.journal 2015.11.29


.org.15: I Hear a Voice: “You Must Learn to Stand Up For Yourself”

Now listening to: Kate Earl, Kate Earl
Now reading: The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Second Edition)
Now playing: Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection (PS3)

Throughout my teaching career I’ve always seen myself as more than just a teacher of English. Teachers are capable of doing much more than just passing along the knowledge of their chosen field; my early years were plagued with bad teachers who were all too happy to demonstrate to me what damage a bad teacher can inflict on a student. No matter what I may have learned from those teachers, many of them left scars on my psyche that still haven’t healed decades later. The good news is that I’ve learned how to take that lingering pain, coupled with the experiences I had later on in my life when I finally got to study under good teachers, and channel it into my own teaching so I can try to be a positive force for my students whenever I can.

It’s hard to integrate things outside of your discipline into your classroom, especially when they fall outside the “normal” bounds of teaching, and I’ve learned that you can’t really force that stuff into your classrooms no matter how much you may want to. It has to come naturally, as an extension of the role that your students have become accustomed to from their previous teachers. It’s one of the trickier parts of being a more effective teacher, but particularly in higher education, where students have a much more overtly consumer-based relationship with the institution, it’s important to demonstrate to students just how the stuff they’re learning in your class will apply to their “real life” once they’re done with classroom education. That often requires integrating additional material into your classes, but if your students are comfortable enough to feel that they can talk openly with you, then they will often point you in the right direction when it comes to finding the material that will help them the most.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize isn’t really teachable at all, although it’s one of the most important life skills that most people learn, is the art of picking and choosing your battles. As many horrors as we may hear about on the news, as many causes as our friends may try to pull us into, we only have a short amount of time in this life, and whenever we choose to fight for something, we also choose to give up some of that time. My students may bring up topics as important as race relations and ending armed conflicts around the world, but even the students who are most impassioned about those causes find it hard to do much about them when they’re already close to their wits’ end just keeping up with work, school and the normal panoply of societal obligations. As I often tell my students, it’s hard to care about a rainforest thousands of miles away when you’re struggling just putting food on your plate.

Fifteen years ago, the .org was born out of me giving up on a fight that I realized wasn’t only a fight that I couldn’t win, but one that I didn’t want to keep fighting because it was driving me insane. As wise of a decision as that was at the time, I still got into a lot of stupid fights over the next few years as I turned my life around, went back to school and got my degrees. Right after I finished school, some nine years ago, I made a concerted effort to avoid fights as I adjusted to a new professional life, and that may or may not have been the best decision. I try not to second-guess myself too much, but there’s no denying that some of the fights that I deliberately avoided in those years were ones that I should have fought, and I suffered because I didn’t stand up and fight when I needed to. Five years ago, professional concerns led me to start getting involved in more fights again, although I’d like to think that the wisdom I’ve gained through the years has led me to pick the right fights and to fight them smartly. (I’d like to think that, but there’s more than a little evidence that I haven’t always lived up to that goal.)

That takes me to today, where I find myself at a very mine-strewn crossroads of personal and worldly concerns. On the one hand, I’ve reached personal and professional limits that have led me to join a number of battles, both out of practical necessity and my own personal sense of moral obligation. At the same time, though, America in particular (if not the world in general) is rapidly plunging down a rabbit hole of manufactured paranoia, fallacious logic and selective ignorance that has made it harder and harder for certain groups just to stand up for themselves, let alone fight for what they believe in. (That strikes me as very un-American, but it’s been hard not to notice how many people disagree with me on that.)

This past semester in particular, as I’ve been dealing with a very difficult teaching schedule and other personal concerns, it’s been hard to try to find the time to carefully weigh the benefits and drawbacks of engaging in certain battles. In a couple of weeks, though, I’m going to have a good chunk of time for myself between semesters, and if I’m going to use that time wisely then I need to decide on what to do before winter break begins. I was hoping to have time over the Thanksgiving holidays to work that out, but of course I had to get a massive sinus headache that sidelined me for much of that break because that’s what the universe likes to do to me. Time is running out, and it feels like these next few weeks could be some of the most important in my recent life.

On the one hand, it’s hard to do much of anything when the news is rife with stories of minorities in America being repressed in both formal and informal ways. As much as I try to keep my ego in check, I wouldn’t even think of denying that I have a lot of trouble putting my own wants and desires out of my mind, and the last thing I need right now is people going after me for speaking up on certain issues. As much as I try to stand by my principles, there is always a temptation to pass the buck there, to find other things to concern myself with (and I’m never at a shortage for those) and hope that other people can take care of the things that are bothering me. That’s even more true for people like me who realize that there are people out there much more qualified to fight those battles than I am right now (and may ever be).

Whatever practicality there may be in not joining those battles, though, there’s still a large part of me that is disgusted at the thought of stepping back when I see, both in my own life and through my students, the consequences of inaction. There’s always been a fighter in me, and sometimes that part of me has done some really stupid things, but it’s also gotten more than a little good accomplished as well. I don’t do a good job of standing up for myself, but I’ve always had a passion for standing up when other people I know are wronged, and right now that’s happening more frequently, and more systematically, than at any other point of my life that I can remember.

These are heavy decisions to make, and I know that not making a decision is one of the worst examples of failure to act that exists. I’ve made a lot of really big mistakes in my life by fighting the wrong battles, though, and the last thing I want to do is hurt the people I so desperately want to help through bad decisions. This feels like another one of those turning points in my life that seem to pop up every four to six years, and I’ll probably have to make a move in a matter of weeks, if not days. As I think back over these past fifteen years, and see the personal progress I’ve made that I’ve documented here on the .org, I want to think that I’ve learned enough about the art of picking and choosing battles that I’ll make the right decision, but it’s hard to be confident about that when the consequences for mistakes keep getting bigger and bigger.

Everyone take care and be well. I will see you all soon.

— Sean