Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Power of Vulnerability in the Classroom

"Life always begins with one step outside of your comfort zone." --Shannon Adler

The other night, I decided that I was going to watch the Perseid meteor shower. I camped out on my deck and fashioned a makeshift viewing area by artfully arranging our patio furniture so that I could best see the sky without the distraction of the streetlights. I settled myself down on the patio cushions and stared up at the sky, determined to see a few meteors.

At first, it didn’t look like many stars were out that night, and I wondered if perhaps my quest was ill-fated. Sure, I saw the old standbys--the Big Dipper, Polaris--the ones everyone knows and expects to see when they crane their neck skywards. But as I lay there, my eyes began to adjust to the dark, and more stars began to appear, dotting the sky haphazardly like freckles on a face. These stars were smaller, more subtle, but just as beautiful. I began to mentally run through ways to describe what I was seeing, but the tired, old ways of describing the night sky were the only metaphors rattling around in my brain.

As I continued to ponder how to best capture what I was seeing, I saw my first meteor--a pencil-thin streak of light that I barely caught out of the corner of my eye. Buoyed by this, I continued to muse. There had to be a way to capture this moment in words. I let my mind spool away for awhile, and I thought about everything that was crowding the corners of my mind lately: school was starting next week, I was feeling tired already, and the familiar refrain that I believe bounces around in every good teacher’s head was echoing loudly: “Will I be enough for these kids?”

For me, perhaps this refrain is slightly more relevant: I am an introverted teacher.

When I tell people this, they are usually surprised, citing my ability to be “on” during my classes and socialize with ease. But they don’t see me after the performance: exhausted, mentally drained, in need of some time to be alone. To put it concisely, teaching stretches me thin. At times, I feel like a beloved blanket that’s been washed too many times, loved too much, drug through too many interesting scenarios to name. I feel like I am fraying at the edges and that the repeated wash cycles of school have begun to create holes in the very fabric of me. If held up to the light, I wonder, would my students see right through me in the spots where I’ve worn thin from the exhausting dance of being “on,” being there, listening, smiling, nodding and teaching?

Pushing these worries aside, I focused on the sky again, and I looked at those stars that I hadn’t seen at first, those tiny, pinpricks of light that pushed through the darkness. I thought about the year that stretched before me. And, like a meteor’s unscheduled appearance, I had my metaphor when I least expected it.

Maybe we can only see the stars because the fabric of the sky has worn thin in some spots, allowing the brilliance to shine through. Small yet powerful. And, for me, maybe the holes in my fabric are a good thing. Maybe they are where I am vulnerable, where I am allowing myself to be worn thin so that I can share myself with my students, the small bits of light that my introverted self sometimes wants to keep hidden. Maybe it’s where the best of me shines through.

Teaching pushes me. It pushes me outside of where I am comfortable, and yes, it wears me thin sometimes. But that’s when I am able to see the parts of myself that I nor anyone else would have ever seen otherwise.

This year, I hope I remember my time watching the stars when I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and in need of a break. I’ll take time to breathe, but I’ll remember: there’s power in the vulnerability.

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