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.

freedom, responsibility, possibility

so to continue what I was thinking about last week — although it feels like such a long time ago to me — I’ve been searching about for people whose lifestyles and philosophies may serve as an inspiration. unfortunately, for all the hours I’ve spend casting about, I’ve not come up with much.

like everyone who’s got internet access, I get lost down the rabbit hole sometimes. and sometimes it’s for the better and sometimes it’s for the worse. I’ve been casually following a couple of female vegan vloggers — YouTubers? — and it’s interesting to notice what I think about and how I feel after watching their videos. I feel the worst after watching Freelee, who has good intentions I think, and means the best, but whose approach is too rigid — it makes me uncomfortable. also, I think there’s a good amount of unconscious privilege in her outlook and actions. sure, you can give up make-up and wearing bras (and clothes!) — you’re a light-skinned white woman. you can move to the Honduran jungle to live off-grid with your boyfriend on a plot of land that has freshwater streams on the property and buy solar panels for your house and encourage others to quit their jobs and do the same as you have — you have no kids as far as I know and no family members that you’re responsible for.

but how possible is that for most people? and from what little I know of current events, Honduras is a failing democracy and one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas. there’s got to be some white privilege in renting or buying up some land there and living with no effects of the Honduran dictatorship in your life. sure, she’s living a life with lots of personal freedom — and lots of personal responsibility — but how possible, and how plausible is it for the rest of us?

I’ve also been watching Sweet Potato Soul and Cheap Lazy Vegan. these women are more my speed, living with a lot of personal freedom and responsibility and their choices are a bit more possible — and plausible. that said, sure, veganism is a lifestyle that can be a bit rigid and difficult, and if anything the self-imposed limitations may make a person feel less free rather than more free, but it’s nice to see variants of the vegan lifestyle — women who eat more or less processed foods (I’m talking peanut butter and soy sauce, tahini and cocoa powder) and who can spend money and time differently to make plant-based foods. they also incorporate different levels of the vegan / eco-friendly lifestyle into their own lives, like purchasing second hand clothing, not using a car, finding and using cruelty-free and food-grade beauty products. but again, depending on your background, time and money situation, as well as ability to change your lifestyle drastically, this may or may not be possible.

so what am I saying? well, first of all — and I feel weird writing this since I’m online doing it — it’s best for me to stay away from YouTube and other social media (I’d venture to say the internet in general!) unless I have a clear and constructive purpose for using it. essentially the internet is like a portable library, and why did I go to the library when I was a kid? I didn’t go most times to randomly browse, or to learn from strangers who were lingering about the building, spewing their ideas backed by varying levels of education and expertise. I went with a purpose — with my own questions in mind, searching for my own answers, and with the goal of hopefully finding literature and essays to read by educated, experienced, thoughtful people who could share their ideas with me so that I could grow in my own education and expertise.

and for me that’s another step towards being free — freeing myself of the distractions and empty attractions of the internet so that I can focus more on my actual life, the one I’m living in my heart and head, the one that I will look back on and hopefully remember fondly, with cherished moments of living. because what purpose is there in sitting in front of a screen, endlessly accessing content? use it as a tool — a tool to create more knowledge and self-empowerment — not a tool of distraction and unconsciousness.

time to get free

spring break was two weeks ago, and during a quiet moment of my week off I reflected on the Friday before break and the hours leading up to dismissal. everyone, the kids and I both, were really watching the clock — sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. to lighten the mood and ease some of the excitement and pressure around the upcoming break I joked with the kids. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m keeping track of the time, too, and we won’t forget to leave — trust me. We have 2 hours and 26 minutes to go, and in all my years of teaching I haven’t forgotten to leave school on time. Plus,” I paused, “we always have the dismissal bells to remind us.”

a few of them who were repeatedly looking at the clock or asking their watch-wearing friends about the time seemed a little sheepish that they’d been caught, but I understood. sometimes, even as a teacher, I just don’t want to be in school. and why not?

sometimes school seems like prison, a place we file away all kids for the day with a few adults to regulate their time and activities, and then when the working adults finish work, we pick them up and shuttle them home. back and forth, back and forth, sometimes with a bit of variation in the routine for outside play or lessons, but overall that’s it for nine, 10 months of the year.

but you’re the one in charge, you say, why would you feel like you’re in prison? well, if the kids are the prisoners, that makes me the jailor. and I can’t tell you how much I hate that role, how often I start every day with bright hopes, imagining all the interesting discussions we’ll have, the engaging hands-on activities, and the moments to read and reflect, and to just talk, get to know one another, and spend time together. but that’s just not how it goes. there is so much pushed into the classroom from the outside by people  who work at varying distances from me and my students and who I’ll assume are well-meaning. but whatever their intentions, they’re micromanagers to be sure. they create hard deadlines to meet, a quota of scores to record, grades to file, paperwork to submit, referrals for behavioral and academic issues, standards to meet, and on and on and on and on. my days are scheduled to the minute, which means the kids’ days are scheduled to the minute with an underlying pressure to keep up and for all of us to do what we’re told. and this is not the way education should be — paperwork and rule-following was not the reason I became a teacher.

so, if school is like prison, then it’s time to get free. because as a teacher I’ve wanted to create freedom through education, through giving kids the tools to question, to think deeply, to reflect and take action, to self-discover and self-determine, to be so knowledgeable of self and the world and so free-thinking that their very existence was a radical act of freedom, and that their radical freedom would inspire others to get free — and that eventually we would all be moving towards that freedom.

and freedom from what? freedom to do what? well, freedom has been written about and thought about for centuries and I cannot address all that I think and feel fully in a few paragraphs, but in short:  freedom to choose and to be. freedom to live a life with purpose and meaning, to live a life of self-understanding and a with a broad perspective on humanity and an understanding of the interconnectedness of life on the planet. freedom to know that there is a balance we must respect and maintain as a member of the living planet and to know when the demands of personal freedom must be mitigated for the good of the group — and to be secure enough in our personal freedom to know that it constantly flexes and bends within different contexts. there are no absolutes — movement and change are constant — just as the need for honest reflection and continuous education is constant.

so as I move forward, looking for moments of beauty in my daily life, I also search for moments of freedom, moments I can amplify and then stretch into minutes, and then hours and then maybe full days. let’s get free.

experiences that inspired this post:

The Hoodoisie — a Chicago-based, live news show podcast.

Educated, by Tara Westover

Chicago Teachers Union Foundation — professional development for Chicago Public Schools teachers

Beauty, A Guiding Principle

On the way home the other night I was thinking about a book I’d read a while ago called The Four Desires. In it the author talks about uncovering and expressing your dharma, which essentially means your personal mission / vision statement. I was thinking about this because I was finishing up another long and busy week of work and coming home to a week of vacation. Somehow just the promise of open time creates that immediate pull back into big picture questions for me.

I was thinking about what motivates me, my driving principles, the ideas and ideals that attract me. Based on the things I’ve always liked to do and be around, I think it’s come down to a single word:  beauty. I like to be around beauty, to create beauty. I like to see beauty in others, and when it’s not there, I try to encourage beauty and I hope for the beauty that will come. In many cases beauty does mean the physical kind — comfortable and supportive home, lush gardens, comfortable clothing, inspiring artwork — but it also means the beauty in moments, in people, in relationships.

The hard part for me, though, is that it’s much easier to see and create outward beauty rather than inward beauty. I can see when something has become beautiful or is approaching beautiful, and others can see it, too. That seeing validates the time and effort given over to a beautification project. But inward beauty, that’s tough. Can we see how a child has become more a more patient sibling, a better independent problem-solver, a more resilient student? Can we see how a co-worker has pushed herself to be more positive and complain less about work? Can we see when a neighbor has committed himself to a more forgiving approach to his wife and kids?

So for me I’ve been thinking of making that challenge a focus this week — looking to see the internal beauty in others. How can I find those beautiful moments and see them and know them while they’re happening — and not so much that it ruins the moment, but just enough to be awake to them? How can I notice positive change in others? How can I raise my awareness to kindness, generosity, patience, enthusiasm, gentleness, courage?

In some ways this week’s challenge will be easier than any other week because I’ll have the time and space to relax and slow down and really look — I’m off work. But it will be a good place to start this habit of mind. And this isn’t to say that I will ignore things that must be discerned or defended against, rather that I will put my energy and attention on things that merit being centerstage and let the things that don’t wither and fade a little more. Care to join me?

living, (in)action

the coming of spring has got me a little distracted, but i still wanted to attempt a post — so here’s what i’ve got for now.

some thoughts from the week(s):

  1. positive envy — creates a spark in ourselves to emulate those we admire:  getting fit, eating healthy, getting a degree, being kind, being courageous. esteem and admiration are positive forms of envy, ones that we hope to inspire in others so that they push themselves to greater heights.
  2. negative envy — creates a spark to be aggressive, to take people down a peg and keep them “in their place,” to keep them from being too powerful, too rich, too famous. when taken to the extreme we can attribute certain types of violence to negative envy. (from Hidden Brain podcast, Counting Other People’s Blessings)
  3. walk up vs. walk out campaign — yes, we should avoid excluding people and shun bullies, but sometimes the people being excluded or bullied deserve that behavior. i’ve seen unpopular kids become unpopular because they’re unkind, immature, rude, do gross things. there’s also the bystander issue:  if a kid is being unkind, immature, rude, gross and you’re observing this happen, as their peer say something firmly but kindly; explain that that their behavior is unacceptable and help bridge the misunderstanding. but then there’s the question — do we let kids “be themselves” no matter how much that may push them out of the social group, essentially becoming isolated and an outsider, or do we teach kids that in order to be accepted into a social group they can’t always be themselves, do whatever they want? sometimes concessions have to be made to be in a group — and if we’re not willing to make certain concessions about who we are and the ways we want to act and be, then we have to accept that it’s not a good fit, and leave that group to search for another one, no?
  4. walk up vs. walk out — one day of nice notes isn’t going to make an outsider feel like they’re “in.” and if the outsider is truly already pushed outside the social group, they will know that. moreover, redirecting kids to “be nice” instead of taking time to be socially disobedient — in a safe way, i might add — to make a point about their rights to a safe childhood and safe environments is a distraction from the actual issue of violence and access to guns. it’s also talking down to kids:  you want to protest the problem of gun violence in your society? how about you write 17 sticky notes and pass them out to your friends and teachers instead? why don’t you tell a “sad kid” a joke? a lot more work that that has to be done to create environments of care, concern, and tolerance.
  5. progressives and conservatives and neo-cons — it’s all a shit show, isn’t it? we’re all raging against a machine, one that our predecessors created and one that we’re living in, following the rules of the game, willingly or perhaps unwillingly. and groups of people when they come together create a mess. it’s hard to unify because there are so many exceptions to the rule, especially as humans. essentially we are built to be diverse in body and mind. that diversity is both our greatest strength and our greatest obstacle. hopefully we will develop the imagination and compassion to see one another in closer kinship.
  6. Hoodoisie (say:  hood-WAH-zee, from the French bourgeoisie) — a show in Pilsen (Chicago! south side!) my wife and i went to on Saturday night. lots of progressive politics discussed. lots of people present from non-mainstream identities including race, gender, sexual orientation. and as a teacher who went into teaching to invest in our collective human capital, to plant the seeds of self-empowerment, self-revelation, and internal revolution — drops of water that would hopefully one day become a wave of change on a planet that is thirsty for change — i feel uplifted and encouraged that good things are happening and will continue to happening. growth and change is on the way.
  7. children — spent time with some of my favorite four kids this weekend. checkers and rolling dice and dinner and hair cuts and car rides and talking and laughing and chocolate chip cookies. children can be terrible tyrants sometimes, but they are also beautiful healings. what love.
  8. balance — a teacher this weekend said to me, “if we all had perfect balance we wouldn’t be here.” and i take that “here” to mean the room we were in, but also the lives we’re living. balancing peace and struggle, effort and rest, compassion and justice, oneness and individuality, patience and action, control and letting go — that’s what it’s all about. there is mystery and depth and unknowableness in life, and that unites us.

are you living your best life? man, i’m tryin’!

what kind of person do i want to be? when i am on my death bed, or laying on the ground in pieces after being hit by a bus, and my life flashes before my eyes — what kind of person, and what kind of life, do i want to look back on?

i’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because i’ve been housing a lot of regrets. and why? my life is out of balance — too much time at work, too much time worrying about getting things done, too much space given up to to lists of chores and tasks. and it’s taking a toll on me, self-esteem-wise and my happiness overall — even my ability to see good things, to register pleasure and joy. the stuff that makes up my heart and soul has been hard-packed by the trivial things in life and it needs some loosening up.

so — the things that matter to me most, that bring me the most joy, should be the things that should float to the top and be my priorities.

i think about this in relationship to teaching, which is a big part of my identity. i love learning and ideas. ideas — and just plain thinking — excite me, and i want to share that excitement with kids.

teaching, like life itself, should be part-structured and part rollicking and free. (we need to know where our next meals are coming from, but we can also have an adventure before dinnertime, you know?) as a teacher, as the teacher i strive to be, i am present to the kids, ever observant and open to them, their personalities, their problems and concerns, their foibles and idiosyncrasies. i am compassionate, but i push. i let them fail in a safe space, i ask questions, i sit back and think along with them. i wonder and i let the possibilities unfold. and even if it doesn’t happen this way most of the time, i want it to — i want to bring more of myself, the life enthusiast, into my classroom.

i think about teaching in relationship to living — the way they interact together, almost like the inhale and exhale of breathing — and i think forward to the inevitable moment on my death bed. so with the end in mind, i remind myself that i can be a good teacher — and a good life-liver — if i remember who i am, do the things that make my heart sing, and stay open to the fascination and terror and puzzlement and thrill that is living this messy life.

Life in Cycles

It frustrates me that I can’t be perfect — or even a version of perfect — even for a few days at a time. I’m so good at trying, too:  I make lists, I fill out my calendar just so, I create budgets and goals. I do all of that. And then something happens to loosen up the tight plans, to dull the shiny dreams, that I’ve made.

Two weekends ago it was a snow day, which you might think would make the weekend easier and  more productive. But no — snow days, especially now as a homeowner — mean that you’re out there, spending time and energy moving snow around, off the sidewalks and out of parking spaces. And then sitting by the window dreading another round of white flakes floating down.

Last weekend it was a work trip, where I wrongly assumed that I’d get all kinds of work done after my eight-hour — that’s right! — eight-hour sessions ended. Of course, there was time interspersed for eating and bathroom breaks, but by the time I’m done with eight hours of work talk and work thinking, I’m not exactly in the mood to sit down with a stack of papers and grade them, or to curl up in an armchair to write detailed lesson plans. It was all I could do to get through dinner and watch some Olympics on TV and not act like the tired grouch that I was.

 

And what does this have to do with anything? Well, when one brick in the wall of perfection is removed or shifted, even a little, everything shifts. And the expectations I have for myself are raised even higher for the next day to “catch up” and to keep pushing to get to the land of perfection, often to the point of being totally unrealistic about the limitations of the space-time continuum. I mean, it’s just not possible to do laundry, clean the house, grocery shop, meal prep for the week, grade a stack of papers, lesson plan for the week and watch an episode of Fixer Upper in four hours. That’s hardly possible in four days!

So I’m trying to lessen the pressure on myself to do all and be all. Because trying so hard is not making me happy and it hasn’t been making me happy for as long as I’ve been trying.

The way that I’ve been programmed — through overt modeling or internal tendencies — is to see life and goal-setting and goal-reaching as a linear feat, something predictable and easily controlled. And that’s just not how life really works. We live on a planet that is organized around cycles:  the seasons, weather patterns, the tides, migration cycles, the cycle of life, for goodness’ sake! So I’m moving towards reframing my approach to “achieving things.” I’m starting to view it as part of a cycle, or as part of many varied and interacting cycles, lots of messy, unpredictable curlicues and loops and not in a straight line at all. And sometimes the “achieving” and the growth spurts will be quick and strong, or sometimes they may level off or stagnate, but I cannot assume that one, small portion of my life — a day, a week, even a month or a year — is the way that things will be forever.

After all, there is no such thing as a straight line on earth, so I am willing to trust in the ebb and flow of cycles.

Can I be a housewife already?

I just finished watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Amazon and I loved it so much — engaging characters, funny dialogue, beautiful sets and costuming.

Anyway, something that I was vibing on while watching the show is the housewife lifestyle. I know it’s not very progressive or feminist or pro-women to say this, but so often I wish I could be a housewife. To be perfectly honest, the things I like to do best are the things that have to do with the home and “homemaking.” I like cooking and baking, I don’t mind running errands or budgeting and bill paying for the household, I love gardening and decorating, I get a good amount of satisfaction from cleaning, and I enjoy the process of planning and hosting people at our home for events and holidays. What can I say? I’m a house nerd.

However, with a full-time job that I often work 10 hours a day — plus a half-day most weekends — I’m not able to take care of the household as I’d like. My wife shares the responsibilities, of course, but it never seems that there’s enough time for us to do our paid jobs well, take care of the house well, and take care of ourselves well, too. During a good week we’re maybe 2 for 3, but hardly ever 3 for 3, you know? And I can see why, in the age of nuclear families, it makes sense to have one adult work outside the home earning the money and the other adult staying home to work that front. Because doing both can be a lot, especially if you want them done well. (And by “well” I mean not eating a grilled cheese or a can of soup every night for dinner or leaving laundry to build up to an avalanche-inducing height before I get to it…)

And this is not to disparage anyone who is trying their best to bring home the bacon and fry it up, too. I’m currently a member of that group and if anything I’m acknowledging that it’s damn hard to do both — it’s exhausting, actually. But, if I’m wishing to take a timeout from the breakneck speed of trying to do both work and home life, I can’t be the only one.

The Hermit Crab As Teacher

Over a year ago, my wife bought a pair of hermit crabs as class pets for her second grade students. She’s had hermit crabs before, and she’s heard that if the environment is too stressful for them they cannot thrive, and in some instances if it’s too stressful, then they die. In the end, her students were a little too rowdy for the crabs to live happily in the classroom, so Ralph and Miss Honey came home one evening, and were home to stay.

Both Ralph and Miss Honey were extremely shy. They rarely came out of their shells, and when they did it was only briefly for food or water. Then they’d retreat to opposite corners of their tank and burrow down through the peat and soil, all the way to the glass bottom. At times I’d forget they were even in there, their vigilance and deep commitment to their namesakes a given.

During the first few months at home they also behaved oddly, at least according to my wife. They switched shells with one another more than once, despite there being at least two or three other options in their tank. They even refused hermit crab food and would only eat fresh vegetables or fruit, and exclusively watermelon for a while.

Over summer we were out for a day or two, maybe on a short day trip or vacation, I can’t remember, and when we came back we saw that they’d switched shells again, but that this time Ralph was missing his big claw. Those claws are their most important asset, their main self-defense weapon. Those claws even seal them off from the outside world when they retreat into their shells. Poor Ralph with no claw. But amazingly, he survived at least another few weeks without it. One day my wife came home and went to check on them and say hello, and she saw that Ralph was no longer with us. It was down to just Miss Honey. Solitary Miss Honey.

And she’s lived alone ever since, changing tanks once, but other than that living quietly and elusively for months, rarely coming out and retreating quickly whenever we’d walk by or bend our faces to the tank to say hello. At one point my wife researched how hermit crabs get to pet stores — you know, are they bred, trapped in the wild, all that. Turns out their journey to a pet store is traumatic:  they’re captured from the wild, then put into large sacks with hundreds of other crabs, many having their shells cracked open or dying along the way. By the time they arrive in display cases in pet stores, they are most likely battered physically and to whatever depth they feel and sense, they are likely psychologically or emotionally battered, too. Makes sense that she is the way she is. If she could speak, she’d probably say Humans? Fuck humans, I’m staying in my shell.

However, my wife has continued caring for Miss Honey, even after her violent incident with Ralph, overcoming her own dislike of seafood to serve Miss Honey shrimp, cutting up tiny pieces of fresh fruit and veggies for her everyday, changing her waters (hermit crabs need both fresh and salt water), spraying down her tank and checking the temperature to make sure she’s living in an optimal environment, and gently talking to her at least once or twice a day. I too have walked by and occasionally seen her out — rather, I’ve seen her shell on the surface instead of burrowed down as far as possible — and I’ve taken the time to say hello and observe her, tried to admire her strange little antennae and skinny walking legs, her jet black eyes on stalks. She was the ghost pet of the house, a figment or a specter, but I thought, well, you never know if she’s listening, might as well be kind.

And after all this time, nearly a year, she’s finally finally come out. I think on Thanksgiving, when we hosted almost 20 people and we were at our noisiest, one of the cousins saw her walking around her tank. Miss Honey, just out for a stroll. I was so surprised, but also delighted. I took it that she too was making an effort to be hospitable for the holiday.

~~~   ~~~   ~~~

I’ve sat here across from Miss Honey on the couch many times:  her tank light glowing, water drops humidly clinging to the sides, no movement or life apparent, but I know she’s in there, up to something. And as a living creature she is so much like so many of us:  she’s been battered along her journey, and thus scared to no end, convinced it’s best to stay hidden away or strike first before being hurt again herself. But I’d also like to think that she is an example of the victories, large and small, that we can all have with finding safety and beginning to trust, of allowing care and kindness to touch us even when it’s at the risk of re-injury.

My wife has played a significant role in Miss Honey’s story. Sometimes holding out our hands, offering love and care consistently and patiently and without expectation is the cure that a battered heart needs. And like my wife caring faithfully for Miss Honey, the response and the validation may not come right away, but it is the right remedy.

We are mysteries inside our own shells with our own complicated histories and hurts, trials and successes. Sometimes we stay buried and sometimes bravely push ourselves to go out for a stroll. And sometimes we are the gentle and patient caregiver, giving just to give, participating in the rebuilding and the healing one day at a time, knowing that one day our hermit crab will emerge from her shell.

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Which Is Better: Your Best or Good Enough?

Doing my best, trying my hardest, giving it everything I’ve got is a big part of my identity — especially when it comes to work. As a kid, school (the junior version of work) came pretty easily to me, but I would still try my hardest, study diligently for tests, strive for my personal best, look for ways to challenge myself, all that. Even in high school, most Friday nights I’d sit at my convertible dresser / desk, consult my meticulously written out homework agenda, and get to work. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get it out of the way to open up the rest of my weekend, it was because I wanted to feel that feeling of achieving and doing things well. Same thing in college, grad school, and on into my adult work life. Problem is, this work ethic and my perfectionistic tendencies have caused a lot of stress and heartache.

I’m currently in my eleventh year of teaching and sometimes I still feel like I put in as much time and effort as a rookie. Lately I’ve been reflecting on reasons why — and I don’t want to make excuses for myself — but from what I can see there are a few major factors, some that I can control and others that I can’t and never could have.

First and foremost, teaching is one of those professions that can become a 24/7 occupation. If I spent my full energy thinking about each of my students, their unique talents and needs, and then designed meaningful and personalized learning for each of them that in itself could be an endless task — not to mention developing a beautiful, enriching, and engaging classroom; creating attractive and interactive bulletin boards in the hallway; reaching out to all the kids’ parents regularly via their preferred communication method; continuing to develop my professional capacity with after school, weekend, and summertime opportunities; applying for grants and writing Donors Choose proposals; the list goes on and on and each task — when done to the best of my ability — could be a nearly full-time job on its own besides the task of teaching the kids who come to learn something with me everyday. So there’s that. Teaching is hard.

Second, my early career — and even my pre-service experience — was rocky at best. As a student teacher my cooperating teacher didn’t even know I was going to be with her (for the entire school year!) until I sat down next to her in August and introduced myself. Just imagine — she had had no idea that for the entire school year a 25-year-old was going to be shadowing her, observing her, and hoping to eventually take over her classroom instruction. She was also not the best model of how to teach creatively or use time efficiently. Just to give you some context:  she had 15 students and taught out of basals — essentially pre-written curricula in all content areas — and was still at work every day until after six o’clock at night reviewing lessons and wondering to herself what to teach. Once I got into my own classroom, the first four years were a different grade level, a different classroom, or a different school. First it was first grade, then it was a triple split with first, second, and third graders all in the same room, then it was just third grade but I had to move classrooms, then I was in a brand new school with no curricula at all and I was responsible for writing essentially all of it with a team of strangers. Phew! After that, I was in the same classroom teaching the same grade, but turnover at my newer school was so high that for four years the entire team was new each year — except for me — so I was responsible for guiding my new team members through curricula I’d written and then managing, revising and rewriting that curricula with each new team. So there’s that. Teaching is really hard.

All the while, through every major change, I felt very responsible for my students and an obligation to do my very best. Because the kids needed me and because doing a job well is an expression of me, of who I am as a person. It’s been a huge part of my identity to do things well, actually — if I want to be fully honest — it’s been a huge part of my identity to do things the best, to be the best, to be outstanding. And for many years I’ve strived to do just that and many times I’ve stayed at work 11, 12, 13 hours a day, working half-days on Saturdays and Sundays, and over breaks, too. I’m doing things “the best,” but when I’ve had those moments to step back and look at my life as a whole rather than just work, work is the only thing getting done — no time or energy for eating right, exercising, socializing. And now that I’m in my eleventh year of teaching, I’m tired. Because teaching is hard, and because it’s hard to give it my all, all the time, and in many cases for it to make not that much of a difference to anyone but me.

So this is where I am — stuck — and maybe in transition. Some days I leave my classroom feeling like a failure:  I have dozens of things left on my to do list and it’s unlikely they’re going to get done anytime soon. Certain lessons or moments didn’t go the way I planned or wanted, and I just don’t feel like I gave it my all. Other days I look around the room — mess that it is — shrug, tell myself I did the best I could with what I had, remind myself I have a life to live outside of work, turn off the lights, and leave.

And on those days, even though I’m gone, in my car on the way to the gym or home to cook dinner, looking forward to a new episode of Fixer Upper or another couple of chapters from a library book, there’s this nagging, needling feeling that keeps me wondering — is it okay that today was good enough, or should I have really tried my best?