Exactly Where You’re Meant to Be

“Moving on is easy. It’s staying moved on that’s trickier.” – K. Klemer 

Something strange is going on. It’s mid-August, and I am not in a flurry of butcher paper and books and PD’s. There’s someone new in that apartment on Wayne Avenue. I am not having a drink at Lou’s or Rock Bottom, nor am I breathing the fresh ocean air. Someone else is planning out how they will decorate the walls of 3085. There are new/different names on my students’ rosters.

And me? I’m sitting neck deep in social theory books from my pre-reading list for Cambridge, and running around securing funding for the start-up. 

They are two different lives. 

Today was the teacher retreat for the high school I used to work at in Miami. Even writing the phrase ‘used to’ feels strange, other-worldly. The summer felt normal, as I was on a break the way I would be during a normal school year, with a summer job to tie me over. But now that summer is coming to a close, and the number of texts and calls and emails I receive from students increases, the reality of not returning hits me just as hard as the initial physical leavetaking did in June. 

I have found over the years that there is a significant difference between wanting to go back to what you were doing because you honestly made a mistake with your new path versus the difficulty of continuing on the road of moving forward with new journeys. The two can seem and feel eerily similar. When remnants of the familiar float to the surface, it makes sense to grab at them for a variety of reasons. You may not feel like you were finished with your time in that place, you may not know what will become of those you left behind, or you may be filled with fear for the journey ahead. Or a combination of the three. I even want to insert myself into the narrative from my distance: Hey, read this book. What will you do with that student? Oh that’s so _____ to do that. But I’m no longer a central character in that story. I have to open the pages of my new novel, and archive the former. 

My life looks and feels much different now, but not in a bad way. I made the decision to leave, and I still stand by it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be on my new path. And I am very excited. I’m exactly where I’m meant to be. YOU are exactly where you are meant to be. 

Because at the end of the day, all decisions are rooted in truth and want–the truth of what you know you need to do and the want to go out there and find it. So you owe it to yourself to not just move forward into this new journey, but to reaffirm your decision each day by staying moved on and committed to this new way of being and doing and living. 

Advertisements

A Different Type of Signing Day

Today I was greeted with the news that anyone planning on not being at Northwestern in the fall would need to give in their letters of resignation. For many reasons, I did not want to have someone bring around a form to me to fill out and sign and I decided to fill one out online myself to print out. As I sat there staring at the form, the blank lines of reason for leaving stared back at me. Reason for leaving–that’s a loaded response.

I don’t think there could ever be a way to fully express all that I would put into that line, both positive and negative. I could talk about my reasons for leaving being my diverging vision from the literacy department at my school, or I’m leaving because the phrase ‘follow through’ has never meant less in a given space. But those are all lessons learned. All food for thought on any night when my mind churns about what real reform in our urban school systems could truly look like. And that too is reason for leaving I’m leaving because just as I want my students to continue to grow and learn, I too wish to do the same. I’m leaving because I need to seek out more solutions to the problems I have encountered, and I want those solutions to impact more and more students because I LOVE my kids.

But what does this letter mean in the scale of the word ‘resignation’? I haven’t resigned myself to the fact that education cannot be equal and meaningful and life-changing for all students across race, class, and gender in America. I haven’t resigned myself to the belief that intensive students will forever stay in that track and are incapable of the type of rigorous learning and work production as AP level students. I could never resign from relentless hope and and one day at a time optimism and hard work. And I would never resign from my students.

All it means is that I’m resigning from this current course–that my sails have shifted and caught the winds of change. But I won’t forget the harbor I have sailed from, nor the ones who helped me build the ship in the first place.

I began the work of slowly telling my students in small groups that I am leaving. It is by far one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and some are not dealing with it well. In the face of this confession, however, one voice struck a chord with me. One of my students James when asked by a close friend of mine in front of me how he felt about me leaving said that he was sad I wouldn’t be there next year, but that he wasn’t angry because I was leaving to pursue something that would better me and I was being a role model for them to do the same. He said that I was going so that I could help them and others more.

I know leaving can never be easy, never be a perfect cut of a chord, but if all my students can know deep down that I want my vision to be true for so many others and they would always be a part of it—leaving could at least hurt a little less, and mean a lot more.

You’re Gonna Miss This

You’re gonna miss this
You’re gonna want this back
You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast
These Are Some Good Times
So take a good look around
You may not know it now 
But you’re gonna miss this

I feel like it hits me like a ton of bricks.

I’ll be teaching and I’ll feel my heart contract and twist itself up in a tiny knot that pains my chest, while my eyes tear up. I’ll be hanging out with my friends and I’ll feel my breath catch in my throat, unable to speak in case breaking my silence shatters the moment and the future memory. They are all future memories.

It’s hard to imagine a life after this reality. What do I know now but the dimmed hallways of the reading wing of Northwestern or the afternoon vibes of Midtown and beach daze of South Beach? What do I know but the life of red ink stains and parent phone calls? I always knew that the process of leaving would begin. And it is a process. But I always forget just how fast it all unravels, just how quickly you go from the beginning to the end. I’d love to savor and cherish each moment. Put them in a capsule to view and feel forever, but they are fleeting. They are in the palm of my hand and gone the next second.

And as the days of May wind down and the Miami countdown goes from double digits to single digits, I wonder what it will feel like to actually physically abandon this place of home.

 

Time Out to Read

Whenever my environment had failed to support or nourish me, I had clutched at books  -Richard Wright, Black Boy

 

Today I caught up on my teacher email account. I was rewarded with an email that made me sit in my room crying with joy over the things one must always remember really matter. It said:

This school year has been very challenging for me. When you told me that I was reading on a eight grade reading level my heart was melting. Seriously. I love to read i really do, but lately i haven’t had enough free time to read anything I desire. Then, when you started letting us read in small group my reading level jumped from an ”8” to a ”10”. Thanks to you Ms. Younge I managed to increase as a reader and a student.

It always amazes me just how controversial it has been this year to run diagnostic reading tests and continued progress monitoring tests on my students this year. Moreover, those in charge have tried to push my back into corners over something that I thought would be the cornerstone of my class: reading. I am a reading teacher. I work with the lowest performing students in the building. Their issue is “simple”–they cannot read on grade level, so they struggle to perform on state standardized test that are on grade level texts. More than that though, when all a class does is prepare students for a 55 question multiple choice test, they obliterate the redemptive powers of literature. One of the reasons that Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy continues to be one of my favorite books of all time is because of the solace Wright found within the pages of the books he so dearly clung to when all around him his world fell apart. And through books, he was able to pick up the pieces and start a life for himself. And as he wrote, he found more of his self-worth and began making meaning for himself. Wright wrote, “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.” 

My students are feeling that gnawing sensation, the kind that makes you want to know more, to be more. The kind that makes you wonder if everything you have ever just swallowed should truly be what nourishes your mind. And it is in those moments that they connect the words on the pages to the words being written by their life outside the classroom that the lightbulbs go off and school ceases to be about memorizing useless facts and figures, but about something that connects to their daily experience–something that can help them reshape and redefine their existence.

So why then would I not want to help my students become the best readers they can? Why would I ignore the simple principle that to be a god reader, one must keep READING. So I give, untouched, each class those 25-30 minutes of independent reading.  I watch as my students lit up upon knowing that they were growing as readers, unlocking more potential than ever. And I think to myself that it was indeed a battle worth fighting, even if the battlefield seemed ridiculous.

I hope that as my students test this week and next that they will do their best. I know they will do their best. But more importantly, I know that they value, even if only just a little bit more, taking time out to read.

If You Come Softly, Part II

“And the rich between us shall drink our tears”

The most vivid instant message I can remember ever getting was senior year of college. It was the same year I thought that I could save someone from drowning and come back ashore unscathed. I was wrong, and I was marked, am marked by the tragedies of that year. On that night I remember receiving the message from my close friend pop up on my screen saying that he had come to the decision that life and living was not for him, and he was going to put an end to it, but he needed to know that I was going to be okay. Immediately I was frantically pulling on clothes and begging my roommate to come with me make sure that what I could never be okay with did not take place. My friend ended up being okay, and although there were rough patches on the road, he got the help he needed and the support he needed, and he made it. And I always tried to check in with him, remaining a listener and an observer on the journey.

I remembered this story because a student of mine came to me the other day and tried to come into class extremely late. I got annoyed and told her she would have to get another pass to get into class. The security guard brought her back, and I sighed and went outside to see what was wrong. She then told me she was in the bathroom sick all morning from the anxiety that has slowly started eating away at her daily routine this year. I instantly softened and asked her why she did not just say that to me. She replied, “I thought you would have gotten tired of me. Tired of my problems.” How could I ever grow tired of helping someone I love? But that’s what people think. They think their problems become the burdens of loved ones, without pausing to realize that the person’s love will lead them to want to be there for them in any way that they could.

Today I passed by the desk of one of my students who had written a suicide note that I had found in his homework assignment. It had been the day of my birthday dinner, and the starkest memory remains myself and that student standing on the steps of his home. I cried while I told him that I knew he was mad at me for telling others about this, but that I could live with that because if he were to hurt himself he would be hurting so many other people who loved him deeply. And today when I walked passed his desk I saw that he was reading a book: God’s Promise, for Every Day Life. I felt as though it was a sign for me and a sign from him as well.

I think he is going to be okay.

The Ingredients to Mutually Prevent Destruction

Again

I could feel the familiar mixture of

anger,

exasperation,

and sadness

at the slumped over head and shoulders,

conscientiously opting to twist the pen

between his relaxed fingers

instead of making them dance across the pages

of the bare and empty notebook pages.

I rest my hand on drooped shoulders

A split second thought to confront this

offense he deems as casual

But instead mark the encounter

with a verbal promise to address

the situation later.

And when the bell rings and

bodies shuffle toward the doorway,

stooped shoulders lethargically

gather themselves from their resting place

and make their way toward me.

“Ms. Younge?” he ventures in a tiny voice

that feels like it’s a million miles away

and begging for someone to help it return.

Eyes heavy with unshed tears flit quickly

toward my face and then away again.

Staring into the expanse of the room,

a slow, rattled breath is drawn in slowly.

And I simply wait.

“I guess…”

Take your time.

“I guess…”

You can tell me.

“I’ve been getting D’s and F’s for so long in reading

that I’ve convinced myself that I just can’t do it.”

Floored.

Breath forced out of me by a constricting chest

as my own eyes brim over with tears.

Had I become part of a cycle

that had broken down this young man?

Did the D’s and F’s from my class

Nail permanent marks of failure

onto the coffin of dead dreams of his life?

But all I could do for the moment was stand there,

thinking about how could I tell this student

that without HIM I would be lost.

There’d be no meaning to early mornings

and the way the heart can grow weary

with each days burdens brought on

by outside forces beyond my control,

or the struggles to just get some to understand

what it means for a child to have the gift

of reading and the rewards of knowledge.

That without his work, his effort, his dreams–

If he lost his will,

his belief that he can and will be better

I would have stopped convincing myself a long time ago

that all battles for my students were worth fighting.

 

I guess, too, that I would have stopped smiling–

 

But I can’t in this moment find the right words.

All that I could do was transcend the broken channel

of communication into action.

So I hugged him tightly to me.

And I told him that this year would be different,

that his grades were not a reflection of who

he was, but rather the effort he had convinced himself

so long ago was all he was capable of giving.

Though not a change I knew would happen overnight,

I hoped to plant the seed that if watered just right

Could formulate the right ingredients

to mutually prevent destruction.

 

 

“YOU MAY SIT BESIDE ME, SILENT AS A BREATH”

If You Come Softly

If you come as softly
As the wind within the trees
You may hear what I hear
See what sorrow sees.

If you come as lightly
As threading dew
I will take you gladly
Nor ask more of you.

You may sit beside me
Silent as a breath
Only those who stay dead
Shall remember death.

And if you come I will be silent
Nor speak harsh words to you.
I will not ask you why now.
Or how, or what you do.

We shall sit here, softly
Beneath two different years
And the rich between us
Shall drink our tears.

 -Audre Lorde

It has always been my friends who can sit there with me during tumultuous times and just be there with me that have allowed me spaces to begin healing. Sometimes all we need is someone to hear us, or someone to help us have a voice—empower them with the simple words, “I’m listening.” Today I sat in the hallway at two pulled together desks with one of my students that I had only been seeing sporadically in class. I knew something was wrong with her based on other teachers asking questions, and how her entire demeanor had changed through the course of the year. Today in class I could feel her eyes boring holes into my soul, and when we transitioned to small group, she asked if I could come outside and talk to her. And I knew she had finally reached a point where she was ready to open up.

I had heard glimpses of this student’s life through what she would share in her writing in class or during a Socratic seminar, but I learned more about her in those 45 minutes of concentrated listening than I had in all the other days I had stood in front of the class and taught her. I spoke very little, and touched her arm to ground her as she opened up. Her tears flowed freely down her face, with only brief moments taken to brush them away. She masterfully explained her emotions of the last few years of feeling that all her friends were dying, and not feeling safe. She described her battles to find happiness in life and knowing deep down that if she stays, she will drop out or worse. It was emotionally draining for me as I talked to her about next steps we could take to get her help, but no where near as emotionally draining it must be for a sixteen year old girl to wake up with that amount of grief and hopelessness on her shoulders. I didn’t push, and I didn’t pry. I let her set the boundaries of her personal story. I just listened. And I said a few words of reassurance that she would make it. I made sure not to make any promises that I could not keep, and I hugged her and told her I loved her. It was all I could provide in that moment, yet enough, all at once.

I know that student knows that I heard her, and that is what was most important. Because what had upset her most and her thoughts kept coming back to was how deeply pained she was that her mother did not believe her, or brushed off her situation when she tried to talk to her about it. Nothing hurts more than feeling the people who should be there for you, and hear your voice, have blocked out the sound of your true voice. Sometimes they are scared that they are part of why you are hurting, and other times they just feel so helpless themselves. Either way, I know it was a source of her feelings of isolation.

I’m trying to just be there, in just the same way that Audre Lorde’s poem says. I come quietly to my students, knowing that sometimes silent presence is necessary to ‘drink the tears.’ And they’ll find a means to cope–they are, after all, becoming roses that grew from concrete.

I think of this student today, and another one who once harbored thoughts of suicide but now comes a few days a week to me after school and speaks into existence the words of his life story while I ghost write it, so that others may one day truly understand him. He told me today that I give him a voice. But that’s not really true. I’m just sitting beside him, silent as a breath, and hearing him.