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