Saturday, February 27, 2010

Seinfeld, Facebook and a Self Divided

George Costanza could never be on Facebook.  One of my favorite moments with George on Seinfeld is when he talks about how he cannot have the George he is with his fiance -- Relationship George -- come into contact with the George he is with Jerry and friends -- Independent George. "A George divided against himself," he proclaims, "cannot stand!" To have his worlds collide would cause a catastrophic explosion in George's estimation, killing Independent George.

One of my relatives is feeling the same way about Facebook.  She has decided to remove herself from it because of her discomfort with the access she has to people's lives.  Being only a few clicks away from knowing specific details about the lives of perfect strangers is disconcerting to her.  Plus, she is not thrilled about her work "friends" mingling with her church "friends" -- these are spheres of her life she'd rather keep separate. This is one of many reasons why I probably will never see my mom on Facebook.  The thought of acquaintances from thirty years ago traipsing through her page and seeing pictures of her and her family turns her stomach. Although the benefits are certainly there, she would not want to sacrifice her privacy for them. I respect these attitudes and understand how this change in how people interact with one another can be disturbing for those who have been able to experience privacy through most of their days.

Even though some people might turn away from social networking, with Facebook boasting millions of members, it is quite likely that each of us will eventually face these issues and have to find some kind of harmony among the spheres of our lives.  Easy access and the addictive fascination with social networking make separating these various spheres of our lives very difficult. Is this going to result in more authenticity?  We are losing the divide between public and private; will we be left with truth?

Somehow, I doubt it.  In fact, the ease with which we can create an online persona and the lure of being something online that we are not in real life may prove to be too strong.  Having lived in a world without status updates and profile pics, I am able to see how the way we present ourselves to the world has changed with technology.  My students, however, have never existed in a world without a digital thread.  Because of this, I believe my students will have an even more difficult time discovering their unique voices and sense of self. By trying to capture who they are in an "About Me" page and not having space to privately explore their identities, their vision of who they are must experience levels of distortion more profound than what adolescents have experienced in the past. For me, this is even more support for why I need to think carefully about how I interact with my students both in the real world and in the online universe. 

As a teacher, I have always felt the tug-of-war between home life and school life. How much of my personal self do I share with those whom I teach?  On an educator's list-serve I subscribe to, a recent hot topic has been teachers who are reprimanded, suspended or even fired for controversial postings to social networks.These are situations where the teacher is engaged in legal, but what some feel is questionable activity, such as drinking with friends or hugging a stripper. Some feel consequences are necessary, while others believe that what a teacher does on her private time is her own business as long as it is legal.  Should teachers be held to a standard that is different than what those in other professions may have?  Does being a teacher have to play a role in how I behave and define myself in my private life?  Does a private life actually exist anymore?

Ultimately for me, the question becomes, what message am I sending to my students with my behavior? What choices am I making and what values do those choices represent? I am careful about what I write on Facebook, what pictures are posted and what cyber-trail I am leaving. I do not live my life in fear of what others may find, but instead try to be conscious of the online image I am crafting of myself and ensuring that it is in harmony with the person I strive to be in the real world.  When 120 teenagers look to the front of a classroom each day and see me, I want them to find more than someone who knows how to write a compound sentence; I want them to see someone who models for them a way to live.

I am not Teacher Stephanie and Independent Stephanie, selves divided who cannot co-exit.  I am just Stephanie, trying to live without fear of colliding with myself, trying to live a life of truth.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I Am the Tree

I have accepted that I am the tree. 

When I was young, I thought I was the bird.  Don't we all?  I imagined myself on the opposite coast, a fashion designer in New York.  Or in another country, a novelist in London.  Even once I was certain my life was called to teaching, I daydreamed myself in Portland classrooms, Austin classrooms, Atlanta classrooms. I thought to be educated and to be grown up was to fly to another place and begin anew, an identity untethered by my past.

But that was not to be.  So here I am, a girl who loved school who is now in school every day.  A girl raising her family in the same city that raised her.  At times, that has made me discontent.  I have wondered -- why didn't I go?  Who would I be if I had?  Is it too late?  I tend to envy wings the most as graduation nears each June.  My students, whom I love and of whom I am incredibly proud, tend to be birds.  And graduation signals that they are just about to take flight. Often, a piece of me wants to go with them.  Their lives are full of such potential, such possibility, so much left to be written. 

As a teacher, I sometimes feel like I am standing still while the world zooms past me.Yes, in the 54 minutes I have each group of students in my class, we do some inspired work -- sophisticated writing, provocative reading, thoughtful discussion -- but once the bell rings, they are up and out the door, on to the next subject, the next teacher, the next assignment.  And once those caps are tossed into the air, they are up and on their way again.  But not me.  I remain. Out of comfort or compulsion?  I am not always sure.

This week, my students and I have been reading Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, focusing particularly on the role that time and place play in Tess's life.  Also, we read a blog post by Jim Burke in which he discusses the sequoia redwoods and their ability to shift themselves into odd shapes in order to find the light they need to survive and thrive.  We talked about Tess and whether the concept of thriving is even one she would be able to understand given the setting of the novel.  And then I had to ask myself the question, what light am I seeking in order to thrive?

When I began teaching, I had an article published in California English titled, "It's a Pirate's Life for Me" which discussed why I loved teaching and how the search for treasure and the unpredictable, wild seas kept me engaged.  I believe if I were to rewrite that article now, I would have to use a different extended metaphor. I am not on a journey in the classroom.  I am not seeking a buried chest of jewels; I am reaching for what is illuminating and holy.  I am grounded here -- in a discipline, in a school, in a community.  My roots run deeply into a soil which has nourished and supported me. 

 It was then that I realized, I am the tree.  I am where all those little birds break free from the confines of their shells and chirp from their  nests.  I thrive by being a place for others to tuck themselves away for a few months, but also a place providing them with a perch and a view.  As they grow, they become able to stand on my branches, wings at the ready, and I can feel their tiny toes gripping me anxiously.  Tentatively, they let go, some more capable than others.  After a few seconds, they drop back into my branches to rest and then try again.  Once they have mastered the art of flying, I know I will likely not see them until the seasons have turned, but I hope for them to return, if only to light upon a branch and tell me about the wonders of the world they have seen.  Each time they come to me, I will be here. Another ring of circumference may be marking my insides, but my arms will be another foot closer to the sun.

We learn not only by going, but also by staying and stretching ourselves toward new understanding.  By doing this, we are strengthened and able to provide shelter to those who need it while they ready themselves for flight.

While I may have known this intellectually, I am finally learning with my heart that we each have our own purpose.  The birds need the trees.  Plus, aren't the redwoods one of the seven wonders of North America?  I'll take that.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Queen of Silver Linings

A couple of weekends ago, I was with my Academic Decathlon team at our first Saturday of competition.  We arrived at the hosting school at 7:30 am and the temperature had not yet reached 50 degrees.  Two of the girls from the team and I were walking around the campus trying to locate the rooms in which they would deliver their speeches.  We were all three shivering and making comments about how it would be nice to feel our toes again someday.  "At least it isn't raining," I said. (At the following week's competition we would not be so lucky!) One of the young ladies responded, "Oh, Mrs. Elliott, you are always the optimist."

Lately, I have begun to refer to myself as the Queen of Silver Linings.  In some respects it is a title I claim with pride.  I like being the Pollyanna of the group.  I like believing that no matter how difficult a situation is that God's plan is to prosper me.  I like turning someone else's sour perspective around so that she can enjoy the sweetness life offers. Not surprisingly, when I look for the good, I often see the good.

However, being the Queen of Silver Linings comes with its own share of challenges.  I can be irritating.  People need to wallow sometimes, and when I chirp some sweet tune, they don't want to hear it.  I can also be ineffective.  When I am the person who always looks on the bright side, who always thinks things can work, who always is willing to give new ideas a try, then my opinion becomes less valuable.  And even worse than being ineffective, I can also be wrong.  As much as I attempt to convince a student that he can do well in a particular class or encourage a colleague to take her concerns to someone with whom she's had a conflict, those situations do not always end in the way I'd hope.

But I think the most difficult part of being the Queen of Silver Linings is wearing the crown.  It is awfully heavy and makes one quite noticeable.  Though finding the good comes naturally to me,  it causes me an undo amount of fear.  I think I try so hard to focus on the positive because I don't want to face the negative; I don't have the confidence in myself to be assured that I can actually survive the negative.  I also feel substantial pressure to be the one who keeps her spirits up and helps others to focus on the positive.  My family, my friends and my students often look to me for the reassurance that everything will be okay.  And as much as I smile and find ways to make them believe it will be, inside I am crying out for the same reassurance myself.  I wonder if being the Queen of Silver Linings is worth it and consider handing the title over to someone else.

Last night, the Academic Decathlon Team attended the Awards Banquet.  We didn't win as many medals as I was hoping for and we didn't place as highly as I had imagined we would.  Each time I think about those kids and how hard they worked and what incredible people they are and how much they deserve to be recognized for their efforts, heaviness clouds up my heart.  Part of me, a bigger part than I would like to admit, wants to immerse myself in the "we should haves" and "why didn't Is," wants to be upset and defeated.  But each time one of those thoughts tries to color my heart, I imagine that little crown on my head.  And I know that the right thing to do is to push away the weighty shadows, and allow the sunlight to appear.  We had a number of students earn individual medals and we won first place in math.  I want those students to enjoy their accomplishments and inspire us to do even better next year.  I want them to have spirits of joy and hope, not pessimism or fear.

So, I smiled and I hugged and I patted them on the back and told them time and again how proud I was of them, because I really am.  They smiled in return, patted each other on the back and contemplated what ice cream shop they should go to for a celebratory treat.  I realized, heavy crown or not, it's good to be Queen.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tarantino and Chivalry

On more than one occasion, I have relayed to my students that I was not a girl who received much attention from boys in high school. This topic often arises during College Week at my school which is a time when teachers share about their college experiences with their students.  Inevitably, I recount the numerous times in college when guys would literally elbow me out of the way so that they could speak to my roommate.  High school had been no better and I am quite confident that I spent many an evening wishing for more attention from the opposite sex. I longed for romance.

Now, in my house full of men, I realize the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for!" is true.  It is not uncommon when I arrive home in the evenings for all three of my sons to overwhelm me with hugs and kisses.  Another familiar sight in our home is me in our over-sized chair with each boy sitting on or sidled up next to me.  Combine the affection of my boys with the advances (welcomed, of course!) of my husband and it is clear that I am no longer undernourished when it comes to male attention.  When people ask me if I hope to add a baby girl to the family (and of course I would!) a part of me is saddened by even the most remote chance that I may not always be the only girl in my family.  Not only that, but I am really into raising my boys,  and keeping in mind that I am raising future men, men who someday will have relationships and need to know how to treat women. 

While I consider myself a feminist, I still believe that chivalry is a quality we should develop in our boys.  This may come in actions we readily associate with chivalry, such as carrying a girl's books to class. This rarely occurs anymore -- which given the size of textbooks and the 7-minutes-only passing period -- I can sort of understand.  But I see young women all the time carrying heavy boxes or moving large furniture without guys stepping up to help.  I want to teach my boys to be the ones who notice when a girl has her hands full and I want them to be the ones who take her books, or the box, out of her hands.  When someone does that for me, it makes me feel good, safe, and special.  That's how I want my boys to make girls feel.

Chivalry can come in other forms as well.  Recently, my husband and I were watching a Tarantino film together.  We are Tarantino fans, especially appreciative of his use of dialoue and music.  But with any Tarantino flick comes the violence.  Usually, I can brace myself for that and even see the artistic purpose and value.  However, on this particular night I was tired and a bit edgy.  As the first violent scene of the movie began, I turned away and looked at the back wall.  I stayed like that until I was sure all of the gunshots and massive injuries were over.  Though I would have continued to watch the movie, my husband could see how agitated I was.  And even though he really likes to be able to watch movies together, and we had been waiting months to watch this one, and he had been planning all day for us to have a movie night together -- he stopped the film.  "Maybe you could blog tonight," he suggested.  He was not upset or irritated, he was being protective of me and my emotional state.  He was taking the box from my arms, giving me time to be alone and time to think and create.  My heart fluttered. 

This is romance.