What’s Your “It”?

I was reading an article earlier this week – one of those rare moments when nothing is on fire and nobody desperately needs you for anything – and I had one of those experiences where the words just jump off the page and smack you upside the head. The thought that jumped out at me was that everyone has an “it”; a moment in time where things were one way before “it” and things were never quite the same way after “it”. The article went on to discuss different responses to “it” and how that can be a deciding factor in how our life is going right now. Wow. I’d never quite looked at things from that perspective before. I wonder what my “it” is?

I thought of plenty of “it” moments in my life – my grandmother passing away (we were very close); getting married (28 years strong!); the birth of both sons; my husband’s one year deployment to Korea. Those were all personal and family milestones that forever changed the structure and path of more than just one life. But what was MY “it”? What was the one thing that fundamentally shifted the way I go about seeing and living my life because of “it”? Well, there’s really only one so far.   That would be my year from hell.

It was the year I was finishing up my doctorate, and I was teaching sixth grade. By fate or by design – I’ll never know – I had 9 students who couldn’t get along or keep it together for 5 minutes at a time and 9 students who were ordinary kids just trying to do a good job in school. I’d never had a class like that before. Nothing in my years of teaching or teacher prep had prepared me professionally or personally for the daily onslaught of over the top disrespect, out of control behavior, bullying, physical intimidation and fighting, and complete chaos that those nine challenging students dialed up everyday in my room. That was challenging enough, but the complete lack of support from those whose job it was to ensure a safe learning environment for all was the final disillusionment. When it was suggested that their behavior was somehow my fault, I felt frustrated and broken. I read every book I could find, sought out every person that might shed some light on what to do and where I was going wrong, and tried anything anyone suggested. The other parents spoke on my behalf and their own student’s to try to get support, but all to no avail. The year rolled on and eventually one of the parents went to the school board regarding the intensive bullying going on towards her student by another, and the school’s lack of ability to respond effectively. I finished the last three weeks of school with the equivalent of an SRO (school resource officer) in my room everyday. Although the year passed, the die was cast. Nothing was ever the same. I had spoken up and spoken out about those situations. I had advocated for my students – all of them – and in the end I was cast as the villain of the piece.  How had it all gone so wrong?  I was completely off my original course, casting about desperately for some meaning in this swift-moving, raging torrent of events that had swept me far from everything I thought I once knew.  I felt like I was drowning in self-doubt, self-pity, and a complete lack of self-worth.  Dark days indeed.

The person I had to become to endure that year was not someone I would have chosen to become. I learned skills I never thought I’d need to learn, and I learned more about behaviorism than I ever wanted to know. I learned on a personal level what it meant about it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, but how many times you stand back up.  I’d always been a strong person, but now I was labeled a “tough cookie”, “Snape with pearls”, and “Darth Vadar” to name a few, simply because I refused to stay down on the mat. Ironic, really.  I never saw myself that way (seriously? I felt like I was one moment away from being a puddle on the floor every day) – even now – but that’s what others labeled me.  I moved to the middle school level as an Instructional Coach, and I got the reputation for being someone who could “handle the hard kids”. What does that even mean?  Being able to deal with some tough kids was categorized as something undesirable; the “dirty job” no one wanted. And I got them all. It was done to punish me, but somewhere in there I discovered I was already on a bridge (remember that bridge from a few posts ago? This would be that same one) and I decided to just stay on it and see if I could look at all of this in a different way. Maybe I could pull a Briar Rabbit out of my hat and actually come to embrace this.  My grandmother used to say that “It’s a poor situation indeed when you can’t learn something from it.” So true, Nanny.

I’ve always been one to champion the underdog, mainly because my dad always told me that when you don’t understand something try seeing it from a different perspective; sort of the “walk a mile in my shoes before you judge” idea. So I intentionally started trying to build relationships with the kids who were the hardest to like. These were the kids no one seemed to care about. They were rude, disrespectful, sometimes scary, used physical intimidation to push people away, and generally just annoyed the hell out of most everyone at school. I had to understand why they acted this way. I had to make sense of it for myself. My quest for knowledge was deeply personal.

I learned that a lot of these kids had some heart-breaking stories. They needed someone to try to understand them, but they had no idea how to go about making that happen. They needed someone to see them as kids, not just monsters. They needed someone to believe in them, even when they did things that made that nearly impossible. They needed someone to help them unravel the mess they frequently got themselves into. Sometimes, they even needed me! LOL! Who’d have guessed that?! Not me.  Not in a million years.

Although that year was one of the hardest on me both professionally and personally (it’s been hard writing this, even after all these years), I have to say it set me on a course and taught me things in a manner I never would have chosen for myself. From a coaching standpoint, it took me all the way down to the studs and then completely rebuilt me as an educator. For me, it’s my personal example of what “grit” means. It’s my bar for how bad things are in my life. If it’s not “that year” level of bad, then it’s all good; I can do this. And if it looks like it’s even thinking about getting close to “that year”, I now turn into the threat and meet it head on, problem solving and fixing as I go. I don’t wait; I act. I learned the hard way. I also learned I have more in me then I once thought – more perseverance, more patience, more compassion, more strength, more resiliency, more vulnerability, and more capacity to accept help and support from others. All good stuff, and none of it looks the same in my mind as it did before “it”. On a personal level, whenever I think something is too hard, too intimidating, too scary, I use “it” as the bar for measuring my hesitation. If I can live through all that, I can do damn near anything I set my mind to. My mantra – If you can live through that, then don’t crouch in fear – get going!

The irony is that once I got across the bridge and made peace with a lot of things, I ended up in a school that is filled with kids who need high expectations, firm boundaries, and lots of understanding. Kids that need me to help them learn behavior skills and limits, teachers who need support with strategies and understanding these kids and their challenges, and parents who struggle to know what to do and look to us for help. My “it” wasn’t anything I would have chosen to go through, but the things I learned from my “it” might just be the something that I can use to help someone else.

And if that was the point of going through all that, . . . then I’m ok with “it”.

And I NEVER thought I’d say that.  Guess my “it” is still teaching me new things, even now.

What’s your “it” and how’s it driving your life these days? Please share! I’d love to hear from you.

The Other Side of the Bridge – Did we all make it?

A personal story of self-care 

We got an unexpected day off from school Thursday, thanks to winter storm #Hunter as it moved through Kansas. I decided it was time to spend some serious quality time on the t-shirt quilt I’m making for my oldest son, my marathoning Airman. I admit – I’ve been avoiding that quilt. You see it started a long time ago, in a place that now feels far, far away . . .

My sons were young and as they began to participate in activities, they collected t-shirts along the way. As a history buff, I sensed these were artifacts that I might want to do something with to mark the memories being made, and I started saving them. I didn’t have a plan in mind when I started. I just knew I should save them now and figure it out later.

Of course I had no idea “later” would be so far down the road. I collected and planned and then I returned to the classroom when my youngest entered Kindergarten. That slowed the crafting / creative side of me down a bit because teaching and the boys’ activities kept ramping up. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

Then the Army sent my husband on a one year unaccompanied tour to South Korea and that slowed things down even more. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them. My husband returned and then I had the opportunity to pursue a life dream of earning my Doctorate.   And that’s where the creative side of me got off the train. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was so focused on the professional-academic-data-research side of me – all things I have an equal passion for – but the creative part of me quietly exited stage left and faded to black. Professional challenges, boys in high school, then college and I never noticed it wasn’t there anymore. But the shirts kept coming and I kept saving them.

So two years ago, when I realized I’d reached the other side of the “bridge”, I began to take stock of myself and figure out what had survived and what was missing in my life. I made the New Year’s resolution to go back – go back and search for the things I loved and had abandoned or left behind along the way. Go back and find running. Go back and find my music. Go back and find gardening. Go back and find my creative self.

I decided the best place to start was to take stock of my craft room and get it organized again. As I started going through all my things, it began to remind me of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Everything was frozen in time exactly as it had been nearly eight years ago when I stopped. Projects in different states of completion, plans for new ones waiting to get started, materials sitting there ready for me to make something with them. It was stark, abrupt, and startling. I’d completely turned my back on this, and yet I hadn’t even realized what a large part of me was missing until I stopped and looked around. I knew my resolve to go back had to start here.

As I began organizing, I realized that although I had stopped pursuing that part of my life, life had not stopped. The t-shirts had just kept coming. I started sorting all those shirts into categories that turned into themes, and the themes turned into years of memories. At first I was curious, then I was alarmed, and finally I was overwhelmed and on the verge of a panic attack. I had saved enough shirts for twelve full size quilts – TWELVE!! That’s insane! TWELVE?! OMG! I’m never going finish. Maybe I shouldn’t even start this. Why did I start this? Oh yeah – balanced life, inner joy, and self-fulfillment. Seriously? Maybe I need to do some more breathing first. This is feeling a little like the jungle again. Maybe it’s just too late to go back?

As usual, this situation (and breathing) brought me to some reflection. As much as I’d wanted to reach this new professional destination (and now I wanted to bring myself back into balance) I never realized that everything would change – including me – along the way. I also didn’t realize going back would probably involve some effort on my part – not all of it sunshine and roses – to bring it up to the present. I had a decision to make, both literal and figurative: Do I truly go back and bring those lost things out of the darkness into the sunlight on the other side, or do I just leave them where they are and move on?

Everybody has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves; each choice has its own sacrifice and reward. Neither is right or wrong – just unique to you. For me, I decided that all the work that went into reaching one dream wouldn’t really have been worth it if the price were to sacrifice all the other creative ones in the end. When I took stock, I realized “we” didn’t all make it; some members of “team me” were still back there on the bridge. If this new destination were going to mean anything, I’d have to try to find as many of those lost team members as possible and bring them with me here in 2018.   So like Forrest Gump continually going back into the jungle and bringing out buddies, so I’ve decided to go back and bring all those things forward to join me where I am now. And that means tackling those quilts, one shirt at a time.

We tend to think of self-care as pampering, cozy, and comforting. But sometimes, self-care is caring enough about yourself to do the work it takes to be well and whole.   Sometimes that involves hard conversations with yourself. Sometimes it means sweat, sore muscles, a little frustration, and a bad word or two. Sometimes it’s the small voice that says, “I refuse to give up. I will start again tomorrow.” For me, it’s time to lace up and, as we say in running, go fish for the stragglers and bring them home.