Monday, June 15, 2015

Toughness Lessons? No Thanks. (A Manifesto)

“Why do we spend our lives trying to be something we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted? Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we are made for?” Thomas Merton

In The Muppets (the Jason Segel one) there’s a moment at the end of Rainbow Connection where Animal, who hasn’t been able to drum the whole movie because of anger management treatment, just gives in to the muse and bangs the shit out of the drums. At that moment, my dear ex-wife leaned over and said “Aw, he achieved his telos.” In case you’re not a philosophy major like her, telos is the thing you were made for. Yesterday I had an Animal-achieving-his-purpose kind of day.

I had training for summer camp yesterday. I’ve worked at the art camp, mostly part time as a poetry teacher, for four years. This year, I signed up for full time even thought they weren’t planning to do poetry.  But then they decided to do poetry! I know it’ll get squirrelly when it’s time to put on the play, but it’s such a relaxed, happy place to work—diverse, kind, and queer friendly. There was even a part in the training where the management told staff, in no uncertain terms, that they are to respect little boys who wear dresses, and to be sensitive with pronouns.

The team skews young, but the music teacher is close to retirement age and kind of old school. When I told her a little about what had happened at the school, she said “Oh, Miss Jane, I’m gonna have to give you toughness lessons.” Though I shut her down pretty unequivocally, she still proceeded to give me an example wherein she told a child she could “Squash him like a bug.”

“Just stop,” I said, trying to be cool. “You don’t know that school.”

“But I know hood rats.”

Now, she’s African American so I guess that makes it less offensive, but I am unspeakably angry to know in my heart that that often when people have told me I’m “too nice,” they mean “Too nice for poor black kids.” The number of times I’ve heard them disparaged, that I’ve been condescended to about it, the number of times I’ve had empathy mistaken for weakness,  the number of times I’ve been told to get a thicker skin, has caused me an enormous amount of stress and sorrow. I’ll never forget the day last winter that my grade partner, who I looked up to and loved so much, went off on me for giving our students “praise they don’t deserve.” A mostly-praise classroom tone was the official policy of the school (and of my heart) but policy isn’t any match for what’s already expected, what’s been expected for generations. Everyone saw me how they saw me, everyone sees the kids the way they see them, and it will take me the rest of my life to write out the pain of that.

Though my music teacher friend meant to be protective and certainly didn’t mean to open a wound, I’m glad she did. I’ve never realized more deeply what a destructive waste it’s been all this time to fight being sensitive, to fault myself for the thick skin that never seemed to grow. I’m very sad about the times I conformed and  tried on that authoritarian armor, and I’m glad soul-sickness made me take it off for good.

The idea that I need to be tougher is bonkers for two reasons. First, anyone who really knows me understands just how resilient, how stubborn, how passionate, what an immovable force I can be. In addition to the sizable amount of strictness I can actually sneak into my handing-out-stickers ethos, I’ve pulled myself through traumas, crossed boundaries, made connections and lived deeply in ways that most people would have shied away from. Yes, I can be really fragile and crappy at life a lot of the time, and I have plenty of regrets, but I’ve turned nearly every mess into art by having compassion, faith, and creativity. I’ve made change at times when I was expected to have no voice, in situations that seemed (okay sometimes actually were) impossible. I may have failed to keep teaching the population I wanted to serve, but while I was there I brought peace and love every day into places most people would be afraid to go.

The fact that my game face happens to be an adoring smile doesn’t mean that I’m weak, it means that I am ale to reach through the ugly, rotten, violent noise of the world and see goodness, see love.

The second reason “toughness lessons” don’t make sense is that sensitivity is a resource. Being a delicate little seashell may limit the number of hours I can work or the number of insults I can field without taking it personally, but it also allows me to feel more deeply, to see and hear and feel details that others might deem unimportant. The best thing is that I get to empathize with people that others might dismiss, and that above all else is what makes me a teacher. It makes me feel beauty and gratitude and love so deeply that yep, I’m often overwhelmed, but I’m also amazing at the art of being alive.

There were no toughness lessons at camp. After lunch, breathless and nervous but sure I knew what the heck I was talking about, I got to give the training in positive behavior support and de-escalation—I gave a sensitivity lesson. We practiced shouting out each others’ awesomeness, praise-only corrections, rewards instead of punishment. We got to practice taking a breath before we speak, using active listening, giving someone space when they’re upset. I told everyone to remember these two things for the rest of their lives:

1. At least 10 positives for every negative.
2. Use a soft voice.


They were already so nice that I cut the training almost in half. I can’t believe how at home I felt. This is me. I was nervous, but I taught, and everyone learned. I don’t know what my job will be when the summer is over, but I know that I will teach, and I know that I will always be strong enough, because I have the most powerful thing in the universe—fiery, bubbly, witchy, goddess-y, sparkly LOVE. (Also, stickers.)

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