The Power of Yes

Much of my life I have said yes. This was both because I enjoy others and the opportunities they bring into my life and also because I want them to be happy because seeing them that way makes me feel happy too. I said yes too often, compromising more than my fair share of desires. Over time I learned to set boundaries and in doing so maintained a healthier balance to my answer, yes. What I neglected was the unhealthy balance of when and how I said no.

When it came to activities or favors or deadlines or discipline, the balance between no and yes had been achieved. When it came to the feelings of others, however, I often felt myself tied up in answering no whenever confronted with something that might hurt them. I would again choose to compromise myself, my truth if not my own feelings as well, in an effort to keep everyone else comfortable. In a meeting at school last month I found a new form of empowerment: the power of the truth.

We are in a time of great strife in the field of education. We are hammered from this way and that about most anything having to do with the “declining state of youth” these days. As a society we don’t look at the parents, we don’t look at the system, we don’t look at the foundation (or lack of foundation) the kids have and the mixed messages they receive in almost every area of their lives. We don’t look at the dehumanizing objectification of our girls or the outrageous pressures our boys face to “man” up. No, as a society we look at the schools and say fix it. Or else.

And yet we as educators persevere. We know we can’t change society and the (mis)perceptions of others. We can only hold our heads high and push forward in an effort to do our part. We don’t have the money, the tools, the staffing, or the physical resources we need, yet we move ahead because we love our kids and we love our place in their lives.

At my school our new focus has become equity. More specifically, how can we provide real and meaningful opportunities to all kids in an equitable way? I sit on a committee whose charge is to evaluate all programs on our school site, making sure they are matching our school’s goals and vision which, this year, focuses on equity.

The longer I live the more I’m finding assumptions a powerful and crippling force that often goes unrecognized as it insidiously eats away at any well-intentioned progress trying to be made. Once I applied this concept to my work, It came to me that equity could mean something different to our staff than it does to our principal than it does to our kids than it does to our parents, all who have stakeholders sitting on this committee. In an effort to focus our work and continue our progress, we set out to define equity together.

We readily agreed on two points: one, all kids need have access to information and resources they need to be successful; and two, all kids should graduate ready for either college or career. The third point, however, was a major source of contention. Should resources (i.e.: time, money, staffing, classes, etc) be distributed exactly equally or should more resources be allocated to those with more need?

It is no secret that by and large schools are liberal places. The simple existence of public schools implies liberalism because it’s essentially a concept of socialism: we all contribute (through our tax dollars) so that all kids have access to schooling. However lofty the goal of this socialist premise, the reality is we live in a capitalist country. The rich tend to get richer and the poor, poorer. Schools in high-income areas are able to raise more money, both through property taxes and local fundraisers, and therefore provide their kids more resources. If kids in these schools are struggling academically, their parents have time and money to get them a private tutor. Their teachers make wish lists for classroom needs and those lists are covered, often in abundance. Maybe it’s because our school has none of those privileges that those of us who work there feel very protective of our kids, most especially those with the highest needs. To us, it is a given that those who need more will get more. However liberal the notion, to us it’s not a matter of politics, it’s an assumed matter of what is right.

As it turns out, that nasty thing called “assumptions” was getting us in trouble once again. Not everyone on our committee agreed that “equitable” meant distributing resources unequally. To them (ok, him) that idea was absolutely inequitable.

He had a point, of course. It is often the kids on the higher end that are left to fend for themselves. We assume (there is that damned word again) that those kids have stronger survival skills, at least academically, and can move forward without us more easily. They have efficacy in the system because the system works for them; they know how to ask for help and they know when they ask they will receive it. Other kids, however, don’t have that experience. We have to teach them to identify their issues and how to advocate for themselves when it comes to finding remedies. We have to provide them more because, as simplistic as it sounds, they need more. We want to even the playing field so that when the graduating class leaves us, they leave us equally prepared for whatever their choices may be.

“So what your saying is you want to promote some kind of Marxism?” asks (or, should I say, accuses) the naysayer in the group.

This was the moment. My urge to make others feel comfortable and to smooth over conflict rose into my throat. I wanted to say, “No sir, we’re absolutely not; we just…,” or “No, not at all! I’m so sorry this is upsetting you, how do you think we should proceed with…” We were brainstorming as I took notes on my white board; awash with colors and words representing this thing we called “equity.” It was something to be proud of, this place, this conversation, even this particular debate. Yet, I stood at my board in front of this powerful group of students, staff, and parents completely paralyzed.

My body tensed and my mind raced as I considered which would be the victor, my truth or his feelings? The fact I was even having this internal discussion was a huge improvement because before it would have been his feelings without question. Then, however, came the time of when I know better, I need to do better. I knew better than to compromise myself yet again, I just had to figure out how to allow both of us the dignity we deserved.

“Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “you caught me. I am promoting Marxism.” I joked, but I also made something clear: I would not be taken down by a tone or a word or an intent to slouch my posture and walk away from my truth. I would engage in dialogue and even debate with integrity, not only to protect the feelings of others but also my own.

I saw a smile come across the faces in the room, even on the face of the naysayer who knew how ridiculous the Marxist accusation was. In saying yes I had exposed the real truth: this discussion wasn’t about the how, it was about the whom. We were all there to protect the needs of our kids, even if we believed differently about how we went about doing so.

What that parent and that moment taught me is that conflict is not necessarily something to avoid. If handled properly it can be important and productive and enlightening.

And saying yes to your truth, that is about as powerful as it comes.

Where to Start? Try the Beginning.

I have ideas for five books, three magazine columns, two websites, a workshop series, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Not really on the partridge; but the rest? All the truth. More to the point, I’ve started each and every one of these projects. How many of them have I finished is the important question.

The answer: none.

I can’t seem to get my priorities straight. Family first, work second; that much is clear. The work piece, however, is in a state of flux and until I find where to land I am more than a little manic. Like someone who just won the lottery and can’t decide what to buy first, I feel so ready for the change that I know awaits but for the first time I have so many professional options I can’t make up my mind.

Some perspective on my dilemma comes with the fact I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the second grade. In college I toyed with the idea of social work, but knowing I can’t disconnect from the emotion of a commercial let alone a family in turmoil I thought teaching might be a better fit. Who knew I would start teaching at 21 years old and end up worn out by 39 because, in fact, teaching really is social work with a more magnified consequence of failure. It’s the work of society plus the work of empowering youth and, if I do my job right, they leave me with tools that will serve them the rest of their lives. In reality, it’s the work that only greats the likes of my mentors and a handful of my colleagues are able to sustain with deep and abiding integrity.

So now, as I consider a professional life outside the classroom, the options are almost too much. I know I want to teach; it’s at the heart of my life’s purpose and as such anything different would be unacceptable. I also feel wholly called to write. But should I write curriculum? Should I write books for students? Should I write articles for teachers? Should I write about my personal story? Should I write for other women caught up in a life of “shoulds” to give them permission to live differently? Should I show people how to see lessons and teachers everywhere, so that this crazy thing we call life is a little more bearable?

I want to do it all and I want to do it now and I want to be fabulously successful immediately at every single bit of it.

And then I think of my start as a teacher and have to laugh at myself. It took me three years to get decent and five years to get strong and seven years to really feel like I could kick some high school ass. Seven years before I felt truly successful and now I’m going to proclaim myself a writer and will publish five books, three magazine columns, two websites, a workshop series and a partridge in a pear tree–all to not only my personal delight but also to wide acclaim?

And what happened to the original set of larger priorities? Family first, work second. When I’m in front of my computer writing the next Eat, Pray, Love in between teaching every morning, grading papers every afternoon and keeping up with graduate school (I forgot to mention that, didn’t I?)–where, exactly, do my kids fit in? Family first, work second. Even in that equation, where is my marriage? More importantly, where is my self (because, after all, I am not my work–am I?)

The questions, it seems, outnumber the answers in this story. Maybe that means it’ll be an ongoing struggle for some months to come. What I do know is, sprint or marathon, it all starts with the first step, then the next, then the next.

Maybe I need to slow my roll and see this professional transition as an opportunity to revisit my youth. Block by block I can build a future that looks exactly the way I want it. If I don’t like what I built, I can always knock it down and start all over.

That’s the glory of a foundation built with the cornerstones of love, support, education, and faith. Blocks up or blocks down, I know I’ll always be ok.

Step one accomplished.

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