Categories
Education

Lost Artwork, Lost Voice

Today, I want to discuss a topic related to education: coercion in the school systems.

Should students be forced to take certain subjects in school? What happens when the voice of an educator becomes louder than our own internal voice?

What are the consequences of telling students, “I know you said that you wanted to take English because you love writing, but you have to take geometry.”

When we blindly accept the system, we are causing our children to grow up to believe that authorities figures (ex. Educators) know what is best.

I’ll share a story about an experience I had with my principle in middle school. It was the first time that I decided to trust an authoritative figure rather than my own instincts.

One afternoon, I walked into my art class along with a dozen other twelve-year old kids. I had been slaving away on some particular art project for weeks and it was almost complete. I was excited to give it to my mom on Mother’s Day. I knew she would be overjoyed to get a heartfelt gift from me this year.

I scanned the wall, but my piece wasn’t there. After scouring the room, my teacher suggested that maybe it fell into the trashcan. Trembling, I asked if I could go to the bathroom.

I went into the hallway and immediately burst into tears.

When I looked up I saw the principle of the middle school standing over me. “Come into my office,” he said.

I obeyed and followed him in. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “What’s wrong?” He asked in a supercilious tone.

“My artwork that I wanted to give to my Mom for Mother’s Day is gone,” I said. A few more tears rolled down my face.

“I think I know what this is all about,” he said. “Your sad about your dad dying,” he said.

My principle, let’s call him Mr. Scott, found out about my dad’s death before anyone else. When the police came and discovered that my father was dead, they found my school directory and called Mr. Scott, who then informed my mother.

I felt my jaw tighten. I hated that this man knew that my dad was dead before I did. I hated him for thinking he knew the way my mind worked and heart ticked.

You don’t know me, I thought.  

Were all of my problems going to be attributed to my Dad’s death now? What if lost artwork is simply lost artwork.

I looked at my bony legs that were glued to the seat because I couldn’t bear to look at this man’s eyes. Finally, my eyes met his.  His expression was begging me to agree with him.

“That’s what’s wrong isn’t it?” he prodded.

I shook my head, tears welling in my eyes again. I wanted to scream ‘No’ but my tongue and mouth weren’t working.

“Oh come on. I don’t believe that you’re just crying about your artwork,” he said.

His condescending voice made me sick. His white prickly beard made me sick. I had never felt rage so strongly. Boy, did I feel it now.

I stared at him defiantly. “I was going to give it to my Mom,” I said. 

“Make her a new one! It’s okay,” he said.

I may not have been able to articulate it then, but I felt invalidated. I had spent a lot of time on that piece and he didn’t seem to care.

“This is about your Dad,” he said again.

Suddenly the fire hot temperature of my eyes cooled off, the twinkle disappeared, and the light dimmed.

Defiant anger turned to intimidation and submissiveness.

Maybe I don’t know myself as well as I thought…

He’s an older, established, educated person and I’m just an overly sensitive girl with a dead dad, not even smart enough to pass an entry exam into the seventh grade.

He was looking for an answer.

I nodded. “Yes, it’s about my dad,” I said. “I miss him so much.”

In that moment, everything changed. I was learning that men knew what was best for me even better than I knew what was best for me. I was learning to distrust my instincts, feelings, and thoughts. It was as if in that moment I stuffed all of the trust I had in myself in a suitcase and shipped it off somewhere foreign, where it never quite returned. I learned to be compliant and submissive.

I lost a bit of myself that day. It fell into the garbage can along with my piece of artwork.

This is an extreme and personal example, but I believe that by telling children that they can and cannot take certain classes in school is a subtle way of telling them that they do not know themselves at all.

Nel Noddings, an American feminist, philosopher discusses this very topic in her book Educating Moral People: A Caring Alternative to Character Education. Teachers and educators often “take a highly moralistic tone, insisting that what they are demanding is right and that coercion and cruelty, if they are used, are necessary for the child’s ‘own good.’ Most of us have heard from some teacher or adult ‘someday you’ll thank me for this” (Noddings, 29).

Let’s stop for a moment to talk about this. Do we actually thank these teacher’s later?

Yes, sometimes we do. Sometimes we are glad that we did that hard work that we never would have actually done if someone older didn’t nudge us in the right direction. Let’s be honest, sometimes kids give up too quickly. Almost all of them would rather play with their friends at recess than learn about history. I get that. If we don’t nudge them toward productivity no one else will.

But what if they want to pursue something and they are continuously being shut down by adults? When they come to us and share an interest they are trusting us. We are squelching their passion when we tell them to do something else instead. They came to us for guidance on how to fulfill their dreams and we told them what is best for the mass, not what is best for that individual.

If J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare failed a math class would you ask them to repeat it? No! Write, just get back to writing…. You have a God-given talent.

Nel Noddings goes on to say “it suggest strongly that their own interests purposes, and talents are not highly valued- that to be valued themselves, children must conform to a particular model of success” (Noddings, 30).

What are the consequences of implying that students don’t really know themselves so well after all?

Frustration, feeling dumb, people-pleasing personality traits, turning away from themselves, identity crises, extreme difficulty saying “no.”

“No thank you, Sir, I don’t want to go out with you.”

“No, actually I don’t need another drink, thanks anyway and have a good night.”

“I want to go to this college and study this discipline.”

“No, I don’t want to marry you.”

“I want to travel here not there.”

“I don’t want to go on that diet. I want to eat the piece of cake.”

“Actually I’m not crying about my dad passing away. I’m crying because it feels like someone may have mistook my artwork for trash and placed it in the garbage can.   I’m crying because something that I worked hard on is gone. I was looking forward to giving my mom this gift and now I won’t be able to do that. While many times I cry about my dad these tears are for something different.”

Often times people are doing their best. They want their students to succeed so they encourage them to take necessary classes or challenge themselves.  Maybe Mr. Scott was trying to be sympathetic. I believe that most people have great intentions, but we still need to question the system. Don’t just accept it because it’s there.

Let’s encourage our kids to follow their dreams. When they come to people who are in positions of power with their thoughts and goals, let’s try not to shut them down right away.

Our standard educational system continues to silence students and imply that they don’t know themselves very well.

By ignoring this issue, we are failing our children.

Categories
Mental Health

The Pros and Cons of Labels

Labels are truly paradoxical. They are both beneficial as well as destructive to the person that is being labeled. 

When I was sixteen a full-blown depression swept over me. Like a tornado, it wreaked havoc on my spirit, destroying my ability to think clearly. My personality, sense of self, and energy were somewhere out of reach, buried in the rubble. 

Moving my muscles felt like a herculean effort. I listened to sad songs, took warm bubble baths, and ate peanut-butter chewy granola bars. Over and over…and over again. I would tear off the wrapper and gobble them up by the box. Eating sugary snacks and taking scalding hot baths reminded me that I was alive. They sent a fraction of pleasure to my brain for a few seconds, but soon I would get pulled under again. It felt like sinking in a swampy pile of muck. Eventually, I just wanted to stop fighting to keep my head above water. I wanted to drown. More than anything, I wanted this to be over. Give me mercy….

I spent a lot of time in the bathtub thinking about death. What would happen if I used that razorblade to slit my wrists? Was it possible to drown myself in this bathtub? My mind was a messy array of dark thoughts. I wondered where the smiley skinny girl with no worries in the world had gone. I loathed myself in a way that made my insides ache. I felt all alone in the world. I wondered if anyone understood me. 

When I figured out I was depressed, I felt less alone. I felt relief knowing that there was help out there for me. There are other people who get this! The label was comforting in this way. It didn’t feel like it was my fault that I was depressed. It was out of my control. I can’t help this affliction

Our society understands this neat little label. When people can understand things, they’re more compassionate. I would take all of the compassion I could get at that point.

The world can never have too much compassion for those who are suffering. 

Still, from then on, I would always wonder if depression was part of my identity. The answer to that is no. Being in a temporary state of depression is not part of your identity the way the flu isn’t part of your identity. You get help and move forward.  It may be part of your timeline, but do not make the mistake of enmeshing depression with your cardinal personality traits.

Your mental health issues are not who you are. 

Does this mean I have a dark resolution for life? I guess I’m a naturally melancholic person. 

No. 

I do not claim this to be true, though for a while I believed it to be. 

I had an adverse reaction to a heightened dose of an anti-depressant- a full-blown panic attack (more on that in a later post.) I started feeling and acting weird and unlike myself, so my therapist said this meant I had bi-polar disorder. 

This informal diagnosis did not help me at all. While the antidepressant may have lifted my mood and kept me focused, the mood stabilizer and antipsychotic that I took for the next five years were probably not necessary. The antipsychotic made me feel drugged and mindless. Thinking about it now brings a tear to my eye. I can still feel the injustice. My brain is still trying to recover. 

I wish my therapist told me that this was not permanent, rather than saying “you’re going to have to be on medication for the rest of your life.” 

I felt less at-fault and less guilty with the mental illness labels. Yet, I mistook these labels as part of my identity.

Another time, a label offered me community and relief.

I was so relieved that I became giddy. Someone out there gets it! I am desperate for recognition. I scour the world for recognition. I search for it in people’s expression, catching that glint of “I know what you mean.” There lips turn upward, their eyes glimmer a bit, and they nod in understanding. “You’re not alone.”

I have something called Directional Dyslexia. If you haven’t heard of it, that’s okay. The world doesn’t recognize this condition yet. It’s an inability to form cognitive spacial maps. In other words, it takes me a really, really long time to get around anywhere. I had to drive to the mall and movie theatre in my home town twenty times before I was able to get there without a map. I was unable to reverse the direction in my head, so then I had to memorize the reverse route a million times. I got my license a year before the GPS came out, so my Mom had to draw pictures every time I left the house. Thanks Mom!

I have gotten lost in my own neighborhood many times. If I turned right at the second stop sign instead of the third, I wouldn’t have the slightest inkling where I was. I would have to call my mom to come help out. I knew that I was different than others, when I got lost in my neighborhood when I was twelve. My friend lived around the corner. Instead of turning left, I turned right. I didn’t have a cellphone back then, so I was going to have to figure this one out on my own. I wandered around for a few hours before I finally walked by the police station and found my panicked mother. 

When I was a teenager, I searched the internet for my symptoms. It was after a really embarrassing incident where I got lost from my friends after going to the bathroom. I pretended that I was looking around for cell service, but everyone knew that I was lost. My sister and friends laughed at me. A shameful pang stabbed me in the chest as I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. 

I went to the internet and found out that other people had this issue as well. I joined a chatroom and felt comforted by other people’s stories. At that point, I had a GPS. Some of these people grew up before technological advancements and had to draw pictures to get ANYWHERE for their entire adult lives. Apparently, it’s genetic! My grandmother has it as well. Both of us always turn the wrong way when we step out of our hotel room. Our family has to call to us from the opposite side of the hall. 

Before Dyslexia was recognized, people just thought that these kids were stupid. They thought they were unteachable. No, actually neurons aren’t firing in a certain part of their brain. You can see this difference on a cat scan. They’re just as smart as you or me, but they need to learn to read in a different way. The traditional way simply won’t work for them. Now, because dyslexia is in the DSM, people recognize dyslexia and understand that these people are intelligent. 

I’m sure there are countless issues that are not recognized by the DSM. That does not mean that they are not real. Just because YOU don’t get it, doesn’t mean it’s not a thing. Just because professionals in a lab haven’t figured in out yet, doesn’t make it fake. 

It’s unfortunate that society has to have a palatable answer for everything. Maybe labels wouldn’t need to exist if people just understood that all people’s brains work a little differently. If someone goes against the grain a little bit, society needs to find a way to neatly describe this irregularity. This way they can put all of the misfit puzzle pieces off to the side. 

I’m so thankful to have a smartphone with a navigational system! I can disguise my issues pretty well, but I still get made fun of. And because society doesn’t yet understand directional dyslexia, people just say, “Oh you’re just bad with directions.” Yeah, no kidding! I still don’t know how to get to downtown Cincinnati from the suburbs where I grew up, even though I resided there for my entire childhood. If you don’t want to believe me, fine. People may think I’m just dumb, but I know that I’m not. I’m grateful that I’ve read other people’s accounts of this problem. 

So, in this instance my directional dyslexia label helped me. It gives me peace of mind. I felt like less of a freak when I realized that I wasn’t alone. I have only met two other people with this issue, but I believe that it will be recognized in my lifetime. Maybe the reason this label was so beneficial for me was because I gave it to myself.

This label helped me to make sense of the way my brain works.

Another time when I felt confined by a label was when I began dating women. Nothing physical ever happened, but I wanted to experiment with my sexuality. I felt emotionally and physically attracted to women, so I figured that I owed it to myself to go on some dates. People asked me, “So are you gay? Are you bi?” 

No. I’m just me. I felt confined by these labels. Can’t I just follow my curiosity without having to box myself in? When it comes to sexuality, we’re all a little bit different and the same. It’s so personal and unique to you, yet it’s universal. When you have chemistry with someone, you know it by the sensations in your body and your beating heart. That looks different for everyone. 

I literally don’t know how to describe my sexuality. If I’m attracted to one out of thirty women, should I say I’m bi? What if I don’t want a relationship with a woman? I don’t think about my sexuality anymore because I’m in a loving and committed relationship with my boyfriend. 

You can label me as the girl with the wild imagination, talented hula-hooper, college graduate, blonde white chick, introverted writer, crazy festival goer, grad-school dropout, older sister, daughter, girl who moves every single year, fake bisexual chick, or the girl with the dead dad. Call me anxious, call me depressed, call me crazy, call me manic, call me CRAZY, I don’t care. 

One thing is for sure- worthiness is my label. 

I’m worthy when I’m so depressed I can’t move, when I’m thick or thin, when I’m in school or not in school, when I’m wearing make-up or rocking the bare-face, when I’m productive or watching Netflix, when I’m working or unemployed, when I’m sick or healthy, when I’m creative or foggy, when I’m anxious or not, when I’m stuck in a rut or living up to my fullest potential. 

I’m worthy no matter what. 

And so are you all of you. 

For me, labels have been a blessing and a curse. What’s your experience? Tell me in the comments below. 

Sending love and strength,

Annie