Softening the Shell

by beccaborrelli


My first year of teaching, I learned a hard lesson.

It started with a lesson I wrote on graphic design. I decided to use CD booklet art that was rapidly becoming retro, as a way to engage Third Graders. On the intro day I played a music video to initiate conversation on pairing images with lyrics. I wanted students to think about meaning behind words- nothing esoteric- just how words and images send messages, evoke feelings and make us think.

The main character in the video was a boy, showing various ages in his life when he was afraid or challenged. In hindsight the lesson was over their heads- I was a few months into my first real world teaching experience- I was overly ambitious.

Even still, the kids seemed to love it. I went home that day feeling like I had done something important, that I was exploring a vein of my teaching that was deeply meaningful to me and the students.

The next morning I received an email. The music video I showed had deeply upset one of the mothers. We scheduled a meeting.

***

There are cultural norms that take time to learn. The fear an American might feel being plopped down alone in Zimbabwe, was akin to the fear I felt my first year teaching. I didn’t know the school’s language yet, I wasn’t versed in the ways to carry myself, to interact with other teachers, parents or even the students. Unconscious norms can only be learned when immersed in a culture, and there hadn’t been time to embed these norms into my understanding. I hadn’t taken a university class: “Meeting with Mad Moms” to prepare me for this. Some things in life can’t be taught in a classroom.

I arrived at the meeting nervous but also hopeful- hopeful we would clarify misunderstandings and communicate- I would see her side, she would see mine. A few moments into the conversation, I began to realize our goals were different. Looking back, I can see at least 3 dozen ways I might have done better. Such is life. At the time I was a bull in a china shop, desperately trying to say the words to make her appreciate me and my work.

***

“One of my goals was to expose children to popular culture and have them think thoughtfully about it in the classroom setting, rather than be passive consumers as if they were casually watching at home.”

“This isn’t age appropriate. Eight year olds are too young to think thoughtfully on this type of thing.”

“Well… I think we have different opinions.”

“How old are you? Do you have children?”

“No…”

“Right… well then I think that might explain why you think this is appropriate.”

So the conversation continued like this. I realized early on she didn’t respect me. I was a child to her. To her credit, I certainly didn’t command respect. I had entered the meeting hopeful we would discuss her concerns, but over the course of our discussion, it seemed more and more about venting anger. Anger at my age. Anger at my inexperience. Anger at my ineptitude. Anger at my rampant liberalism. Anger that I had exposed her child to inexperience, ineptitude, and liberalism. It seemed that she wanted me to apologize for having the audacity to be someone she couldn’t understand…

Myself.

***

A few weeks later I approached one of my principals to tell her about the meeting. I was concerned other parents would view my lesson as inappropriate.

She listened as I unleashed pent up frustration. She said many things to me, most of which have long been forgotten. Yet I will always remember this one thing:

“Situations like this, compounded over a career, are what make teachers hard. They build up a shell to keep out the bad stuff. The problem of course is then the good stuff can’t get in either.”

I think about her advice to this day. I think about it when my posts get an angry edge. A sarcastic drone. A bitter snap. I think about it when I hear of teachers on anxiety medicine. I think about it when I read the raging battles between politicians and educators. I think about it when a student becomes an unfortunate victim of my frazzled nerves.

This is life. Faced with thousands of opportunities each day to become harder or softer- it seems modern society urges us toward the former. When I read articles on ed policy, when I read theory in practice for school, when I philosophize on the meaning of it all: mad mothers, Arne Duncan, or capitalism, I feel the shell thicken.

***

“I want you to meet someone” said my professor. “She was a student of mine five years ago, and she started her own art school.”

I email this student. She’s my age. She believes the things I believe… more than that, she started her own school. After two weeks of knowing each other I am helping write lessons for her summer camp, and formulating a fall class to teach. I am bewildered, excited and intensely happy.

It is during late night lesson writing- as I’m formulating my ideas to email her- that it hits me. When I do this work… When I think about the implications… when I think about getting in front of shining faces… When I think about listening to their ideas, and watching them create magic out of crayola… I feel a distinctive sensation…

My shell softening.

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