I hate it when you’re right

I slept anxiously last night. The snow began falling before I’d left work, and by the time I stepped out to get my haircut, the roads were disastrous (thankfully, I only have to walk across the street). By nightfall, already a few dozen schools had closed.

So I tossed and I turned and every thirty minutes I opened my phone, checking the time in case I’d overslept, and then checking the school closings: the number steadily grew and grew and grew until, at 7 o’clock, I could wait for it to be called no longer: I was going to work today. So I got dressed (my poor little puppy crying as I did so, because she always knows when I’m going to leave), and then met the bus.

Surprisingly, the buses were on time. That, however, was the only surprise.

The rest was as predicted: Milwaukee Public Schools should have closed today.

The roads were awful, and they remain awful: not a single road was plowed, nor have they been, with the heavy snow continuing until only an hour ago. Even now, though far lighter than before, the snowfall continues.

So needless to say, about a third or a half of our students are absent today.

And by extension, the test I had scheduled never happened. Why give the test today when half the class will have to take it tomorrow?

This proved a small blessing, however, because it allowed me to talk with a few students one-on-one for a length of time longer than class usually allows.

And, damn it, Brene, I hate it when you’re right.

If you read my last post about not being enough, and vulnerability, and all that, those uncomfortable things I’m discovering as I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, then you already know that I’m taking that book slowly because I need time to let things sink in. Well, if they haven’t sunk in by now, I must be drowning.

It began yesterday, really. I had a good long conversation with a student who’s going through some depression at the moment. Listening to him describe his lack of motivation, his feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, his inability to ask for help because it just makes him feel so ashamed of himself, it reminded me of all the times I’ve been in that place in my life–and trust me, it was a lot. Years of counseling and a few prescriptions that work for me have largely staved off the most severe symptoms of depression and anxiety, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say not a week goes by when I feel, at least for a moment, the lethargy of depression or the sleeplessness of anxiety.

Didn’t I mention how poorly I slept last night?

Neither of these things, however, has to be contained within the shame narrative Brene weaves for us, the shame-inducing and shame-shaming culture she illuminates: Depression can be a purely chemical problems in the brain. No shame required.

Then this morning I called over one student to talk about his focus (and lack of focus) in class. He’s incredibly talented, and when he applied himself before our last test, he scored a 100%. But he barely passed our other two exams, and missing assignments could cause him to fail the class. So I asked him, why? And I kept asking why until he couldn’t answer, and as I listened and prodded, Brene’s words rang loudly in my ears.

He was remarkably self-aware, and at one point he said, “You’re saying I’m insecure about failing, so I just give up so I don’t have to try.” I smiled, though with little happiness behind it, and answered, “I didn’t say that: you did.”

But that was the gist of our conversation: Failure makes him feel bad, and he’s always found things easy in the past, so now that it’s hard, he gives up. Because if he gives up and fails, he’ll feel better than if he tried and still did poorly or worse, still failed. So he checks out of class and goofs off with those around him. Then at the last minute he jumps into action, just barely getting by, but it feels okay, because he got there in so little time.

He said more than once that he saw things differently now, that I’d blown his mind.

So he went to work and I called over the next student. Same situation, but rather than talking with others, he tends to spend hours staring at a blank page without actually getting any work done. He was less self-aware than the first student, so it took some more probing questions, but it boiled down to the same endgame: being unsuccessful felt bad, so he avoided it, and because both these students are guys, and guys are always supposed to come out on top and never fail at anything, it felt worse for them.

(See also: toxic masculinity, which has nothing to do with men and everything to do what society says men are supposed to be.)

Because it was harder for my second kid to see it, I asked him about his interests, things he does for fun: he said he goes to the gym almost every day, so we started there. Is working out easy? Not always, but he said he’s confident he can do it, so he pushes through the challenge. But why didn’t he give up when it was hard at the start? Because he could move onto lighter weights to train more and knew he could move up to the other ones later. He knew, he knows, how to train muscles to grow.

So I told him learning is like a muscle: and just like you’re never gonna get ripped if you just stare at the weights debating if you can lift them or not, you’re never gonna learn math if you just stare at the worksheet debating if you can do it or not. You have to lift weights to build muscle; you have to attempt to solve a problem to learn math.

Of course, in a tiered educational system in which the weight of the class progresses every school year and you can’t opt in for an easier workout if you haven’t built the strength you need as quickly as your peers or as quickly as “you’re supposed to,” then what’s a guy to do? So I told him asking for help is how you lower the weights; using resources like solutions on Google Classroom or instructional YouTube videos are other ways you can decrease the weight to build up the mental muscle to do the math.

You can’t build muscle without struggling, so we embrace that struggle (and guys at the gym embrace it a lot: have you listened to their grunting? It’s like if they don’t make “manly noises” and broadcast how hard they’re lifting, there’s not really lifting at all). And you can’t learn something, and keep learning, without that same struggle.

And though he walked away understanding the analogy, I couldn’t cure him of the feeling that no matter how hard he tries in my class, it might never be enough to pass. I know he’s capable, but that doesn’t mean he believes it himself.

Then, news of my eye-opening conversational skills having spread through the classroom, another student came over and sat down, staring at me.

After a moment, I asked what was up, and she said, “I don’t know how I’m gonna pass physics.” So I pulled her over to my side of the desk to look at her grades, and not even looking at them, we started talking: It was, in almost every way imaginable, the third time I was having the same conversation today. Not being successful feels bad, so we run away and hide from the things that make us feel bad. We build walls that cannot be climbed, and rather than protecting us, these walls only hurt us.

(That’s not intentional political commentary, but it might as well be.)

She didn’t want to talk much about physics, so we ended up talking about her passion for dancing, and even when it’s hard, it’s what she wants to do, so she sticks with it. So then I wheeled us back to physics, and she was like, “I see where you’re going. You’re going to ask why I don’t bring that same mindset to physics.”

“No, that’s true, but I had something else in mind. How does physics make you feel?”

Angry, frustrated, irritated. I kept asking, and finally she was like, “I know you want to hear a different word, but that’s all I can think of.”

I sighed. “Anger often hides deeper feelings.”

She said, “Mind blown.”

“We get angry at things that make us feel insecure, inadequate, stupid.”

“That one,” she said, pointing a finger. “Physics makes me feel stupid.”

So she gets angry at it, the anger makes her give up, she stops trying so she doesn’t do well in class, she gets angrier, and the cycle continues.

I asked, “So are you angry at physics because it makes you feel stupid, or are you angry at yourself for feeling stupid?”

The look on her face said it all: and there it was, the shame of being made to feel “not enough,” the self-hatred from feeling that way, and the inability to be comfortable with vulnerability–the only passage through the murky swamps of shame, and the cold, unforgiving physics classroom she fears so much.

And then, like she said, I pulled dancing back into it: I showed her she’s already resilient, and she can adapt that to physics. Maybe she feels uncomfortable, but that’s okay. We can be comfortable in discomfort; it’s okay to feel bad sometimes. It’s part of being human. And the only way to overcome a challenge is to feel that discomfort and not turn away from it, but walk deeper into it until we emerge stronger on the other side.

Probably my students walked away thinking I’m some super incredible sage (said the first: “Are you a philosopher?” and later added, “If you need a side hustle, you should be a therapist.” To which I replied: “I don’t think you can just stand on a corner and say, ‘Hey, you wanna talk to somebody?'”), but the reality is I’m wading through the murky waters just as much as they are; I’ve only had a longer time to see what’s out there, to feel the muck splash on my face, to swallow it sometimes and taste its bitterness.

I don’t think I’m the only one responsible for making my students feel this way: the entire culture outside our classroom doors says that they are not enough and (because of their skin, their ability, their income, their citizenry, their sexuality) will never be enough, but if I can’t stop the rising tide of shame against them, am I any worse?

The challenge: I can’t teach vulnerability. I can’t lecture about shame to a classroom of thirty students. Yesterday and today, these were organic conversations that hadn’t been planned, but had been honest and raw. And while I’d like to think I’m always open to these encounters, the truth is they’re exhausting. They’re heavy and weighty and take it out of me. Some days I just don’t have the energy for them. Just writing that makes me feel inadequate and hopeless, makes me feel like I’m not enough for them.

But I am enough. Or at least I have to believe I’m not “not enough.”

I feel like I model making mistakes pretty well. My students certainly know I make enough of them! But in telling myself it’s important for math teachers to make mistakes so they can model problem-solving and correcting mistakes, I’ve grown confident in my ability to make a mistake and not feel terribly embarrassed. I no longer feel vulnerable adding incorrectly or writing the wrong thing on the board, but that’s what my students need to see modeled: vulnerability. If making a mistake were some discrete process, wherein they could make mistakes without feeling them, then seeing me do the same would be sufficient: but reality isn’t discrete, and students aren’t likely to make a mistake without feeling inadequate or upset or stupid because of it–and if I can’t model being vulnerable, how can I expect them to be vulnerable with me and their classmates and raise their hands and say, “Mr, I did it wrong, can you help me figure it out?”

I was working alongside the student I’d spoken with yesterday and as he did his thing on the computer, and I did mine, he stopped and said, “I think I did it wrong.”

I read the problem, looked over his work, and through asking pointed questions I helped him realize his mistake. He typed in his answer and the green “Correct” popped up on the screen. Then I asked him, “How did you know the first number wasn’t correct?”

It took him a few minutes to go from “I just knew it” to explaining that a negative number of years in an interest rate problem doesn’t make sense. I told him, “Other students might plug in the number and not know if it’s wrong until the computer tells them, but you realized that on your own. You were thinking mathematically.”

He nodded, feeling a bit more confident, and as he got back to work, I sat back and wondered what class might feel like if all my students felt comfortable enough being uncomfortable to ask for help a little earlier and persist a little longer.

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