School has ended for the year. (*Whew*)
It was a great year. Moments were long. Months were short. At the end of every year, I have a tradition (all three years of my professional teaching life – I’m such a hack) of giving a “What Every Boy Needs To Know about Being a Man” speech.
As an English teacher, I have the privilege of teaching about Feminist Literary Theory. Every kid who comes through my classes can tell you that means looking at gender in stories, poetry, plays, and novels and asking “What does the gender of the character have to do with the outcome? With the attitudes of others? With the tone?” Therefore, every kid who heard my “What Every Boy Needs to Know about Being a Man” speech knew that Boy and Man are non-gender-specific. It’s just a great title (which I stole from Secondhand Lions).
Here is the short version of the speech:
Wilhite’s “What Every Boy Needs to Know about Being a Man” Speech, Version 2016
- You will not regret the actions that are prompted by kindness.
- We teach people how to treat us.
- The proper response to a compliment is eye contact and “thank you.”
- Everyone is going through something.
- Your stories matter.
- You have unlimited capacity for excellence.
Those who wanted to took home the preceding notes of the short version. The long version explained the short version. Such as, #1 — you may very well regret the consequences of all kinds of things, but the action? The kindness-based Thing you did? You shouldn’t have reason to regret the Thing.
And #2 — when you smile or growl, respond, react, or stand up for yourself, you’re teaching others how to behave toward you. I’m not always comfortable with that. Some people that I know treat me without any semblance of respect. But I recognize that I allow that to happen. There’s a lot of power in that understanding.
#3 went on for a while (surprise!), talking about how eye contact is a magnet for connection, and how when we “nahhh” at a compliment, we’re really saying, “you’re wrong,” and nobody every really wants to hear that.
#4 is mysterious and surprising to a whole lot of high school students, but once their eyes are open to the possibility that it’s true, they get a bit more empathetic.
5 is big in my creative writing classes, but also in my English classes — and for everyone. Tell your story. Speak your words.
The last one is a thing I’ve been working on a lot — developing and nurturing growth mindsets. It’s cool. And hard. But I can do things that are hard. (See? I’m already doing it.) Something I say at school (kind of a lot) is “I believe you can succeed in whatever you’re willing to work really hard for.” It’s interesting that some kids “succeed” in school without trying very hard, while others stretch and work and push to be moderate students. I want to redefine success for these “others” — to celebrate the B that came after serious revision and thought and fingers-to-keyboard time.
One of my students asked permission to post my list (made cute by her skills) on Pinterest. I smiled and said of course. I didn’t mention that I will never, ever see it there. I’m afraid of Pinterest. It has a tendency to allow me to feel bad about myself. So I stay away. Instead, I surround myself with happy-making things like delicious foods and good books and nice people and the sun and long walks up tall mountains.
And now the summer happens. Busy or lazy, full or quiet, hands on keyboards or turning pages of someone else’s books… I’m happy today.
I went to the world’s best [*] writing conference this weekend. There were many, many reasons to be joyful.
- I got to be with writer friends. Some of these are my most precious people I see only once a year. Some of these are my very favorite people that I get to see now and then. Some are new friends who make room for me in their hearts. Some are people I get to hang out with in other venues on some kind of regular basis. Some of them I run into at the movies or in Costco. Some of them do author visits at my school, or at my kids’ schools. Some of them are FAMOUS. All of them are kind, wonderful, gracious.
- My family is totally capable of living without me for DAYS at a time. They thrive without me. This is not an excuse for me to run away. It’s just a thrill that they all like each other and know how to wash their own shorts.
- I wasn’t in charge of anything. I didn’t teach a class. I didn’t emcee. I did have one tiny responsibility – I got to be in charge of the Teen Meet-Up, where I got to meet the (wait for it) teens who came to the conference and chat with them and listen to them talk about their writing… and introduce them to James Dashner, who was a total gentleman with them, making them all feel important as he talked to them about being a star (and called each of them by name).
- So much writing advice. I went to amazing classes where I heard talented, award-winning authors talk about character development, plot structure, story arcs, priorities, marketing, business, motivation, and determination. I listened to agents talk about what makes a story sing. I heard Brandon Sanderson read to us some original fiction… from his 8-year-old. It was about pill-bugs, and there was a twisty ending.
- I got re-energized. Re-excited. Re-vitalized to do this writing thing. I got inspired to go to work. I got eager to write beside my students — and (gasp) in front of them. I got ideas to finish my revision – and to start it in the right place. I had thoughts about genre. Genres. I had confidence, and wow — that’s worth the price of admission any day.
[*] ldstorymakersconference.com – this is the place. (Or will be, when it shows stuff for next year’s conference. Be patient. We just finished.)
I just had occasion to remember something.
When I was in 7th grade, (can you, reader, already feel the tension mounting? the horror building?) I had a co-ed PE class. (Now? Now can you feel it, reader?)
Just kidding. But I really did have a 7th grade co-ed PE class. One for which we “dressed out” daily. And there were various and sundry humiliations attached thereto. But I just want to tell you about this one day, this one moment, and the eternal fallout that it caused.
PE class was ending. I don’t remember what we did that day. Don’t remember what we played, but I know it was inside, so not golf or tennis or a mile run (all of which I did very, very badly). The moment was after that part. After going down into the girls’ locker room at Batesville Middle School and changing back into my dress. I don’t remember why exactly I was wearing a dress to school, but there must have been an occasion. I have always pretty much been a jeans-and-sweatshirts kind of girl. This dress, though. I remember it clearly. It had large pastel squares on it, like maybe 6-inch squares of pink and blue and light green and yellow and cream. (Do you remember, reader, that “cream” was totally a color in the mid-to-late eighties?) The dress zipped up the back. I fear it may have had a rounded collar, but that could be a misremember. I know it had a very, very full skirt. Like the kind that even at the mature age of whatever-I-was-in-7th-grade (12, of course), I couldn’t really help myself — I had to twirl. Not in public, necessarily. But for sure at home. It was an excellent twirling dress.
The dress also had a belt, because it was the 80s. The belt was wide and pink and vinyl/plastic. It flattered my 12-year-old waist. Oh, I loved that dress. And so. I wore it to school for whatever the occasion was. And at the end of changing time in PE, I walked back up the steps and into the gym.
7th grade PE was co-ed but divided (occasionally). The girls sat on one side of the gym, and the boys sat on the other. After changing back into our “street clothes,” we took our places on opposite sides of the gym and waited to be excused. I didn’t want to wrinkle my cotton dress, so I stood in front of the bleachers, facing the other girls, maybe talking to one of the Angies, maybe just waiting and listening and totally not twirling. Meanwhile, the boys were slouching on the bleachers opposite.
Could someone have told me? Could the knowledge have descended like a bolt of figurative lightning? Maybe the teacher tapped me on the shoulder. Maybe a creeping sensation caused me to check. I don’t know how I knew, but suddenly, I KNEW.
My skirt was tucked. Up. Into my belt. In the back. And there I stood, already way too body-conscious at 12, with my backside completely THERE. “Facing” the boys.
I could try to describe the humiliation. I could endeavor to explain the horror. I could even delve into the certainty that none of the girls — literally no one from “my” side of the gym — tried to hide me or help me. I remember that I spun (fast) in a half circle. I tugged. I smoothed. I tried to smile. I tried to ignore.
But I never forgot.
To this day, I have a compulsion to check the back of my skirt EVERY time I leave a room. Sit in a chair? Check the skirt. Stand up? Skirt check. Use a bathroom? MUST CHECK THE SKIRT. And, although some may say it makes me nosy, I am always willing to tell/hide/help anyone who is in a Dire Skirt Predicament. Because sisters, reader, need each other. And I will die happy if that particular event never happens to me again.
White Rain, he calls it.
How clever. How charming. How distinctly incorrect.
Because no matter how cute you are when you describe it, it’s still spring snow. It’s still cold. It’s still dark. It still makes my feet cold. And my heart cold. And my temper quick.
I was always kind of offended by the phrase “terrible twos” – is it really fair to condemn a toddler for acting his age? But I get the problem. I totally do. And I think I know why it is what it is. (*Easy for me to say, my youngest is 12.) Here’s what I think: Two year olds are split almost evenly in two halves – no, not good and evil. “I want to be big,” and “I’m the baby.” Hold me. Let me. Help me. I will do it myself.
Fast forward three years. Many of the same behaviors are exhibited by a kid starting school. A fairly even split between wanting to be independent and wanting to be coddled. In my family, it happens again at eleven or twelve. Coincidentally (?) add in hormone shifts (sweet!) and this manifests itself mostly as moodiness – but work with me here. If you could figure out if the kid wanted to be snuggled or sent on an errand, wouldn’t you kind of have life managed?
What I’m finding now is that it happens again in high school. Here’s my theory: growing up is a series of decisions about how a person wants to be treated. Kid or grown up? I mess this up every single day. I assume my students know more / can do more / are willing to stretch more than they know / can / will. They freak out. “Too much pressure!” Okay, so I’ve been treating them too Big. So I back off. I assume they know nothing and will try nothing, and they rebel. “We’re not idiots!” No. You’re not. You’re in the process of growing up. And Process is the key. (*Sometimes I get it right. Or right-ish. I try.)
If I can keep this in mind, and if I can strike a balance, for a class or a section or a kid, I can help that kid succeed in the moment. Just like when my kids were tiny, and really, really NEEDED to make their choices. If I could give my kid a couple of reasonable options, it was far more likely that the choice of the moment would end happily for both of us. (As opposed to, you know, “What would you like for lunch?” which could end in a variety of terrifying disagreements.)
So I’m searching for that balance. I’m seeking to do it respectfully – to give genuine adultish opportunities for those who are leaning that way, and to be patient about repeating the same directions a thousand times (and answering “why?” questions over and over) when they’re feeling needy. When they’re lucky, kids grow up in increments. They do it over and over, a little at a time. I need to learn to access and respect their place at the moment. And, if I’m being fair, I still have days when I want to get wrapped up in a blanket and snuggled. And plenty of times I have a fit when I think I’m being treated like a dumb kid. This may be a lifelong process, so it would be awesome if I could figure out how to do it right.
I’ve been learning. Studying about creativity at the feet of those who make it their mission to permit the rest of us to drink at the wells of creation. It’s a seriously joyful experience. (Want to try it? Watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s remarkable TED talk, here. Listen to her “Big Magic” podcast. Immerse yourself in all that is Brene Brown.)
Here’s a thing that struck me this week. And I’m paraphrasing – so these are not original thoughts, but they are my words: That painting that astounds me went onto the canvas one brushstroke after another. The book I love was written one hour at a time. The song I can’t get out of my head was composed over a series of stolen hours.
I have hours. Maybe not more than one in a row that I can dedicate to creative pursuits, but one hour at a time, I can write a novel. And I have. And I am. The words don’t pour out of me resulting in a workable draft in a week or two (but hey, if that works for you WAY TO GO). The words trickle. They pile up slowly. But the point is, they do pile up. Day after day, when I give myself permission to sit at my tiny desk and put down three hundred or five hundred or a thousand words, the story grows.
And when I give myself that permission, I find myself unbound from guilt or regret that seems to hound me when I ignore my creative self in favor of more focus on work or cleaner bathrooms. I’m a cooking pot sitting on three stones over the fire – if I remove one of my stones (family or work or creativity) my pot will tumble into the fire, douse the flame, and ruin dinner.
I am learning balance and I really like it.
I’ve been thinking about all the preparing we humans tend to do in order to be Super Ready for All the Things. My Kid 2 is overseas right now, teaching English to small Lithuanian children and eating her body weight in beautiful European cheeses. Before she left, she did everything right, including notifying her bank that she’d be using a card in that region.
They cancelled her card this week.
Like, it’s blocked. She can’t use it. (“Our fraud detection software noticed you’ve been using your card in Poland, and we’re pretty sure your permanent address is not in Poland. So, no card for you. You’re welcome.”)
She didn’t take a phone to Vilnius, because hello? She doesn’t need it. So she can’t call them and ask them to fix their mistake. I’m happy to call them and ask them to fix it, but that’s no guarantee, since I’m not Kid 2, and she’s a technical adult, and blah, blah, blah.
I’m going to get this fixed for her, but that’s only a little piece of the point. We do Things to ready ourselves for other Things, and it completely baffles me when my Things get unfixed.
I’m a believer in preparation. I’m for it, one hundred percent. But even with my full commitment, I find it weird. I know that half the things I prepare against (from the Apocalypse to Gum Recession to Running out of Gas) are unlikely (for the record — running out of gas is unlikely, and gum recession is half unlikely — that’s half the things, right?). I prepare for them anyway.
I have a basement full of wheat, dry beans, and bottled tomatoes and fruits. This will feed us for many months, in the event that we choose to live on whole wheat breads, bean soup, and smoothies. I also have a container of coconut gelato that will never see next week. Because I’m going to need it. See? Prepared.
But the mini-fiasco at the bank has caused me to wonder what other preparations we make that don’t actually Take. That will have to be Fixed, involving much Chasing About. And the list grows long in my head. Long and tiring. And even as I scroll through this long mental list, I find comfort in the preparation. And some smug self-satisfaction that I can say to bankers or to the universe at large, “See, we totally took care of this months ago. Can you please deal with it on your end?”
I’m prepared to get a little demanding.
** Disclaimer: I LOVE FATHERS. Awesome dads make up most of the population of men I know. This is not meant to bash fatherhood. Dadliness is one of the most amazing attributes I can possibly observe. End Disclaimer. **
I had this friend in High School – we’ll call him Ryan, because that’s his name. He played baseball. He liked it, and he was good at it, and it’s a good thing, because his dad would never have let him quit. Never. His dad was, as far as we could tell in our High School Haze, living his own baseball dreams through his kid. Which, fine.
Today my sophomores gave presentations where they told nine truths and one lie about themselves and FOUR of them in one class talked about doing a sport that they HATE because their dad makes them.
This is what I said.
Because, really? This was one kid’s lie: “I love playing football,” and I could tell by the strain in his voice that he was lying. I’ve known him for very few days. In fact, he’s spoken aloud very seldom in my presence. But I could TELL.
This is weird, this number (I hope). It represents one out of eight kids in that section. ONE OUT OF EIGHT kids in that class “have to” play a sport that they admittedly dislike. Maybe that’s not weird. Maybe I’m the weird one. Maybe the reason my kids aren’t elite athletes is that I don’t make them play sports they don’t love. Or it could be genetics. Either way, we’re not elite. At all. And I’m okay with that.
So what if my kids hated school? I’d still make them go. What if my kids hated writing? Okay, I hear you. (Some of them claim that they do, but they’re so good at it that I just nod and stand back and gasp in wonder at their blog posts and tweets and Instagram tags.) What if my kids didn’t want to attend church? Yeah, I think I’d make them. Maybe I need to look at high school sports as a form of religious worship. Heaven knows I wouldn’t be alone in that mindset. I grew up in Indiana, remember?
What do you think? Am I missing something? Or is this “I hate this sport” conversation just a step in growing up that hasn’t happened yet?