This week is teacher appreciation week at my children’s school and my kids have been coming up with all kinds of creative ideas to show their appreciation. And by creative, I mean, completely unrealistic and possible illegal. Selah has suggested that since her teacher does not have any children, we should adopt a baby and give it to her. When I broke the news that adopting a baby simply to give it to someone might not be the best plan, she decided that instead, we should give her a hundred kittens. I’m actually not sure which idea would be more difficult.
It doesn’t take much effort to find written opinions about the state of education in our country and what is wrong with it. I have five documentaries alone on my Netflix queue about the public school system. For my Mama Monday series, I currently have four questions about public school. I am not a teacher, but I imagine that it can be discouraging at times to feel like you are fighting a huge system, and getting blamed for things you have no control over. I can imagine there are times you’d like to walk out of the doors and find a job that does not involve kids or parents. I imagine there are times you grit your teeth and smile at a parent as they berate you for something that is actually their fault. I can imagine that you look over your personal budget, and choose to forgo something so that you can purchase something for your classroom. I can imagine that there are times you think why in the world did I choose to be a teacher?
I know there’s joy. I know there are amazing days. But I can imagine that there are also days you don’t know if what you say matters.
Let me tell you why I think it does.
I was an above average student in elementary school. I liked pleasing my teachers, and I genuinely enjoyed learning. I was a voracious reader, and had a natural curiosity that helped me in those early years. Starting in about third grade, I started getting noticed for singing. I have a very distinct memory of sitting in music class in the third grade, singing “Senior Don Gato”, while my teacher walked around. She leaned down to listen to me sing, and whispered “my goodness Brandy, you can really sing!” My little eight year old heart swelled with pride, and I sat up a bit straighter and sang a bit louder about the cat who came back to life.
Sixth grade was a dramatic shift for me, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally. At that point in my life, my father had just left town and remarried. Things at home were rough financially, which I had not noticed before, but all of a sudden, there was pressure to wear certain clothes, look a certain way, and be able to attend social events, all of which cost money. Added to this was that I began to have significant struggles in math, and unfortunately, my first experience with having a bad teacher was my sixth grade math teacher. He was sarcastic and short-tempered. He was impatient and condescending. His statement to me one day was – “Brandy, did you really think this answer was right?” and then he whispered “You can’t be that stupid!”
That word would worm its way into my heart and whisper to me through the rest of middle school onto high school. I couldn’t even argue with him- I didn’t understand math. And somewhere along the way, believing I was stupid just became easier, and started to filter down to other subjects. But I was still standing out in music, so I clung to that like a life raft, consoled by the idea that even if I never understood what the value of X was, I could still sing better than anyone in my class. Even with a relationship with Christ at age twelve, I didn’t understand finding my value in Him, so I continued to find it in what I did well, and tried to forgive myself in the ways I was failing. Awards started to stack up, and I started to dream about stages and bright lights. I remember praying and thanking God for giving me a talent, and believing that He must have given me a talent to make sure that I would be able to have a career, since I wasn’t that smart.
In high school, my life centered around choir. It was my social outlet, my way of fitting in, my way of coping with teenage angst, but more importantly, it was what I believed gave me worth. My days were categorized by whether I was having a good voice day or a bad voice day. If my choir teachers were pleased with my performance, I was on cloud nine. If they weren’t, I didn’t just feel like I let them down, I felt like I was worth less in their eyes. In competitions, I didn’t think anyone understood- I didn’t compete just for fun (in fact, I hated competing and still do. I lack a competitive spirit), I competed because winning wasn’t just nice, it felt life altering. I remember my senior year talking to myself before auditioning for All State choir and saying “You better get it right. This is what you do”
This is what you do. I might as well have said “this is all you CAN do”, because that’s what I believed.
I had teachers in high school that tried to encourage me to try harder in their classes, but I really believed that I just wasn’t very smart, so why bother trying? Why would I use time studying something that I was going to fail at anyway, when i could be using that time to practice the thing I needed to be good at? I also had some really painful experiences with a teacher that led me to believe that not only was I not a good person, I wasn’t really even a good singer, and because I had wrapped up my whole sense of worth in performing musically and what this teacher thought of me, I felt like everything was being stripped away. These experiences would continue to affect me into adulthood.
I went on to be a music major in college. A mess of a girl, full of insecurities, immature faith and a boatload of issues with men and authority. I walked around those first two years, gun-shy and flinching, just waiting for careless words or mocking cruelty. I can’t imagine the party I must have been for my voice teachers.(sarcasm). Somewhere in my third year, I felt stirrings of discontent, and thoughts that I wasn’t sure this is what I wanted to do professionally. This was TERRIFYING for me. So much so that I ignored this voice for almost a year. Saying that I love music sounds trite, because the truth is, music feeds my soul. It is a huge source of joy, and aside from reading His word, it’s the way I fall in love with Him. But I felt like I was walking around, constantly trying to gauge if I was good enough, and therefore, good enough to be loved.
Maybe it was an impulsive decision. Maybe ill-advised. But I was choking on the hold of my own insecurities and unhappiness, and I decided to change my major. That’s right- I lost 90 hours of classes that I had paid for. Clearly I wasn’t changing it to finance. I had taken an into to psychology class and had loved it. Psychology fascinates me, it always has. Even when I was a music major, I found myself wanting to know more about a composers background, in order to understand why they would write the way they did, or I would be really interested in how a person’s internal dialogue affected their stage presence. I prefered an imperfect broken tone that came from an honest emotion over the technically perfect, yet cold performances that are common in music majors. So I changed my major to psychology, thinking that maybe I would figure out what I wanted to do along the way of finishing my degree. I honestly felt defeated. The thing I thought defined me, the one thing I thought I was good at, the thing I thought made me worth something to people…it was gone.
I took a class in counseling theories with a professor named Dr. Jill Waters, a smart, soft-spoken woman who taught in a way that captured my attention. I remember this so vividly, because there are moments that He is gracious to allow us to freeze in our hearts, because they are moments that He teaches us something about Himself and others. I took a midterm in her class and the question outlined a situation and asked to describe what was happening according to a particular theory of our choice. I chose Murray Bowen and his theory of differentiation. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Turned it in. Thought- that’s the best I can do, and I hope it’s enough to pass.
A few weeks went by and she handed back our exams. This is what was written on the top of my page-
“Brandy, this is excellent work. This is grad school material! I hope you are considering applying.”
At the risk of sounding like a completely nerd, I will tell you that I still have that exam.
All of a sudden, I was back in the third grade, singing about that dumb cat, being praised for being good at something. I carried that exam around for weeks.
I am sure she didn’t even realize her words would matter that much. I am sure she didn’t know her words would go a long ways towards pushing out the voice in my head that whispered “stupid” to me. I am sure she didn’t know that up until that point, it never even crossed my mind that I would be able to get into graduate school, much less do well in it. And I am positive she didn’t know that her words opened up a world to me where I didn’t have to find identity in music alone.
The rest of the story is- I did apply to graduate school. I did get accepted. I graduated in two years with a 4.0 and won an award for Outstanding Graduate Student. And I started the road of recovery- the road that would lead me to today in resting in my worth as being solely connected in who I am in Christ. That what I am worth has nothing to do with how well I sing, or how much I study, or my grades, or today- what I write or blog stats or twitter followers.
I still fight the voice that tells me that my worth is wrapped up in how I perform. I still work on forgiveness for those who gave those words an actual voice. There’s grace. I am sure those teachers didn’t know I’d always hear their words. I am sure they didn’t know the wounds it would cause. They just didn’t know.
Teachers, what you do matters. Your words matter. There were words that crushed my heart, and three sentences that helped repair it. I pray that my words will matter, that you will know that you are loved and prayed for.
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