The Achiever at Christmastime

At the beginning of the school year I took the Clifton Strengths assessment, a kind of long survey that asks you to rate what you prefer between two choices or what you think about two options. I wasn’t shocked when my top strength came up as “Achiever.”

Achievers like to write lists and check things off, get things done, and not only work long hours but work hard. Based on how I see other people spend their time during a work day and a work week I just thought I was a crazy person when it came to work, but it made sense after I read the description. It sounds like me. And in some ways I now understand why, in the past, I drove many of my co-workers crazy.

I’m learning to manage my achiever tendencies at work, and I’m trying to see other areas of my life as arenas where I can achieve — like Christmas!

Oh, and I’ve done it this weekend. From Friday night after work when nothing in our house seemed Christmas-like or Christmas-ready to Sunday night at 9pm when I write this, things are a near 180. Christmas presents for everyone on the list? Check! Tree up and decorations out? Check! The numerous holiday cards and matching postage are ready to go — just waiting for some friends and family to get back to me with their addresses. Oh, and have you heard? We talked it over and we’ll be hosting Christmas Day, maybe up to 25 people! I guess I just have to send out those invites…

You see what I did there? I crushed it! But wait — is that the way the holiday season is meant to be done? Are we supposed to crush Christmas? Yeah, probably not. But as an Achiever, the to do list is both anxiety-producing and addictive to get done, and except for a few loose ends and waiting for Christmas Day to come, most of it is done. And the loose ends that are hanging? It’s taking all my might not to stay up till midnight tonight and do them — the lesson planning and grading that’s due tomorrow be damned!

That said — I’m going to take a deep breath and try to let the list and all the doing it entails go. Because what’s the point of a holiday season if I’m going to try and crush it all into one weekend? There’s fun and enjoyment in letting a few things stay undone, saving them for next weekend, or even a spontaneous weeknight between now and December 25th.

It’s hard for me to not want to turn Christmas and the holiday season into another whirlwind, 12-hour day, accomplishment. But I’m going to try my best to let things linger and last. And maybe that will be my achievement this holiday season, pushing myself to allow a few things be undone — or spontaneously done — rather than listed, scheduled, and checked off at breakneck speed. After all, I’m not Santa:  I don’t have to get it all done in one night.

On failure

I experience so many failures in a day. And it begins as early as not getting up when the alarm clock rings. Failure. Leaving late for work. Failure. Losing my temper at slow drivers on the get-on ramp to the highway. Failure. On and on throughout the day till my head hits the pillow at night. Failure. Failure. Failure.

But you know what? I’m tired of feeling like I’m failing, of being mad at myself and disappointed that I’m failing and falling short all that time. Because you know what, I’m not. I’m not failing, I’m alive and I’m living. And sometimes my desires to be perfect (or even just seem perfect) get in the way, measuring myself up against an imaginary standard for just about everything — but who cares? WHO ACTUALLY CARES?

When I’m an old lady — hell even now — I will not and do not look back at my past self and think, “I should’ve really been much harder on myself.” It’s actually the opposite. I’m sad when I remember how mean I was to myself, picking on every little thing that fell short — and in turn critical of people around me who weren’t living up to my imaginary standards. What misspent time!

Because really, what was I so concerned about, so disappointed in? Do I even remember those work tasks I didn’t do perfectly, whether my apartment was clean or dirty, or how many months of the year I was the “wrong weight?”

What I do remember is the times I uplifted someone or hurt them, times I really came through for someone in need, the missed opportunities to be a better friend or better family member — and most importantly — the beautiful feelings of freedom and happiness that have come through things like travel and one-on-one time with people I care about.

So, yes. If I’m going to continue living I’m going to continue failing — probably at some of everything until I breathe my last breath. But I’m trying to remember that it’s not the falling short that I deserves the attention — it’s the living and doing and being that does.

singing or asleep?

A few weeks ago, at the start of the summer, really, I went with my wife and a friend to a special event where we got to lay in a dark room and listen to a musician make crystal bowls and glass objects sing. I know, I know — depending on how interested or open you are to “woo woo” types of activities, this event may seem like either the best or the worst way to spend a Friday evening. Believe me, I get it. But, even if you’re not into the energy of life, letting go of things that don’t serve you, and opening up space in your energy field for magic, it’s still nice. After all, you get to lay down and rest — and the music’s not bad.

That said, I was there laying on a couple of stacked yoga mats with a bolster and some blankets, making myself comfortable to enjoy this …experience. It was my first time at this type of event, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be weird? Would it be cool? Would my dead grandparents or future children come to me and tell me something deep? Would I just be uncomfortable laying on the floor for 90 minutes without a mattress?

The musician found that nice balance of alert and playful as she greeted us and helped us settle in, the lighting soft and dim, and I felt more comfortable on the floor than I thought I would. When the musician’s set began I immediately started to relax and breathe more deeply. The bowls and glass contraptions made a soft, resonating tone that filled the room floor to ceiling. I felt my body vibrate softly, too — not uncomfortable, but a distinct, non-me vibration. It was was weird and it was cool and I settled into a deep stillness to absorb the changing tones and volumes and — kind of like night tennis — to use my other senses to tune into the music’s movements as the musician walked the room with her instruments. I didn’t see any ghosts or visions, but my whole body and even my mind began to relax and take in sensation rather than words. Ah…

At some point, I did have to shift around on my mat and that’s when I noticed it:  snoring. There were about a dozen of us in the L-shaped room laid out in a variety of angles and postures and I couldn’t quite tell where the sound was coming from but it was most definitely a snore. At first I was annoyed but then I re-relaxed and reflected. Maybe someone needed the rest and this was their only chance during the week to have that time to just be still, with no outside demands on them. The snoring flagged then faded away. Back to the singing, sounds resonating, the vibrations and energy. Then it happened again. More snoring. But from somewhere else in the room. And while that person sawed away, another person joined in. Now snoring was in stereo!

It continued on and off for the rest of the session, ending with at least one snort when the music itself ended. As soon as stereo snoring began, I decided to have a sense of humor and imagine that the snores were part of the sound experience, an extra flourish to the spiritually healing soundscape. But truly, it made me wonder — what was it about this setting or this experience that put multiple people to sleep? Were they so rundown or overworked that this was their only place to find rest? That in itself seems problematic, even sad. Imagine — having to go somewhere outside your home and pay just to guarantee yourself 90 minutes of uninterrupted rest. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe they were unable to be present in a relaxed body — they were so unaccustomed to being simultaneously awake and relaxed that once they reached a certain point of relaxation their minds just checked out and they slipped away. Maybe the healing they were looking for was there and accessible for them, but they just couldn’t be awake for it, they couldn’t be present and clear for it — whatever the reason or barrier.

And that led me to think about myself — where am I asleep in my life? What are the experiences that I’ve had or often have where I’m not present or clear for it? And why is that? Am I physically exhausted? Am I stressed or anxious about things that are beyond my control? Am I holding on to old pain, limiting ideas or ideals that keep me from taking in and absorbing what’s around me, keep me from growing or changing, keep me fuzzy and unfocused? And if so what can I do to get clear, be alert and playful?

Each of those questions deserves a lot of reflection and action, so I can’t answer all of those here and now, but I can say that time and space, quiet and stillness are key tools that help me clear out. And I guess the unexpected, like snoring, can’t hurt with keeping me alert and playful.

night tennis

this summer is the summer of tennis for my wife and me. we don’t play too much, maybe once every 10 days, but that’s about 300% more frequently than we’ve ever played in a summer. that said, a couple of weeks ago, we walked over to our neighborhood tennis courts to play. we had waited a little longer than we should have, since it was already after seven o’clock when we left the house and that pre-twilight phase was quickly approaching. but that didn’t stop us from playing.

past the playground, the sprinklers, the field house, the basketball court, we walked to the farthest court, the one bordered by the busier street right next to the men’s softball league game, put our racquet covers and ball canisters and bags next to the net, and strode out to the baselines to hit back and forth. as we chased the balls and swung our racquets the sun set fully and dusk fell. the softball game continued behind me, with the sharp thud of bat hitting ball, infield sand crunching under feet, and yelps and claps when a runner made a go for a stolen base. the field lights and street lamps threw enough light for us to keep playing, although the ball would disappear from view for a couple of seconds on its way over the net, lost in the glare. regardless, we played on. and I began to notice that I was playing tennis differently, not just with my sight and my body following along, but with my whole body — or at least more parts of my body — attentive and alive to the ball. I was looking intently for the ball when it disappeared into the glare, but I was also listening for it, almost trying to feel the wind of it, feel it bounce on the court. sometimes I would just run in the direction of where I imagined the ball would bounce and trusted that when I swung it would be there.

people and their shadows walked by along the busy street beside us, on the sidewalk behind my wife, their shapes getting darker and denser as the night drew in more deeply. the ball began to glow in the little light that it caught, and disappeared just as quickly. my wife and I took a break for water and considered stopping, but we thought why not just a few more?

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and there was strange magic in our night tennis. we played as shadows, in the shadows, running after the shadow of a ball, using our senses and imaginations, not caring about the outcome, the night inviting us into another way of playing.

Claiming space at the gym

Last week I was at the gym — yes, now that I have actually started going to the gym again, I just can’t stop talking about it! Anyway, last week at the gym I decided to go for a swim, to do some laps. So I put on my one piece bathing suit, brought my flippers, put on my old silver-gray swim cap and walked to the pool. There are only four lanes, and as I approached I saw that all of them were in use. I figured I’d have to share a lane since that’s swimming people’s protocol and I spent some time thinking about that as I walked to get a kick board and pull buoy from the plastic rack. Then as I was grabbing my stuff the swimmer on the end said it was his last lap so I could take his spot. Yay! I waited while he finished and hopped in. Not more than a few strokes through my first lap I saw a couple enter. Eh, more lap swimmers, I thought. And I put my head down and started to swim very seriously, trying to make myself look as unwelcoming as possible, hoping the swimmers wouldn’t pick my lane to share. I don’t know what it is — if it’s because I’m female, I’m fairly small, I swim kind of slow — but men and women choose to split a lane with me most of the time. This was no exception.

So after ignoring the male swimmer hovering at the end of the lane I had to take a breath and he leaned over to ask if we could share. I said sure and we split the lane. I was kind of irritated — being chosen to share yet again — but I had a little chat with myself as I swam to the deep end. He wouldn’t be that hard to share with. After all, he actually asked to share, whereas many swimmers just jump in and start swimming. Also, this would be like, what, 20 or 25 minutes of my life? This is not a a big deal. I continued swimming tranquilly enough. However, about halfway through my workout, I noticed that I was unconsciously accommodating him in the lane, trying to scoot over towards the wall so I wouldn’t get splashed or touched whenever he approached. And because he was a slower swimmer than me I was stopping to space out our laps so I wouldn’t have to have an awkward passing situation with him.

After I realized what was happening, I felt frustrated. I wondered how much thought he was giving to his space and how he was affecting my swim. Based on his uninterrupted flow, I assumed little to none. So I decided to not accommodate anymore. If he’s taking up space and not worrying about how he’s affecting me, then I’m not going to worry about him! That may seem selfish, but sometimes enough is enough.

It happens in other parts of the gym, too — just like in life. In the weight room — even walking towards the weight room — men will not budge if I’m walking right next to them. Even if it means that we’d bump into one another! They leave their towels and water bottles on multiple machines or benches, claiming space that they’re not actively using. They shout talk over their headphone music, grunt loudly, drop weights. My little ole self feels very small and intimidated.

To be sure, some of their behavior is unintentional — or more likely unconscious — so this is not about slamming men and saying they’re the worst. For me, this is more an exercise about claiming my space, and about unapologetically being present. So now I push myself to not slow down or move over when I’m walking — because I’m here in this space, too. I push myself to claim a bench or a machine, because I can take up space and use it, too. I set up my stuff where I want, with a good view in the mirror, because I deserve to use the space, to see myself, and to enjoy my time there, too. I’ve gotten some looks from the men using weights, now that I’m not accommodating. But it feels like they see me, they see me taking up space, and they’re generally okay with it.

So for me this is a reminder. It’s not that I walk around now, knocking into people or slamming doors in people’s faces. But it’s about being physically present and not apologizing for it through how I place — or displace — my body. I am here and I belong here.

I encourage you, reader, to observe yourself and to see where you fall. Are you one to expect others to accommodate you and your space? Are you one to do the accommodating? Just notice and observe and ask yourself:  What would happen if you adjusted a little to allow others to take up space? What would happen if you decided to claim your space a little more?

Doing it out of hate, or doing it for love

Like writing, health and fitness was something on my list of things to do that kind of fell off the list for a while. I was finishing up the school year — just trying to get through it — and in the flurry of deadlines and things to pack I just wasn’t able to be very physically active. As a result, I’ve gained a few pounds, and I haven’t been feeling my best. In fact, I started to really dislike myself and to feel frustrated and angry about where I was health-wise. That’s not a good thing, to be walking around in a body that makes me feel uncomfortable and even downright mad.

So a couple of weeks ago I had a little talk with myself. I could either continue as I was, mad and frustrated at myself — at my body, really — or I could decide to make a change. I decided to try change (yay for positive decisions!) and then I sat down to spend some time looking at my weekly schedule and overall summer calendar. For me I can’t make a decision and let it wither and fade, sidelined by inaction. It has to be made real for me with things that are visual and tangible like schedules and lists. So I made a weekly exercise schedule and I’ve been sticking to it — with some missed sessions here and there — but I’m working on staying positive, valuing the process and growth, rather than trying to be perfect.

That said, when I was back at the gym for the first time in months I realized in the middle of my workout why I was there — why I was really there. Originally the schedule and list and all that were a reaction to something negative — my frustration and anger at myself — but once I was there, looking in the mirror doing squats or whatever it was I realized I was actually there because I love myself, not because I hate myself. I was there to take care of myself, to spend time with myself, and to invest in myself — in my physical health, of course, but also in my mental and spiritual well being. Because it turns out that I like to move my body and feel strong and see myself grow. I like feeling my heartbeat and having my face turn pink and my muscles get that jiggly-weak feeling after doing something hard and catching my breath before trying it again. I like that timeless feeling of being in the moment, focused on what I’m doing exactly here and exactly now. All of that is a great gift to myself, and a way for me to really experience the fact that I’m here on earth, alive, in a body that supports me, in a body that is my greatest gift and tool.

And I think we all need outlets to get our bodies moving, to reaffirm our connections to our bodies, and to spend some time having those timeless moments where clocks and schedules and even the ideas of goals and perfection fade and become distant so that all we can hear is our heartbeats in our chests, our breath move through our bodies, and that beautiful moment of body and being coming together. There’s nothing better than that — that’s what I’ve been missing, and those parts coming together feel like home.

So I don’t do work outs or yoga classes or bike or swim or run because my body frustrates and angers me and I hate it. No, I do it because my body is my home and I love living in it. I’m doing it for love, love, love.

the seed, renewed

I’ve been on a long, unplanned hiatus. I stopped due to a family emergency, and then once my writing momentum was broken, it was easy to just continue not writing. However, I never stopped thinking about writing and how I should be writing, and often it gave me twinges of anxiety, to think of my poor little blog all alone, untended.

I was on the phone with a good friend the other day, one who moved across country and I haven’t talked to in over a year, and in about an hour and a half we covered pretty much everything under the sun — as we tend to do. Anyway, we started to talk about this blog and why I named it The Seed. Just those comments were a wonderful reminder of why I write — and I’d like to share them with you, as much as I can remember them.

Sometimes people, especially women, tend to over-mother their projects. We check in on them too much, too invested. This can be true regarding any creative endeavor from raising children to planting gardens to realizing our dreams of opening up a small business, to losing weight, even making a new friend or trying out a new recipe. That energy of over-mothering, of overly caring, can strangle our deepest desire before it has even taken its first breath.

Which brings me to the symbol of a seed. A tree saves up all its energy from the previous summer, all winter long, and spends that energy making seeds. And these seeds are created, encased, and let go in the wind, eaten by small animals, washed away by rains, and eventually land wherever they land. The mother trees can’t do anything about the fate of her seeds, her most precious creations. She just has to wait. So the seeds flutter away and land somewhere. And they, too, wait. And the miracle is that inside of them they are complete. They have all the information they need to push into the soil, grow roots, reach a stem and leaves towards the sun, and grow grow grow. If they are lucky, they will sprout close to their mother, protected by her shade and nourished by her root system, and eventually grow as tall as their mother — maybe taller — and house animals, create shade, someday drop their own seeds to the earth, as well. But if that doesn’t happen right away, it’s okay. The seed waits, dormant. Sleeping. Complete.

And that’s how I feel about my creativity — and really about everyone’s creativity. We have it, and it’s ready to be released. We just have to walk that fine line of giving it our all — every ounce of our energy — and also being okay with letting it go. We have to be confident that our seeds are complete and we have to have faith that they will eventually land on fertile soil. It’s the beauty and the mystery and the agony and the pleasure of creating and letting go.

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Many, many seedlings from our backyard tree, sprouting wildly in a gutter!

Choosing Like You’re Already There

A few things have been coming together in the last week or so, and it’s hard to put into words what those things are, but I’m going to try.

I think it’s easiest to see in fiction, or in the lives of others, and especially in the lives of those who are already gone:  there are usually big, sweeping themes and events that have changed the trajectory of a person’s life, and people in a person’s life who have defined one another’s lives or have at least defined parts of one another’s life.

I just finished watching the Masterpiece mini-series Little Women, a story I read as a girl and I likely didn’t completely understand, but I understood enough to know that I loved it. Little Women was the first book that made me cry — really cry sobbing tears, I was so distraught when Beth died — so it has its own place in my heart as a book that added a richness and a depth to my reading life. But as an adult looking back on the story overall and especially on the girls’ storylines I can see that for each girl they had their life trajectories, their destinies even, that were partially set by their place in history, by their circumstances, but also by their personalities, their talents, and their decisions. Each girl came to a crossroads, and they chose, and in choosing they defined themselves in one way or another.

I’m also in the midst of watching a multi-part documentary on Netflix called Wild Wild Country about the Rajneeshee spiritual group. Similarly, these real people — most of whom are still living — came to important crossroads in their lives and they chose, and in choosing they defined themselves and changed their lives. Some of the choices made people criminals, attempted murderers even. Other choices made people faithful guardians of justice. Still other choices made people bystanders, simply people in the background living lives that were tangential to all the chaos and drama.

I’ve also seen some old photos of family members, retold myself some family histories, and sifted through my own old memories. I’ve reflected on the themes of family members’ lives, where they seemed to have flourished, where they seemed to have deflated, the legacies and memories they left behind with me, the marks they made on their families, the personal lives’ works they created. It’s all very beautiful and mysterious.

So what does this have to do with me — with anything? I know I’ve said it before in some previous entry, but there is such power in deciding. And sometimes life does us a favor and forces us to choose, be it because of a life-threatening illness, a lost job, a relationship breakup or a marriage proposal, sometimes even the death of a loved one. Because these big events cannot easily be avoided and we must deal with them. We must choose. Other times, our lives go along quietly, slowly drifting with the current and little change from one day to the next. Slowly, imperceptibly days turn into weeks turn into months and even years with little discernible change. To me, this is the hard part, because as someone living a life, this is when I must make change, when I must be my own force — face things that must be faced in order to change and grow, let go of things that must be put down so that new things can be chosen and picked up.

And that’s where I see that I am now. I went through a big period of growth and change when I met my wife. We got married and lived through our first couple of years of marriage. Those experiences were transformative and have left an indelible — and I’d venture to say positive — mark on me. But I’ve been dormant lately, and honestly a little lazy. So it’s time to force some change. A woman whose videos I often watch online mentioned once that in order to make change you have to treat yourself like you’re already the person you wish to be, make choices like the person you want to be, live your life like you already are that person. And that message is so simple — cliche even — but it’s so true.

So that’s the plan — to treat myself as if I’m already arrived where I want to be, and make choices like I’m already there. Which for me means choices that promote physical health, spiritual growth, creative expression, healthy relationships, and all kinds of experiences. Because when I look back on my life as an old woman, as a middle aged woman, even a year from now, I want my big sweeping themes to be just that — health, spirituality, creativity, community, and even a little magic.

30-day Yoga Challenge: Four Challenges in One

Since I’m nearly done with it, I feel safe to share the fact that I’m participating in a 30-day yoga challenge:  30 consecutive days of yoga classes, come hell or high water, from April 2 to May 1. And in some ways this challenge isn’t challenging at all — in other ways it lives up to its name entirely.

Challenge #1:  Deciding — And Sticking With It

For most things in life, the deciding part is hardest. Well, not the deciding part so much as everything else that follows once the deciding has been done. After I decided to do this challenge, a lot of things had to shift in my life to make space for it, the biggest being how I spent my time. My alarm clock has been going off faithfully every morning, no sleeping in on the weekends. Most days I’ve had to either stay late at work or leave most of my work to do list undone so I could fit in a yoga class. I’ve had to rearrange social engagements on the weekends so that I can get to yoga, and sometimes skip or reschedule appointments during the week. This may seem extreme, but it’s what commitment looks like when any one of us makes a decision and then sticks with it. Those things we’ve decided are the big deal things in our lives take precedent — or they should — so they’re setting the tone for the day, the week, the month. Everything else should be secondary.

And I have to say that the “sticking with it” part has been tough when I’ve been faced with a tempting alternative to my decision — most often sleeping in on the weekends or skipping an evening class to go home and laze on the couch. But it’s been a good test of my will, to see that I can be determined and strong enough to push myself out of my habits to I achieve something new.

Challenge #2:  Pacing Myself

Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately? — I tend to be a competitive person, even in a noncompetitive setting like a yoga class. Most days I have some form of Rubber Neck Syndrome, where I’m checking out what everyone else is doing, looking at their form, their flexibility, their strength, and then of course comparing it to mine. Maybe it’s from my many years of dance training or my perfectionist tendencies that I naturally start to compare myself to others, but in this challenge I had to really let go of that. In some ways it was good to know that I wasn’t in the same place as most of the other people in the room — there were only about 12 of us doing the challenge overall and maybe one or two in the room with me most days, so that meant that the pressure was off — or maybe not off — but my mindset definitely adjusted when I went into a class. Like I mentioned in last week’s entry, I was really running my own race — or yoga-ing my own yoga. Because of course I couldn’t force myself into the splits and then flip myself upside down into several reps of a forearm stand and then push through a dozen jump-backs from crow pose to chaturanga (first and foremost, because I can’t do crow pose jump-backs to chaturanga) but also because I had to come back to class tomorrow and the next day and the next.

I had to pace myself for the long haul, take it slower than I usually would, and really focus on my own process, listen to my body and my body alone to make sure that we’d get through the month in one healthy piece. Because if I “won class” for the day but felt miserable and sore — or even injured myself — then I’d be defeating the whole purpose of the challenge, and of yoga itself.

Challenge #3:  Imbalance Exposing Imbalance

I mentioned earlier that once I’d made the decision to participate in the challenge I had to reprioritize the way I spent my time, and now that I’m almost through I can look back and see how much this yoga challenge — in some ways its own imbalance on my time — exposed other imbalances in how I spend my time, particularly at work. Without the yoga challenge to pull me away from work and to put some pressure on how I spend my time in the evening, it was easy for me to excuse long hours at work, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. But this challenge has made me notice that work really demands a lot of me, and a lot of my free time. I’m not complaining that I have a job that requires after-hours time, but I’m concerned by the amount of after-hours time I was spending — and am still spending — usually up to 20 unpaid hours a week. This challenge has made me feel some stress, and even anxiety, around time but mostly because there never seems to be enough time for work and also for myself. It’s something that I’m going to be further exploring even after this challenge ends; balance is such a key value that I hold and I want to embody that more.

Challenge #4:  What Happens Next?

This leads to the final challenge within this challenge. I’m almost done with it, but I’m already thinking about what’s next. Do I want to continue daily yoga classes? Do I want to take a break from yoga? Do I want to continue daily exercise and meditation, but expand into to different forms, like gym workouts and more traditional cardio or pick up my meditation practice from months ago? I’m not quite sure yet, and I have a couple of days to decide, but I do know that this challenge has pushed me to make a decision and to make shifts in my life that push me to be more balanced. I’ve also seen that competition is not as important as compassion — especially self-compassion — and that even when I don’t think I’m making any gains I am. I’ve surprised myself this month by becoming physically stronger even when I didn’t think I was, by becoming more patient with myself, and more able to let go, even if momentarily, of the demands of the outside world on my inner life.

After this challenge ends on Tuesday, I look forward to Wednesday and the days that follow and the decisions I’ll get to make that will quiet the outside world and amplify my inner voice, one that is still keenly competitive, but also more compassionate and striving for balance.

as strong as the weakest link, or run your own race?

lately, some of the adages I’ve heard since I was very young are really starting to resonate with me — I’m really starting to get them, and it’s most frequently been in the context of the classroom.

You’re Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link

this one used to annoy me a lot as a kid, in pretty much any group situation. in the settings where I was a stronger link, most often at school, I was easily impatient with and frustrated by “weaker links,” kids who didn’t get things as quickly as I did or who didn’t do their homework or try as hard, or whatever it was that in my child brain didn’t measure up.

as an adult, and especially as a teacher, I see now how each kid coming to school may be pushing as hard as they can, but the homes they’re coming from may either create obstacles or lay fertile ground for their school success. and that home life variable can be anything from poverty, not speaking English at home, having only one parent, having parents who are splitting up or who argue and fight often, to parents who are college graduates and earn high incomes and take their children on enriching vacations and hire tutors and nannies and send them to club sports and private lessons. it’s easy to grow when you’re a kid from an optimal home — or on the optimal side — versus kids who live in obstacle-filled homes.

I can see that now, and I can see it better, and I understand why I was impatient as a kid. and I know that I was guilty of thinking that I was smarter than other kids in my room. however, no adult — no teacher or parent or family member — ever broke it down for me, explaining that not every kid has the same home life. not every kid gets their own, quiet room to sleep in at night. not every kid gets a home-cooked meal and a place and time to do their homework. not every kid gets vacations to destinations around the country and around the world. and not every kid has parents who are genuinely interested in their success. so what can I do, now that I’m in a position to be that adult who can break it down for different groups of kids? — but not do it in a way that says, “Hey, you’ve got nothing, you’re our weakest link,” or “Hey, you’re so lucky, congratulations, you’re our strongest link?”

my best attempts have been trying to show it through biography and stories — to discuss how real kids from history, like Louis Braille and Helen Keller, had different childhoods, but through their circumstances were able to achieve a lot. I felt a little weird explaining it to my students at the time, but it was true and I think I had to say it. I said, “you know, if Helen Keller’s family wasn’t a wealthy, landowning family, we would probably have never known who she was. her family wouldn’t have been able to pay for a teacher to come and live with her, to give up her entire life to teacher Helen, and only Helen, for her entire life. it makes a big difference if you’re rich, and Helen was lucky.” I paused and thought, then went on. “and Louis Braille didn’t come from a wealthy family at all, so they had to be strict with him and give him chores and not help him too much even when he made mistakes. they had to see him fall, and then tell him not give up, or let him become spoiled or hopeless. they had to push him hard and he had to push himself hard, too. thankfully he never gave up, and we have braille today, and we have him to thank — and Helen Keller has him to thank, too. so we have to remember that our families help to push us hard and even our teachers are here to push us hard, too.”

So my role as teacher, and as adult in the world I guess, is to notice those people around me who are dealing with obstacles and setbacks, to acknowledge that and not to see them through a lens of strength or weakness, but through the lens of needing my understanding, encouragement, and support.

Run Your Own Race

my internal struggle then comes from the balance I try to find between caring for my students who need the understanding, encouragement, and support and also caring for my students who are already fortunate enough to come to school with a lot of the “optimal home life” boxes checked. between these two groups, what’s fair?

honestly, I don’t know. this is a struggle I’ve had for years. I have only so much time, so many resources, and so much energy, and I have to work with what I’ve got, sometimes moment to moment, and with a lot of variables at play each day. and for me it goes down all the way to the question of what a free and appropriate education is — what that truly means. does that mean that each child is challenged and engaged at their individual level for as much of the day as possible? does that mean that children are asked to learn the content of their grade level (first grade, second grade, third grade, etc.) and anything beyond that is extra? does it mean that kids need to be divided or tracked, so kids with more similar needs can be together? does it mean that kids cycle through different teachers throughout the day, so they can see specialists for each content area?

I know what’s plausible for me as a teacher, and I’ve heard what’s fashionable and preferred by parents, which — spoiler alert — are incompatible. so what do we do? most importantly, I think parents need to adjust their expectations, and think back to when they were kids. think back to what their teachers did for them, what their parents did for them, and then what they were expected to do for themselves. because in the end, we are running our own race, each one of us — and we have been all along — and kids’ teachers and parents and supportive adults are there to coach, model, and cheer them on, but ultimately our kids have to learn responsibility and they have to be driven by their own desire to self-actualize and get to their own finish lines.