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Standing Alone, Together.

Updated: May 2, 2020

"I'm stupid and suck at school."

That was how my conversation began during my first session with a new student. I met his mom at our local library with a stack of books on how to improve reading. After 10 years in the school system, this woman's son had zero confidence in anyone's ability to help him, including himself. He was failing a bunch of classes and his mom was at a loss as to how it happened. I asked if he had an IEP, Individualized Educational Plan, holding schools legally accountable for the academic needs of students, and discovered her son's academic support had been dropped in 9th grade. Like many kids with invisible disabilities, it had been decided this young man just wasn't motivated in school. It was hoped he could outgrow his learning struggles, but that would be like asking a blind person to try harder to read a book. My student was motivated, but it had nothing to do with academic work. His motivation was to avoid looking stupid at any cost. At the end of our meeting, I was able to convince this young man that he wasn't the problem. The problem was that everyone believed he was the problem and he had given up hope. I assured him we would take time to discover and reveal how he learned and how he made sense of learning. I assured him it was possible to be successful. I knew I was right; my own life proved it.

The broken pencil of frustration.

One day I got an email from this student's math teacher. She was very concerned that he had an outburst and broke his pencil in class. When he had asked a question, the teacher criticized how he asked it. In frustration, he broke his pencil and was sent out of class. I asked the teacher to repeat for me what happened and after the third pass answering my question, the realization hit her. He did something brand new, HE ASKED A QUESTION! Instead of seeing his effort and willingness to possibly look stupid in front of his peers when he raised his hand, he was corrected for how he sought help. The outcome of that risk was not only getting in trouble but also missing the last 15 minutes of class. Even if he had stayed in the classroom, he wouldn't have retained anything new because he was already at the fight or flight phase of his frustration. No one won that round, and that's a fight everyone should have been cheering him on to win.

I'm not lazy, I'm in pain.

I never struggled with academics in school, but I suffered from foot pain and breathing issues. I remember crying as a little girl that my feet hurt when we'd go for a walk at the park. "She's just lazy." It was discovered my hips were not aligned when I was born and I was in pain. The conclusion though was that I was lazy. I played soccer for 8 years and it wasn't until after my dad left, that breathing was hard for me. The summer my dad left, I developed exercise-induced asthma.

I had gained 50 pounds over the next school year and was really depressed. I interpreted my physical need for air as a result of being fat and lazy. I didn't admit it, but looking back to that time in my life, I can see when I began to hide. People addressed my weight; my attitude; my choices, but not ONE person discussed my pain. Some kids act out in anger. Some kids isolate and shut down. I didn't do either. I showed up and set out to prove myself to everyone that they were wrong. When I was seen inaccurately, I just took that hurt and hid it inside. It was safe and well secured under the comforting bite of a peanut butter cup or crackers and cheese.

The greatest fear isn't been seen... it's being seen inaccurately.

Like my at-risk students, people saw the outcome of the pain I survived. They could see I was gaining weight and was visibly angry, but few took the time to discover why. The truth is I couldn't figure out why I was hurting until I saw I wasn't the problem. I had problems that hurt me and no one knew. No one really knew my dad was an alcoholic, even me. I didn't discover I had the laundry list of ACOA traits until I was 24 years old and was at a training for my at-risk students. The day I discovered I wasn't the problem opened me up to the possibility that maybe there is a solution to my pain. By this time, I was fully convinced I was just lazy and would always be fat. Much like my students, I expected others to see me inaccurately and it was too painful to try another way if I had to do it alone.

Standing alone, together.

I remember a chat I had with one of my former students who had remained in contact with me long after I had taught her. We had reconnected and she and I had bonded closer than friends, we were sisters. I met Diana in my first year teaching at an alternative school. I taught her when I was pregnant with my first child. She felt safe with me because I didn't see her as broken, I just saw her. Her dad had more severe issues than my dad did, her mom had more severe issues than my mom did, but we both shared one thing in common, the hope that we could rise again. We know better than to assume that what we show is anything close to what is hidden in the shadows of our little hearts. Our stories allow us to see the parts of us that stand alone. Our hearts are what allow us to love and stand alone, together.

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