Semicolons and self-love: (very) random thoughts on school and authenticity
When I am asked what I do for a living, my immediate thought is to say I help people realize or become the loveliest humans possible. My actual job description goes something like “develop curriculum and assessment tools to prepare students for vocational outcomes; engage all types of learners through differentiated instruction; enhance students’ communication skills.” And I only know this because my mother STILL has my job posting from 2009 when I was hired.
While I am obsessed with how a semicolon can change our lives (or at least the appearance of our grammar proficiency), I’ve realized over the past eight years of teaching that when I go into a college classroom, my true job is to bring the best part of me to help my students recognize the best part of them. This has become much easier since yoga and, more recently, meditation has come into my life, but it was once very difficult and confusing.
I remember when I first starting teaching I was insecure about being (a very young looking) 21 and having classes of 30-40 students who were the same age or older than me. I wore high heels almost every day as if the extra three inches entitled me to more credibility or respect. Add a blazer, some flared trousers (please tell me the flare isn’t coming back in…), a bit of jewellery and I definitely demanded an audience. We can all predict that this didn’t work—and thankfully it only took two weeks for me to realize the hard-handed approach would not win me admiration or approval from anyone.
After some soul-searching and #realtalk (my students say #’s aren’t cool, sorry), I figured out what would help bridge the gap…and it was terrifying: being unapologetically me…sharing what I knew, admitting to what I didn’t know, and being open to what students thought we should all know. After my failed attempt at “professionalism,” (eh hmm RBF), what did I have to lose? This approach has, over the years, manifested into a lot of mindfulness weaving in and out of my classes. I mean, how can we be ourselves if we don’t know ourselves? On any given day now, we individually reflect in six minute writes (free writes for up to six minutes on big topics like discrimination, diversity, gratitude, empathy), collectively share our personal narratives, and even stand up for some yoga poses when our energy begins to dwindle.
My favourite memory of this semester was when I asked the class to write a letter to the person who has changed or impacted their life the most—who they are most grateful for—and then requested they all get up and call that person to read them the letter. After they cursed me under their breath for being so mushy-gushy, they did it. Phones whipped out, people scattered to different parts of the room (hallway, back corner—one person went under a desk). It was a tear-filled class that brought us all back from the stress of deadlines and homework to what really matters in life: being vulnerable and connecting with others. It may have taken a half hour of “English time” but the payoff was huge. We hugged. We cried. We shared stories. And we all realized that we truly are in it together.
Some of my colleagues have questioned me for teaching with my heart on my sleeve, saying that I have to harden up, that an academic institution is no place for feelings or talking about what happens outside of the classroom. I call bullshit. When did we lose (or better yet, did we ever have?) the humanness of learning? In my profession, we talk about preparing youth for the future and the work force, but the last time I checked, emotions were a part of life. My go-to line for rationalizing this is that when shit hits the fan, what’s going to help you: your notes on grammar or the people in your class who have taken the time to get to know the real you? I’d place my bets on the latter (even though grammar can get us out of some really sticky situations). Developing a sense of belonging and what I call “family” is key to growth, and it cannot happen without self-awareness and mindfulness.
Loving ourselves and appreciating what we have to offer others is a powerful pathway to fulfilment. Yes, I’d love to be just a few inches taller, with a few more degrees (okay, maybe just this PhD), and a bit more well-spoken, but who I am is who I should be confident enough to bring forward. #SELFLOVE (okay, I did it again and in caps—no apologies this time, guys). If we begin to expect vulnerability and set up safe spaces for it—the classroom, the workplace, the yoga studio, the meditation circle—then we can begin to strip away the facades and masks that we parade around in. In whatever work we do, bringing our real selves to that moment is paramount. When I know myself—the quirks and weirdness—I can operate from a place of love and kindness that appreciates the individuality of the students I teach.
My students are the loveliest humans—they teach me (and constantly remind me) so much about what is important in life—and I am so grateful for them. We have established a sense of family in just a few short months by creating mutual respect for everyone’s uniqueness and carving out time to nurture our souls by connecting to each other and ourselves.
So, what will you learn in my English classroom? Semicolons and self-love, baby. Student, if you’re reading, my “old lady advice of the day” is to be your authentic, awesome selves in everything you do. And don’t apologize for it or try to change it.
Happy Tuesday, lovelies—go change the world.