Learn or I Will Hurt You

This threat of learning “or else” is a ridiculous notion. Yet I wonder if that’s what schools do to kids every day. I’ve been guilty of this punishment dance myself (do your homework or I will make you stay into your break) and I do it because it works. But does it really?

When kids can’t wait to get out of school, when they dump their work in the recycle bin without looking back, when they huff and puff about this adult or that one…we may be winning the battle but I think we just may be losing the war.

These questions come to me as I’ve just finished a chapter review on school culture. When we have a culture of “Learn or I will hurt you” (Barth, 2007), then I think school might become little more than an exercise in quiet agitation and discontent (Lusiani Elliott, 2011).

Barth says we need to change the culture of schools to say instead, “Learn or you will hurt yourself.” I agree, and I use this angle too. Trouble is, they don’t always believe me.

What’s a teacher to do?

The Hidden Success in the MORE Failure

 As far as failures go, I just don’t do them. Not that I don’t ever fail, but I generally bail out before I do. I’m one of those people who would rather not try than to try and not succeed—pretty much a failure in and of itself, but at least one I don’t have to look in the eye. I see the same thing so clearly in my older son; sadly it took watching it in him to see it in myself.

He’s afraid of failure, my son, and so am I. That’s why we only tackle challenges we can win and why we only attempt feats we know we can complete. In short, we are afraid of what might happen if we step up and strike out. Truth be told, we are also afraid of the home run. Striving to succeed beyond our wildest dreams, it seems, may be even scarier than failure.

I’ve battled this in him for years, urging him to try, to learn from my mistakes and put himself out there to experience new things—to essentially do what I said and not what I did. Clearing out my own baggage (or starting to, anyway) opened me up to see my hypocrisy in a way I couldn’t before. How would he have the courage to get on that bike and ride if I wouldn’t? How could he have the courage to dive off the end of the dock if I couldn’t?

We often do for our kids what we can’t for ourselves and so, once I realized how my behavior was affecting him, it was off the dock I jumped.

Actually, the dock diving (or flopping as I think the case may be) will have to wait a few more months. For now the diving takes on different forms, mostly having to do with my writing. I’ve submitted ten pieces to eight different outlets and each and every one of them have come back rejected. Like any art, writing is so personal and to have it sent back with an, “It just doesn’t work for us” or, worse, no note at all, can do the heart some damage.

After each rejection I did my fair share of sulking. If I was honest I would admit that I did a lot more than sulking; it was more like a repeated internal combustion. Within an hour I would pull myself together, find some perspective, and move on; but each time I also had that, “Why did I even try?” moment that all people who fear failure have after a potential accomplishment goes wrong.

Enter MORE magazine, a magazine for “women of style and substance.” Now if ever there is a magazine for me, this is it so when they opened a contest for real beauty it had to be considered.  I think I’m a reasonably attractive woman who is smart and saavy and has a story to tell about having the courage to defy convention in order to find a path to healing. That’s “real” beauty, right?

And then I turned the computer off because, although I had the courage to defy convention, I didn’t have the courage to put myself in front of everyone I knew in a way that said, “Hell ya, I’m beautiful, and I want you to vote for me because you know it too!” Old ghosts that whispered, “Who do you think you are?” swooped in and out of my head and my heart and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve spent a lot of years living at 85% as to not attract that old ghost again and here I was considering entering abeauty contest? And one that required people to vote for me in order to be considered by the editors? Two words to that bad boy: Hell no.

And yet it nagged at me, this contest. Maybe it would open doors for me to write for the magazine. Winning the prize money would allow me to publish my book and get my company started. And what better way to show my son that it’s ok to jump off the proverbial dock (or in this case, what felt like a cliff) just for the opportunity itself?

It took me over a week to wrangle this elusive courage, to stand up to the ghost when it asked that question that was meant to imprison me in falsely constructed mediocrity. “Who do you think you are?!” it shouted at me when I clicked “submit” on my application.

“Nicole effing Lusiani Elliott, that’s who!” I shouted back. Literally. My dog jumped to his feat growling at who might be threatening me. Funny thing, no one was there. The ghosts retreated. And I moved forward.

And so the canvassing for votes began. For six weeks this was the routine: email, facebook, tweet, repeat. To my utter delight, no one asked who I thought I was (at least to my face). Instead, they asked how they could help. They said things like “Good for you!” and “I’m so proud of you!” and, wait for it, “You’re so brave!”

Brave. I knew I could do brave privately but to do so publicly was a whole different scenario. To put myself and my work forward for public scrutiny—what if I got equally public rejection? Or worse, what if I just got silence? But I didn’t, and each and every time someone emailed me with encouragement and wrote on my wall with the number vote they were for the day and re-tweeted my tweets to solicit votes from their friends—quite honestly it was nothing short of awe inspiring. I haven’t felt so much support since the last time I had the courage to do something I thought couldn’t but went ahead and did it anyway.

There’s a message there, right? I know.

Because of the generosity of friends and family I did make it to the final round. Out of ten thousand women I was the number 81 vote getter. This was meant to be, I thought. I’m going to make it! I’m on my way to a new career doing something I know I’m called to do!

And then, the silence. The deadline for awarding the prizes came and went with no email or phone call from MORE magazine. No trip to New York, no prize money, no cleverly established meeting with editors to discuss my fabulous column idea. Nothing–except silence.

I almost went to the internal combustion place that day. But then I didn’t. I took a deep breath and remembered the love that was sent so generously my way. I took another and remembered that, a year ago, I would have succumbed to that ghost and not even tried. I took another and remembered that now when my son asks, “what if…” I can say, “You’ll be just fine.” And he’ll believe me because he knows I’ve faced fear and survived failure and lived to tell the tale.

With some distance between then and now my thoughts have evolved further. Failure? What failure? I stood up to the ghosts inside my head and heart and now they’re gone. And I did it by drawing on the strength of my love for my child as well as the love I received from others.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger success than this particular failure. Thank you, courage, for showing me that everything I needed has been inside me all along.

Copyright 2011 • NicoleLusianiElliott.com • All Rights Reserved

The Miracle of the 3-Hole Punch

In the copy room this morning, a miracle happened. Someone had come in during the dark of night and lubricated the 3-Hole Punch.

You mean to tell me I can hole punch 20 papers at a time and they lift right out? Without pleading? Without banging it against the table? Hallelujah and Amen because this is the best morning I’ve had in weeks!

As I exited the copy room a colleague remarked, “Wow, Elliott, you look like you are having a good day,” to which I replied, “The 3 Hole punch is lubricated!” to which he replied, “Oh my God, are you serious? How awesome!”

As I watched this grown man leap into the room to check out the glory of a newly lubricated 3-hole punch I smiled. And then I paused.

What the hell am I thinking?

While I applaud any moment of gratitude as I do the value for the little-things-in-life-that-aren’t-so-little, I have to wonder. Pure elation from a newly lubricated 3-hole punch? Doesn’t this really speak to just how difficult this job has become? A kind colleague brought some WD40 from home, gave it a few squirts, and the copy room is now a place of joy? What would the people who relentlessly criticize public school teachers say about this event?  Would they even understand just how bad things are if they could see us high-fiving each other over the miracle of a working hole punch?

Still lamenting on these questions as I passed out papers to my students, I was shaken from my storm cloud when the one of my kids said, “Ms. Elliott, look how nice these handouts are hole punched!”and several others nodded in agreement.

I paused again. The choice was mine: fall deeper into the dungeon of despair at the fact that my students are also so beaten down that even they notice a cleanly hole-punched copy or, instead, delight in the fact that, even though they are beaten down, they noticed a cleanly hole-punched piece of paper.

I chose the latter. Beaten down or not, I love the fact that the little-things-that-aren’t- so-little delight people who share my days. After all, what matters more than them?

(And to Jesse, who I know was the angel in the copy room, thanks for sharing your kindness–and your WD40.)