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?