It’s hard to reach adulthood without a memory that has been flash-frozen into your mind. Those events that place themselves prominently in world history and as markers or milestones on personal timelines sometimes strike with the power of lightning and leave a distinct, recognizable mark on all they touch.
Where were you when ___ happened?
There are dozens of possibilities with which we can fill in the blank in that question.
In the past 30 something years, my list has grown to include: the collapse of the skywalk at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, a dynamite explosion I actually heard that killed a group of firemen responding to a scene about 20 miles from where I lived, the Challenger, Columbine, Sandy Hook, 9/11, and the deaths of my dad and grandparents.
This blog has had virtual radio silence since one of those kinds of events for me last spring. I spoke / wrote somewhat professionally at first, but then the shock wore off, and I experienced a series of unrelated disappointments. I no longer knew what to say about things no words could explain, and I didn’t have it in me to talk about anything else. It was summer, so I was out of routine, and I got flash-frozen into that moment, emotionally hovering there.
As I tend to do any time life is overwhelming and confusing, I turned to books as a mental hiding place. Sometimes it’s just easier to mute my own story and think about those of others. I recently finished All the Gallant Men: An American Sailor’s Firsthand Account of Pearl Harbor by Donald Stratton and Ken Gire.
I didn’t know (or didn’t remember knowing) there were so many warnings and signs that were disregarded by those in authority before the tragedy occurred. I suppose common sense could have told me about how isolated and even abandoned some of those aboard the Arizona must have felt, though I had never dedicated time to think about it. I admit I didn’t stop to wonder what life was like for those who survived or for the families who spent what must have felt like an eternity waiting for information about their loved ones. Reading this account was possibly the first time I understood the longevity of how the event ripples through our country’s history and culture– and how it probably always will.
Looking back, I can think of events that have happened in my career that have similarly moved waves of influence through the following years. Some overlap with societal ones– Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, while others are more personal to me– deaths of students, moments of epiphany, and successes despite overwhelming odds for failure come to mind. One that will follow me until the ink dries on my retirement papers is the classroom invasion that occurred last April. As a result of my reading, I now know it has numerous things in common with the Pearl Harbor attack– fortunately with a more positive outcome.
When Pearl Harbor happened, America went to war.
I didn’t and don’t have that option, mostly because…well, war inside a classroom isn’t such a good thing. However, it’s also not an option because the enemies in this case were and are abstract concepts– deliberate deceit (by someone else) and a need for improved tolerance/race relations in our student body.
I spent a huge percentage of my summer flip-flopping between trying not to think about it at all (impossible) and obsessing– what could I as one person who is relatively new to the school do to affect change? I am the Queen of the Introverts. Can I really influence the paths those ripples take in this and the coming years? Can I make good come from this lightning strike?
Four years ago, in an unrelated incident, I told a student who was frustrated with class that I didn’t intend to have a personality transplant, and honestly, that’s still not a viable option. Writing a blog is about as “putting myself out there” as I can comfortably go. I shy away from confrontation and am an avid subscriber to the ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure approach to life. I’m just not a person who is bold enough to confront things very often. Ironically, it was confronting a wrong that was the invasion’s catalyst. (Negative reinforcement much?)
So, where does that leave me?
First, I think it means I stay true to who I am. I work deliberately each year to build a safe classroom environment. I conduct disciplinary conversations as quietly and privately as possible to both model respect and coach toward correction. Students tend to be more receptive when I do things that way, and that won’t change. I also methodically build in cooperative structures in order to have students interact with one another safely and respectfully. That will stay a part of my routine too, but with an added reason now. It’s hard to build tolerance and acceptance for people you simply don’t know. My students need that. Additionally, I offer choices in as many ways as I can. Life sometimes feels out of control when you’re a teenager. Safe choices give the illusion of control and can go a long way in building both trust and self-efficacy. Those are things that are all worth preserving.
I think that rather than outright change, there are ways in which I can comfortably shift. As previously mentioned, I am an avid reader. Part of my persona in the classroom is to be a walking, talking commercial for books. I can choose to deliberately turn the focus toward books about tolerance and acceptance, issues of social justice, race relations, and diversity. Blessing these titles and making them readily available opens the door to thoughts and conversations that can impact behavior and, in turn, culture. This only requires me to exercise mindful choice in which titles I promote. It’s a shift in which I know I can succeed.
Last, I can look for opportunities to grow and stretch. The man who wrote his account of Pearl Harbor walked away with numerous painful burns that inevitably scarred. It took a long time and a lot of dedicated effort to repair those wounds so they might heal. Sometimes this involved painful stretching of those large skin grafts. As a teacher and a human being, I need to remember that growing and stretching can sometimes be uncomfortable in the short term, but they come with long-term rewards. Problems don’t get better by sitting unaddressed, and uncomfortable topics and conversations don’t get easier by letting time pass. As the adult– or maybe even as the colleague– I might need to push myself slightly past the point of comfort in these areas so that all of us can grow. I also have to tell myself it won’t always be met with a negative outcome, and it was still worth trying even if my words don’t take root in others.
The narrator of the war memoir eventually voluntarily re-enlisted for active duty and returned to be stationed in Hawaii. There’s never been any question in my mind about whether or not to return to my teaching post (although numerous people inquired whether I would), but that man’s choice gave me great pause. He didn’t just go back and face his fears. He almost lost his life and overcame nearly insurmountable odds then chose to go back, influence others, and make what difference he could. He could have stayed at home, and no one would have questioned it. Yet, he willingly chose to take the more difficult path through life. He chose to be an upstander, not a bystander or spectator.
This incident has undeniably changed me. It will probably always be my personal Pearl Harbor, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a tragedy. It can become a legacy instead.
The conclusion to the story of my career has yet to be written, and there is still plenty of room for it to become one about a character who finds her voice, overcomes her trepidation, and triumphs in the end. That’s the story I want it to be– a story of someone who cared enough to quietly make a difference.