crazy. Not to mention the fear of being alone!

I would like to think that I've finally found a place where I can relax. I feel as though I have been wound so tightly for the last three years that I don't know how to handle it when things finally start to work out. But today, sitting in a dark bar, pen in hand, I realized that I am finally figuring out who I am supposed to be. And maybe I'll be able to save the world after all. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

[Children] are vulnerable to everything dangerous around them. They are concentrating on the busy task of growing up. They aren't yet aware of the hazards on all sides. Looking out for them should be our job.

Every day there seems to be a new tragedy making headlines. So many that I am afraid that the world's citizens are becoming desensitized by the constant barrage of Facebook posts, petitions and general mudslinging that accompanies them. There is a war being fought in our society, not one of guns and air strikes, but rather one of vicious anonymity. All over the world, we sit behind our computers, laptops and smart phones, slinging words in a way that has made them more insidiously dangerous than bullets. 

We all sit in high school classrooms at some point or another, listening to teachers go on about great leaders. We pass (or don't pass) the tests, put in the time and then promptly forget everything that we learned. As a teacher myself, it hurts to know that the same is more true today than it was ten years ago. John F. Kennedy urged us to "accept responsibility for future." He told us "Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men." When confronted with the evidence that words can be overwhelmingly positive in their power, I have to wonder, when did it all go astray?

In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, I saw something magical. I saw something that could almost make up for the loss of a young life. I saw my students, many of them broken, angry and violent, come together with hoods up in a day of remembrance. Was it politically correct? Maybe not. Was Trayvon an innocent bystander? We'll never really know. But somehow, in that moment, I saw a flicker of hope, a connectedness, in a generation of children that live their lives behind a computer screen.

Yet in the year that has passed since the shooting, I have witnessed a movement that began so compassionately turn negative. Suddenly it was less about the death of a 17 year old boy and more about the "biased media." On social media, anonymous floating faces typed harsh words about a boy that can not only no longer defend himself, but who will never have the opportunity to correct his mistakes. 

In Trayvon I see every student that I have ever taught. In my students I see the faces of millions of children who were born so disadvantaged, financially and socially, that for many the strength required to rise above will prove to be too much. And through everything, I see a society of people who are relaxing behind the wall that social media has created. People who have good intentions and bad intentions. People who bully and those who are dying from being bullied. Enough is enough.

When did it become enough to sign an electronic petition? Is sharing that link enough to change the world? I am in no way innocent of doing those things, and lately I have reflected on my own online choices. And so I have made a mid-year resolution. It is not enough to berate those whose faces I can not see. The only real thing that I can do is set an example. I am going to make every effort to live my words.

Recently I read a book that was given to me by Robyn Barberry, a fellow teacher. It was Just a Minute, by Wess Stafford. Granted, it leaned a little too much toward the religious side of things for me, but its message was overwhelming in its poignancy. Stafford asked the reader to take a moment to remember a person who had an affect on their life, whether it was good or bad. How long did it take for that person to affect your whole being? In many cases it can happen in just a minute.

I believe that many adults fail to realize that they are capable of affecting the children in their lives. Stafford states that "any of us can wield a powerful effect, if we simply care and stay alert to the opportunity." Who knows what might have happened in Trayvon's situation if someone along the line had taken the time to say a kind word, to discourage violent tendencies. Maybe the Sandy Hook shootings could have been avoided if Adam Lanza's mother, or teachers, or friends had taken more of an interest in his life and mental health needs. 

I ask only that you go into the world with a positive attitude. Smile at the person passing you on the street. Hold a door, utter a kind word. None of us know what is happening in the lives of those around us, and that smile could make or break that person's life. 

I hope that we will someday cease to lean upon the anonymity given to us by the Internet. I hope that we can curb the bullying that brings only death and violence to our children. Most of all, I hope that you, whoever you are, will take the time to affect someone's life as others have affected yours.

I leave you with one last question: What has become of our free society, that we hope each day for the safe return of our children just as we hope for the return of our soldiers?