shake it off; you’ll be fine

Twenty years ago, before I had children of my own, I taught seventh-grade language arts.  I became a decent teacher, but my first year, I was a disorganized mess.  At one point, I had my students working on a group project.  Each group was assigned a short story to read and present to the class.  The presentation was supposed to include a dramatic scene from the story.

One of my groups painted a brick wall on butcher paper and taped the paper over a book shelf to be used as their backdrop.  In the final moments of their scene, one student, Heather, was supposed to punch a hole in the fake brick wall.

The scene went well, but when Heather threw her punch, she inadvertently landed her fist on the lip of one of the shelves.  Instead of punching through the paper, she ran her hand into wood.

She was momentarily stunned.  Obviously hitting wood hurts.  She asked to go to go to the nurse.  “Shake it off,” I said.  “You’ll be fine.”

The next day Heather arrived at school with a cast on her arm.  The poor girl broke her wrist.

I was reminded of this story yesterday when I took my youngest daughter to our pediatrician.  “She has a cough,” I explained.

“How long has this been going on?” Doctor Dave asked.

I counted days in my head. “It started when we got our new puppy.  I’m worried she might be allergic to him.  She’s been coughing for about three weeks.”

Our doctor listened here and there with his stethoscope.

“She has walking pneumonia,” he said.

Initially I was so relieved.  “So Ella isn’t coughing because of the puppy.”

“No,” Doctor Dave said.  “She is coughing because of the pneumonia.”

“So, I guess she’s probably not just gonna shake that off?”

Our new puppy, who did not cause Ella's pneumonia

Our new puppy, who did not cause Ella’s pneumonia

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fearlessly authentic

Jason Collins is the first NBA player to announce that he is gay.  Jason received a call from President Obama praising his efforts as a role model. It is a little unsettling to realize that in 2013 one’s sexual orientation is still news, but as a former high school teacher, I celebrate Jason’s willingness to be the first in his profession to blaze this trail.

I worked with a handful of openly gay/lesbian teens when I taught English.  They were fearless souls, all of them.  Being fifteen and open is a tremendous act of courage.  I knew many straight teens who spent countless hours concerned with the impression they were leaving on others.  It is hard to be authentic in an environment where the right pair of shoes matters so dearly.  To be fully out of the closet in high school is like walking around with your heart outside your rib cage; one is left so achingly vulnerable without armor.

I worked with one student, Chris, who was particularly stunning in his courage.

Chris spent the beginning of his life as a little girl.  He went to grade school with most of his classmates and was known by a different name during those years.  By the time middle school rolled around, Chris had made some serious decisions in his life.  The most notable being that he did not actually consider himself a girl.

As his peers looked on, Chris slowly peeled away his feminine exterior.  By the time he landed in high school, he had a crew cut.  He had bound down his breasts, camouflaged his female curves with massively baggy clothes, pierced one ear, and  changed his name.

He was a bright, quiet kid.  He did his work; he faded into the background.  Chris wasn’t on the receiving end of constant outward violence.  He didn’t get beat up daily, or to my knowledge, threatened.  Chris was quite simply ignored.  Kids thought he was weird; they talked about him behind his back; they referred to him by his old female name; they disrespected him with their cold-shoulder treatment and feelings of superiority.

I often wonder what happened to Chris.  He would be in his mid-twenties now.  I hope he lives in a great community; I hope he is involved in a career he loves.  Most of all, I hope the world has stopped ignoring him.  I hope everyday he is seen and heard.  And someday soon I hope one’s sexual orientation is no longer news.  It shouldn’t warrant a phone call from the president because it shouldn’t matter to any of us.

 

lucky

Years ago I had a student named Stacy.  Stacy was a quirky loaner who had trouble navigating the high school social system.  One day she came to me and said, “I’ve decided to change my name.  From now on, I would like you to call me Lucky.”

I hesitated to do as she asked.  After all, if I called her Lucky in front of the class, students would make fun of her.  Then again, kids were making fun of Stacy long before she proclaimed herself Lucky, so I granted her request for the rest of the year.

Months later she approached me.  “I asked all my teachers to change my name,” she said.  “But you were the only one who actually did.”

“Well,” I said.  “I think each of us has the right to define ourselves however we want, and you helped remind me of that.”

Perhaps defining and redefining ourselves as we see fit is what makes us all lucky!