Sunday, April 22, 2012

Outsider


Recently I had this dream:
I am in a classroom. While the teacher and her young students sit in a circle on chairs, I sit outside the circle, at a student-sized metal desk. The teacher tells a female student to pick a card from a nearby wooden cubby. The card will be the conversation starter for the circle. The little girl chooses a card and reads it aloud. The teacher rolls her eyes as the student speaks; she was supposed to let the teacher read the card. The card is about dreams. I recognize its important message and, inspired, begin jotting notes in the margins of a hand-out that is the teacher's. When she looks at the notes I tell her I will erase them.


This dream reminds me how significant our dreams are, and that it is essential to speak them aloud. Had the little girl in the dream not "accidentally" verbalized the dream message, I might not have felt the passion that fueled me to write my spontaneous insight. And, although the hand-out I write my message on belongs to the teacher, I am compelled to record it, nonetheless. The fact that I must erase my insight from the teacher's hand-out, speaks to me of censorship. But the message, even erased, will no doubt remain indelible in my mind, just as words can never be truly erased from a paper.

This dream does speak an important message to me: I feel pressure to conform to the group, forsaking my own significance.
 It is apropos that the dream is presented in a classroom, indeed I often felt like an outsider in one. I must say, except first grade, when I knew the mission was to learn to read, I never really understood much of why I was ever in a classroom--until my college years. Oh I went through the motions along with the others, pretending to be interested, trying even. Sometimes a story we were reading would grab me, but most of the time, the information we received and the activities we did felt sporadic, unattached to "real" life. I often felt trapped and suppressed in the six hours a day I spent in school, counting the audible minutes of the ticking clock and thinking about the things that mattered outside the walls. It felt like an awfully long time to be at the mercy of oft moody adults, seemingly uninspired themselves.

What grabbed me the most in school were the unspoken things: mannerisms of those around me, the individual styles of my friends' handwriting, the voice and emotion of the teacher as she spoke, the colors on the walls, the artwork, the windows.

Many days the outdoors called to me, the house across the street became my imagined home. Inside was warm and cozy on a gray day, the mother was home with her children and we were baking cookies.

This isn't to put the teachers down, I think they were trying, it's just that I didn't see the world in the terms they instructed us to follow. The terms felt constricting, too black and white, censored if you will. I wanted to touch what we were learning or at least have some practical reason for why I needed to learn what was before me on the page. I needed to relate, I wanted to get to the heart of what was going on, beyond the books.


In fairness, I do recall a few other things that were helpful to learn besides reading, like learning multiplication tables in the third grade. What wasn't helpful was the record thirty-plus kids in the small room that year, we were packed in like sardines and our plump, grumpy teacher, chronic sweat stains under her arms, seemed to have all the less patience for it, as if it was our fault. She used sarcasm a lot.


I think that was the year I officially knew that I probably wasn't going to fit into the typical "tribe."

I had just moved from the city, to a small town school because my parents thought it would provide me with a better education. Sadly, they did not know how far from the truth this would be. Besides the fact that I was displaced, and most likely because of it, I became the target of the class bully, who was untouchable because her father was the principal. It mattered not to those at the school, that I skipped an impressive thirty days of school that year, sneaking back home after my mother left for work. I was simply an inconvenience for the poor sweaty teacher, one more head to fill in her already massive sea of heads, a brand new, unengaged head at that. In fairness, how could I be, when I was in constant survival mode!


Why I would run after, and try to catch, the group of girls the bully had convinced to flee from me daily on recess as she counted, "One, Two THREE!" I will never really understand, but I'll tell you this, it formed my dislike of groupthink.


Now I always feel like that little girl in the dream who speaks out of turn, when I am at a group function. I think that year of falling outside of the tribe solidified my commitment to speak the truth, uncensored. Sometimes that's inconvenient when I am in a group that just wants me to adapt to their way of thinking.
 
I've made it my mission to especially speak up about classroom practices, first as a teacher, and now as a parent and a concerned citizen. Recently, I sat with a group of distinguished educators who were discussing the current climate of our public school system, in relation to the potential success or failure of the students at hand. A bunch of numbers was being thrown out, but what struck me was the number six thousand. We have six thousand students who go through our twelve year system. I mentioned how if, instead of test scores, we focused on wellness, in the form of building relationships amongst peers, as well as students and teachers, imagine how that could one day impact our city as these children trickled out into our community as well-adjusted citizens. It seemed to make so much sense to me, but the concept, while held in large-eyed gaze by the group leader for a few seconds, was soon buried under another pile of numbers.

There are committees that claim wellness as their focus, but very little of the committees' work truly trickles into the average student's school day causing them to have an overall feeling of wellness. I know; I talk to children constantly about how they feel in school.


Since writing this story, many, many more remembrances of being outside the circle have returned to me. And yet, though it is a solitary position at times, I still feel determined to circumvent the groupthink and walk (or run) to my genuine place.

Oh yes, just like the little girl, I am eager to read the card, regardless of proper protocol, and though it earns me no place in the circle. I just have to speak up sometimes.