The Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger Discussion: November 2016

How do you as teachers support children who are confused or frightened by events going on in their world?

election-2016As a parent, I had to calm my son down before he went to bed Tuesday night and when he woke up Wednesday morning. His “I’m scared, Mom” was difficult for me to hear because I had to take responsibility for his fears. I made negative comments before the election about Donald Trump in front of my son, and told him I was confident that Americans would not elect a person like that to represent our country. When we woke up to that shocking reality, I realized how I let my son down.

What I should have done is emphasized that the government was set up as a three-branch system to make sure that none of them would have too much power, so our president will always be tempered by two other branches, limiting his power and control.

What I should have done is told my son the truth about politicians: They work for us. They may make a lot of promises and threaten a lot of things, but politicians are supposed to serve the Americans they represent. They are supposed to, but that fact hasn’t actually been true for a long time. And, truthfully, we are responsible for letting politicians get away with serving themselves rather than the American people.

What I should have told my son is that many media sources want money more than they want to be vehicles for truth, so if they can get our attention with fear, they will also get money. We need to be discerning on how we get our information and what we blindly believe without investigating further.

Now, I am changing the conversation to empower my son and college students; I am speaking more passionately at home and in my classrooms about how to take our power back.

What I am now telling my son and students is that we have been given a wakeup call. There is no room for fear in our lives. Neither can we sit idly by and hope for the best. We have to let our representatives know what we want and what we will not accept. We have to investigate what our elected officials are actually doing with the trust we have put in them. We have to make our voices heard and back up our voices with action.

What I am continuing to tell my son and students is that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. If we want equality, then we must treat everyone as equals. If we want kindness and compassion, then we need to come alongside people in need to let them know they are not alone. If we want our voices to be heard, then we cannot silence those who see the world differently than we do, and that includes President-elect Trump. If we want to protect our environment, then we need to stop being wasteful and start supporting renewable, clean energy sources. If we want to feel secure in our beautiful country, then we need to stand up for our rights as Americans; we need to stand up to the bullies on the playground and in our governing houses—not with violence but with knowledge, courage, and solidarity.

Bottom line, as teachers and parents we need to support students and children who are confused or frightened by role modeling equality, kindness, compassion, intelligence, and fortitude.

http://www.cmrubinworld.com/the-global-search-for-education-top-global-teacher-bloggers-children-are-listening

Healthy Choices: Essential Oils

I’m happy to announce that I have joined doTERRA Essential Oils as a wellness advocate.

I was introduced to doTerra by a friend who has been using essential oils for years now. In the past she has given me oils for stress/anxiety, stomach aches, fever and body aches, and they have worked every time. At first, I thought it was coincidence, honestly, but the more research I did on essential oils, the more sense it made. People have been using essential oils for food preparation and health-care since the beginning of time.

In fact, many of the products we purchase in stores now are just synthetic versions of these natural oils. I truly believe that many of those synthetic, chemical products have created a health crisis in our society. Most of you know all too well about my son’s rare, cancerous brain tumor. Could his cancer, as well as so many other health problems around the world, been caused by these foreign chemicals that surround us?

In response to this belief, I have eliminated as many chemical products as possible over the last six months, and it has improved both our lives significantly. We are eating healthier, cleaning healthier, and allowing our bodies to heal with natural products instead of chemically created medicines. Not only do we clean with and ingest these oils, Ian and I also use a diffuser with essential oils for sore throats, congestion, and insomnia, and we wake up feeling healthy and rested.

img_2201A few products that I’ve been using on a daily basis for the last three months are lemon and peppermint oils. I have used other oils for specific reasons, but these two I take daily in my water and the effects are amazing. Every morning I mix about 5-6 drops of lemon oil and 2-3 drops of peppermint oil (too much peppermint can be overpowering) in a 2-quart container of regular tap water. I drink this water throughout the day. At first, I just liked the taste. It was a cool, refreshing drink without sugar or chemical additives. It helped me to fulfill the daily water requirement experts say our bodies need to stay healthy and hydrated. That in itself was a win for me.

As time went on, I started to notice that my desire for alcohol started to wane. I used to crave (for a lack of a better word) a glass of wine or a bottle of beer at the end of the day to help me unwind, but that craving stopped. Interestingly enough, I celebrated my 52nd birthday in October and was drinking, but it actually felt like I couldn’t overdo it. I was aware how much I was drinking because I was worried about the hangover I was sure to have because the older I get the worse those hangovers have become (like an all-day-long hangover). On my birthday, everyone was buying me drinks, but I didn’t feel drunk, while those around me were pretty intoxicated. The next morning, I wasn’t hungover at all. If anything, I was just tired from the late night. I thought that was pretty weird, but didn’t think much about it until I became a doTerra wellness advocate and started learning more about these two oils that I was using on a daily basis.

First, Lemon Essential Oil cleanses my liver and kidneys, and Lemon and Peppermint oils are known for their digestive benefits. I now know why I didn’t get a hangover. My liver and kidneys are functioning so well that my body just removed the toxins immediately. Because of the digestive benefits of both oils, I didn’t feel nauseated either. I no longer “crave” alcohol because these oils also have emotional benefits. Lemon oil helps with clarity, inspiration, and confidence. Peppermint oil opens the heart to joy and happiness, settles anxious feelings, and dissolves fears. I don’t need to “escape” from my day, which is why I craved alcohol.

If these things aren’t enough, here are a few other ways I have seen a difference in my life:

I started menopause in June, and I was struggling with intense hot flashes, especially in the middle of the night, which affected my sleep. During the day, I would go from a hot flash to chills, usually while teaching. I would lose my concentration and often forget what I was saying. After I started using the oils, besides putting the two oils in my water, I also created a body spray with lemon, peppermint, and lavender oils. My hot flashes stopped.

Whenever I have an upset stomach, I crush a DoTerra Peppermint Bead (a drop of oil in a beadlet) in my mouth, and the stomach ache stops immediately, almost like a Pepto-Bismol, but without the chalky taste and harmful chemicals. I also crush a peppermint beadlet after I eat at work to counteract any bad breath from the meal. It’s better than chewing gum, especially since I’m a teacher and shouldn’t talk while I’m chewing.

Ian is going through that painful growth spurt where his knee joint swells. It’s a common ailment for children between 10 and 15, and the only cure is time, but I have been putting Deep Blue oil-blend rub on his knee, and it instantly lessens his pain.

The other day, Ian was coughing and his chest sounded congested. A few days before he had spent the day with his sister who had a cough and congestion. I thought he must have picked up her cold. I gave Ian the bottle of On Guard oil blend, just to inhale the scent, and he stopped coughing and didn’t get sick.

I am looking forward to discovering the other benefits. I will keep you posted on my experiences with essential oils. Let me know if you’d like more information or would like to try any of the oils. I’ll be happy to assist you!

Here is my page on doTerra if you’d like to look at some of the products and the information on the company: https://www.mydoterra.com/paulinehawkins/#/

Top 12 Global Teacher Blogger Discussion: August 2016

diversityHow do you help students accept and work well with people of different beliefs, cultures, languages, socio-economic statuses, education backgrounds, and learning styles? 

Acceptance and respect are best taught through example. As a teacher, I set the mood, tone, and pace of the classroom. If I mistreat any student in my classroom, it will give students permission to do the same. That old adage “Do as I say, not as I do” must have been coined by someone who didn’t understand human nature. If we want our children/students to accept those with different beliefs, cultures, etc., then we need to show them how it’s done. The number of teachers who have admitted to rolling their eyes, smirking, and/or belittling students in the classroom that they found weird or culturally different amazes me; then, those same teachers will complain about how nasty other students are to them or to other students. It’s easy to make the connection between the two situations, yet some teachers would rather blame children for the negativity rather than themselves. I know it’s hard to change children’s behavior in all aspects of their lives if their parents are modeling negative behavior, but teachers can impact students’ behaviors within their classrooms.

Not only do I model kindness and understanding in my classroom, but I also share with my students how every child/teenager/adult I have met and worked with helps me to grow. Every person that comes into our lives has something important to teach us. I’m always learning something new because of the diverse people in my life. While being exposed to a beautiful array of cultural differences improves my knowledge, it also improves my empathy—a necessary emotion that allows us to become healthy and connected human beings. Without empathy, we become selfish and in extreme cases, narcissistic and/or sociopathic. When we can look beyond skin color, clothing brand, religious symbols, and chosen paths, and care to hear the stories and see the similarities within each of us, we will realize that we have more in common than we think. Whether we know someone’s story or not, it’s safe to assume that everyone is struggling with something. Wouldn’t it be horrible to add pain to someone’s already difficult life?

The other important thing to teach children/students is the difference between opinions and facts. We are living in a society that believes in the validity of its own opinions. Although everyone is free to have an opinion, it doesn’t mean that every opinion carries equal weight, especially those opinions that have no basis in factual evidence. This is part of critical thinking skills, but it must be taught from the position of compassion rather than pure logic. Some opinions come from inductive and deductive reasoning, and others come from fear and prejudice. Regardless, all opinions are worn like a badge of honor. It is only through patience and informed discussions that we can help our children/students open their eyes to the biases that have formed those weightless, negative opinions. Through these critical thinking discussions, students will remember those role models and begin to practice empathy, learning to accept and work well with people who are different from them.

http://www.cmrubinworld.com/the-global-search-for-education-the-top-global-teacher-bloggers-august-2016

Sid Glassner’s Inside Education with Pauline Hawkins

Click on the link below to get to the discussion segments.

Bullying and How It Can Be Addressed

For information on inviting Pauline Hawkins to your school for student assemblies or teacher workshops on bullying or empathy training, please email her at pdhawk1010@msn.com

YouTube, Armor, and Winning the War

Me and IanAs some of you know, Ian has a YouTube channel (link). He’s been making and uploading videos since he was 7 years old. I have been monitoring his site. I get an email whenever someone comments on his videos, and then I delete and report anyone who makes a nasty comment. He’s been called names like retard, idiot, and fat. Up until now, I have protected him from the harshness of social media, waiting until I felt he was old enough and strong enough to deal with it on his own. However, I didn’t sit idle, expecting Ian to develop armor without help; so while I’ve been deleting comments, I’ve also been “training” him for these realities. Elementary school is the perfect time to build up the necessary armor. What used to be a middle school battleground has now filtered down to the younger years. Ian has had many opportunities to practice what I preach. It may seem unfortunate that someone so young would have to deal with children and adults attacking his intelligence, integrity, motivation, and character, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a blessing to be present and involved in these battles. Is there a better way to train him and strengthen his armor than while he’s in my presence, surrounded by my love and guidance?

So, when a child tells him, “I hate you!” Ian and I talk about what happened before that comment. Did Ian do something to that child? If so, we talk about making better choices and apologizing for his behavior if necessary. If not, we talk about the fact that we don’t know what’s going on with that other child. Maybe he has some difficult situations he’s dealing with, and the best course of action is not to retaliate and just walk away.

If someone says, “You’re stupid or weird,” I explain to Ian that those types of comments say more about the other person than they do about him. If Ian is just being himself and other children think he’s being weird, Ian doesn’t have to change to please other people. He can tone it down, if he wants, but Ian is allowed to have his own personality and be his own person, as long as he is being kind and not hurting anyone.

I constantly repeat this mantra to him: “You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but you do need to be kind to everyone. You can’t change how someone else behaves or feels, but you can change how you react and whether or not you let someone else control how you feel about yourself.”

That all sounds cut and dried, but situations aren’t always that simple. Yes, I teach my son to be kind, but I also teach him to stand up for himself and for others who are weaker than he is. We had one situation in which a girl his age got so angry with Ian’s goofy personality because he was “annoying” her, that she dug her nails into his shoulder to get him to stop repeating his “Chuck Norris” phrase. Ian knocked her arm away. Even though Ian had claw marks on his shoulder, she ran home accusing Ian of hitting her, which started a small group of children, along with this girl’s parents, calling Ian a bully—of course they only heard the story from the girl. No one present at the incident believed Ian was a bully, but there is nothing we can do to change how those other people feel.

In another situation, Ian defended a friend against a much bigger person. Ian stood on tiptoes to get in a high school boy’s face about something this boy did to one of his friends. Luckily, this older boy called him “little man” and appreciated Ian’s loyalty to his friend, resolving the situation immediately. Ian and I did talk about choosing his battles wisely though.

Usually, I let Ian take care of these situations on his own and give him advice when he asks or I see he really needs it. However, there have been times I’ve had to step in, like when two mothers ganged up on Ian and accused him of “bullying” their daughters and being a “liar” … about everything, I guess. I know Ian is not perfect; I need to discipline him for some of his choices, but the things they accused Ian of did not happen, and Ian had a number of other students who witnessed the situation and came to his defense. He was eventually vindicated, but there are a few people around him who still believe the lie.

As you can see, we have had many opportunities to practice these lessons over the last few years, which has helped Ian to develop a pretty tough armor. He’s strong and confident, and mostly immune to the nastiness around him.

The other day, someone made a mean comment on one of his parcour videos from a few years back. Ian made that video before he really knew what parcour was. This person decide to say, “You suck” on his video. Now that Ian has his own iPad, he received the notification of the comment as well. We both looked at our devices at the same time. Ian told me, “Apparently, I suck.”

“Don’t worry, bud. I’ll report it.” My heart hurt a little for him; I knew there would be more of that down the road, especially with his older videos, so I suggested, “You know, if you want, we can delete some of the older videos you have on your channel. You’ve grown so much that those videos aren’t really a reflection of who you are now.” I fully expected him to say, “Yeah. Let’s do that.”

Instead, Ian said, “No. Let’s leave them, Mom. We can just report the people who say mean things. That person’s words didn’t hurt me. Besides, how else are people going to see how much I’ve improved as a director, if they can’t see how I started?”

My mouth hung open for a little while. If I taught him that, why was I so shocked by his answer? Maybe the answer is that I just gave him the necessary tools so that he could fashion his own armor, according to the situation.

We all want to protect our children from pain, but pain is a requisite for life. Protecting my son isn’t about keeping him out of the battle; it’s about helping him develop the armor he will need to win the inevitable wars.

Friday Writing Challenge: I Miss High School

Prompt: Something you miss

Capping two of my students at their Senior Breakfast in 2014
Capping two of my students at their Senior Breakfast in 2014

I miss high school—not my teenage years but the years I spent teaching high school English.

A few weeks ago, I went to the local high school with my son to see his friends play a 10-minute exhibition game as the half-time entertainment for the boys’ basketball game. As soon as I walked into the building, I felt the energy that only exists in a school: An energy fueled by youthful hope and ambition.

We were a little early, so we sat in the bleachers by Ian’s friends. As I looked at the faces on the court, I was disappointed that I didn’t know anyone. Then I immediately chastised myself. How could I know anyone in this building? I don’t teach here. I don’t teach at any high school anymore. My heart began to ache.

Ridiculously, I fought back tears. Why did I leave a place I loved so much? How could I resign from a position that defined my purpose in life? How could I leave the students who needed me?

I looked at the parents, siblings, students, and teachers sitting in the stands. In Colorado I would have had at least one if not five people approach me while I was sitting there—a student just to say hi or a parent thanking me for working with his or her child or an older sibling back from college telling me I made a difference. But here, in this high school, no one knows me: None know that I used to change lives for the better; none know that I would lose sleep worrying about students just like them; none know how much it meant to my students to see me sitting in bleachers just like these.

While Ian watched his friends play, I evaluated what to do with this surprising surge of emotion. Did this mean I should start applying for secondary teaching jobs? Would anyone even hire me after my public resignation letter? If so, could I really work fulltime in a public school again? That thought brought a new surge of pain and questions. How could I go back to a public school, no matter how much I loved it, when the reason I left still exists? How could I be part of a system that aims to replace hope and ambition with standards and test scores? How could I go back to a profession that is being exploited by corporate greed and destroyed by bureaucrats with little concern for our children?

As my mind and heart raced, I thought about my college students. I am still changing lives and losing sleep over them, but I’m not immersed in the community the way I was in high school. As an adjunct, I just show up for class. If a student has questions, I stay on campus a little longer, but I’m free to leave when I’m done. I know I am still making a difference with my college students, but at a community college, I have many nontraditional students who are no longer teenagers in their formative years. Nevertheless, they respond positively to my encouragement, tough love, and passion. Most of my students leave at the end of a semester better prepared for their futures. Some students, however, don’t make it to the end of the semester. They didn’t start this process with the necessary work ethic or resilience to battle through entitlement issues, to embrace the demands of a college class and grow stronger mentally and emotionally because of it—skills I made sure I taught in high school.

I also thought about my financial situation. I’m barely making it right now. I chose to work as an adjunct so that I would have time to write. But a part-time adjunct position has just as much work as a fulltime high school position with a quarter of the pay. So I have less money and still have limited time for writing. If I taught fulltime again, I would at least have money, but I wouldn’t have as much time with my son.

So where does this leave me? How do I get all of my son’s and my needs met without sacrificing my convictions? How can I still be part of a system that encourages and builds up students when they are at their most vulnerable?

This semester, I put a few things in place: I started tutoring a high school student, which has been great. I also am on the subbing list for the middle and high schools in the area. My son will be moving up next year, so I hope to have more jobs in the middle school—that would be the best of both worlds.

Last week, I had my first subbing assignment in the middle school—8th grade English. I felt the energy again as soon as I walked into the building. Being a substitute is definitely different from being the main classroom teacher: Some students tested my teaching abilities immediately. They brought their phones out, walked around the room, sat next to friends, talked while I talked, but they quickly found out I was in charge, but not with an iron fist. I smiled, laughed, and quietly controlled the room. Some students were sweet and wanted to talk to me. I loved it all! I felt like I was home. This was a viable solution for my heartache. Maybe, if I were there enough, students would remember and recognize me. I could be part of this system, encourage teenagers, and make some extra money.

Ironically, while Ian was jumping at Blitz and I was writing this post, a student from the 8th grade class I taught walked past me and stopped: “Hey! You’re the sub from the other day, aren’t you?”

I think this is going to work just fine.

This writing challenge was painful and cathartic. I cried while writing it, which helped me heal, but it also renewed my passion for true educational reformation.  After I published this post, I realized I had more to say about education and the teachers leaving the profession, like me, with broken hearts. I turned this challenge into a post that is now on Huffington Post. You can get to that post here.

Friday Writing Challenge: 10 Interesting Facts About Myself

This week’s prompt: Ten interesting facts about yourself.

  1. _MAC8790I’m a first generation American, born from Macedonian immigrants. This fact, however, is not what makes it interesting. What is interesting is what I gleaned from my family and what I have tried to pass on to my children. My parents and grandparents experienced America in a completely different way than people who were born here. They came to America with nothing but hope and ambition; they were courageous and relentless. Because of that attitude, they achieved their American Dream. With pride, each of my family members became American citizens while maintaining their ethnicity; my mother still cries when she recalls the moment she became an American citizen. They respected the abundance we have in our country because they lived without for so long. Entitlement was not a word in their vocabulary. My family contributed positively to our society, modeling and teaching all of those characteristics to my brothers and me. For better or worse, this is also where I get my views on marriage…
  2. One and done–When I said my vows, I knew it was the only time I would ever say them. I had hoped to grow old with my ex-husband, but that’s not how things turned out. Regardless, I don’t plan on getting married again. I have no idea if this feeling will change somewhere down the line, but for right now, I am content with being single. I wanted so badly to hold onto my marriage that I didn’t fight for the other things I wanted in my life—honesty, fidelity, love, partnership, security. I lost my independence and became completely dependent on someone who didn’t value the same things I did. What’s worse is that I saw how different we were but did nothing because I wanted to stay married. I never want to betray myself again. Even though it’s been hard to start over with nothing, I am just starting to spread my wings. I want to find out what I can do, what I can accomplish on my own. I’ve never lived on my own before. I went from my mother’s house, to college, to my mother’s house, to living with my husband. This is the first time I’m responsible for myself. I also don’t want any man coming into my life and thinking he can decide how I raise my son. I did that before and wish I hadn’t…
  3. My only regrets in life come from the things I didn’t do. I wish I had stood up to people who were wrong and defended the people who didn’t have a voice–more than I did. I wish I would have understood, created, and defended my boundaries throughout my entire life, not just within the last few years. I did learn important lessons during those years that I didn’t stand up for myself, but those missed opportunities still haunt me. However, I don’t look at those regrets as a bad thing. They just fuel my fire to stay strong and help others to use their voices. Now that I know better, I do better…
  4. I’ve become a minimalist, out of necessity at first, but now I am choosing that lifestyle. I’m not making a lot of money and haven’t for the last few years. It can be stressful, but I like my life a lot better now than when we had more money than we needed. We wasted so much money on useless stuff—stuff that we gave away when we left Colorado. The money wasted on things that ended up in a garbage dump makes me cringe. Now, I know exactly what is in my refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards. I don’t buy anything until we’ve eaten or used up every bit of what we bought. We don’t have cable, just the internet, which makes being a minimalist a lot easier–there are no commercials to remind us what everyone else is buying. Part of embracing this lifestyle is knowing the true value of things. Buying something that will last or give us better nutrition has improved our lives in so many ways…
  5. Ian and I are healthier now than ever before. Health and nutrition are simple—the more natural state the food is in, the better it is for our bodies. Some of the food might be more expensive, but our health is invaluable. These choices have made me realize that weight loss is not a mystery either: healthy food (not diet food), daily exercise, a solid night’s sleep, drinking water, listening to my body, and learning to enjoy every breathing moment have contributed to our well being. This healthy mindset has spilled over into my relationships…
  6. I can’t think of one person I hate. There are a few people I choose not to have in my life anymore, but I don’t hate them. I used to take things so personally that I could rattle off a list of people I hated. That hatred was only a reflection of my inner turmoil. I don’t have that anymore. Even people who have harmed me, I wish them well. I have learned that those people have their own issues, and their treatment of me is a result of their inner turmoil. I sympathize with those people, but I don’t own their behavior anymore. I have reduced my reactions to negative people to two choices: For those who want help, I try to help and support them. For those who aren’t ready for help and continue to negatively affect my inner peace, I distance myself from them. I have realized that I can only fix myself, which will help me be the best role model I can be for my children and anyone else watching, listening, or reading. I have removed negative emotions and people from my life…
  7. The art of letting go is a daily practice–I promise not to sing. (No one wants to hear that song in my off-key voice.) Knowing that I will never be a singer and being okay with that is part of letting go. I love Amy Poehler’s Yes Please for so many reasons, but most importantly for her “letting go” lessons: “Decide what your currency is early. Let go of what you will never have. People who do this are happier and sexier.” I had to let go of pain, unrealistic dreams, and negative people, but I’ve also had to let go of things that I love for reasons that go beyond my personal comfort…
  8. I miss teaching high school English. My heart aches whenever I think about my students and the community I loved. I love keeping in touch with my former students on Facebook–more than half of my “friends” used to sit in my classroom, but I resigned from my position for many reasons–a few of those reasons make it impossible to teach in a public high school…
  9. I still get almost 100 hits a day on https://paulinehawkins.com/2014/04/07/my-resignation-letter/ –almost two years after I wrote it and posted it to my blog. I’ve noticed that around this time of year, the traffic to my letter increases exponentially. I struck a nerve with teachers, students, and parents. I think people (most of them at least) understand how much I love the profession, my students, and my colleagues. For that reason, people are drawn to my letter; for that reason, I continue to speak for those who do not have a voice…
  10. I have a voice, and I’m not afraid to use it. Writing is my voice. I write in order to encourage others to use their voices. I write because it is my exhale. I write so that others have healthy air to inhale.

 

The Philanthropic Experience: A Student’s Perspective

One of my current college composition student wrote a personal narrative essay that beautifully illustrates one of my ideas to reform education (

https://paulinehawkins.com/2012/11/21/high-school-reformation/

).

This is what I proposed in that post:

The Philanthropic Experience

For those students who don’t want to continue their formal education but aren’t ready to go out into the world on their own, I’d like to offer them a philanthropic experience. Currently, only students actively involved with their churches have opportunities to have this type of experience. Students can participate in a “missions’ trip” that will concentrate on giving back to their community, whatever that community may be (local or global). This experience would need to be partially self-funded (travel and living expenses, but government can fund the supervision needed for those students). Once they’ve had that experience, they may come back and continue their formal education or have discovered what their path is and pursue that.

https://i.guim.co.uk/img/static/sys-images/Travel/Pix/pictures/2013/12/5/1386262243685/Pelourinho-Salvador-Brazi-008.jpg?w=620&q=85&auto=format&sharp=10&s=2da05ce1061654577044b90f7c90a3c8
Salvador, Brazil

This is what Justin had to say about being one of those students and having that experience:

“A Brazilian Soul” by Justin Moore

From September to December of 2015, I spent three months volunteering in Salvador, Brazil, and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. My comfort bubble was absolutely obliterated, and because of it, I am mentally, physically, and socially stronger. A year ago, I had no plans of doing any traveling or any plans in general. I was lost and unsure about what to do, and the future seemed like a terrifying monster called life that was going to chew me up and spit me right back out. I have always been that friend on whose shoulder people cry, and I have always been fascinated with foreign cultures. These two seemingly unrelated attributes led me to volunteering abroad. Thank god for Brazil.

Brazil helped turn me around even before I set foot in the country. With three months to go before leaving through the Cross Cultural Solutions program, my parents started nagging me about what I would do until then to make money. Their pressure and message of how only failures sit around all summer really impacted me. So I did something I had never done before: I got a job. It was a part-time, telephone-surveying job and paid about nine dollars an hour. The first week, I was terrified of making a mistake and felt as though I was wasting my time. It wasn’t until I received my first paycheck that I finally experienced a sense of pride and confidence. I never applied myself in high school, did terribly grade-wise, and never really achieved academically. After my first paycheck, I had this unfamiliar, rewarding feeling. I had worked hard at something and received something back from it. That money made me independent. It motivated me to work hard. And it showed me that I could succeed in life if I put my heart into something.

            After a couple months of working, it was finally time for me to saddle up and head out. It wasn’t until I saw the people of Brazil that I accepted I was abroad. I had landed in a third world country in a city that was 80 percent non-Caucasian, was poor, and spoke Portuguese. It was a strange feeling to be the minority now in seemingly every aspect of life. A taxi picked me up at the airport and drove me to my home base in the heart of the city. Boy was that a drive! Here I was, an 18-year-old, middle-class, white Justin from America, looking out the window at what could have been Pluto for all I knew. All I could think was, “Justin, what have you gotten yourself into?”

I settled into a modest apartment and realized I had a few days before any of the volunteering began. The other volunteers hadn’t yet arrived; I had nobody to see an no place to be. I made one of the best decisions of my life and joined samba (Brazilian dance), capoeira (Brazilian martial art), and Portuguese (Brazilian language) classes. These classes helped me immerse myself in the local culture, make some friends, and boogie down too!  Three months of samba and capoeira were amazing. Socially, I learned how to interact with those from other cultures and be more open. Physically, I lost 25 pounds and got into the best shape of my life!

The other participants of the program started to roll in the day before we began volunteering. I soon realized that not only was I the youngest, but I was also the youngest by 14 years. High school had taught me that the upperclassman were in charge. Strangely, that’s not how I came to think of the other volunteers. Living and working closely with my “elders” for three months, I began to feel more like their peers. We learned to respect each other, regardless of age, religion, and background; because of it, our group turned into one big happy family. I was not their son; they were my brothers.

The first place, and originally the only place1, where I volunteered was Orfanato Vo Flor (Grandma Flowers Orphanage and Daycare). Here, children between the ages of four to seventeen live or are dropped off each day if their guardians cannot provide a “safe environment” for them while they are at work. It is almost completely unstructured, and the children there run amok in a maze of broken glass and filth. One might say this is not a viable “safe” substitute, but these kids had parents who were drug addicts, physically or mentally disabled, and with little or no means. Sometimes they didn’t even come from homes at all and lived on the street.

I was incredibly nervous on my first day. When they dropped me off, I could feel every eye on me. I walked alone into the favela2 and stuck out like a sore thumb. I sought out the director of the orphanage and poorly understood the directions she gave me. We parted ways, and I stumbled back into the main area where all the kids were hanging around. I had no idea what I was supposed to do at the facility. I was terrified of being an awkward waste of space that just sits there and does nothing but consume oxygen. Then, out of the blue, a young girl named Ana Lucia ran over and pulled me into the best experience of my life.

Ana was the first out of all the children there to approach the intriguing but intimidating beast known as the American. Everyone else was too nervous. Once she did, however, every other kid swarmed in and started jabbering away and pulling on my clothing. I felt like I was in a petting zoo where I was the animal and they were overly enthusiastic humans. I spent the first day being dragged from place to place and shown a kind of love I had never experienced. The love was a sweet mixture of foreign fascination, friendship, and trust. It was insanity, and it was beauty.

I quickly went from exceptionally anxious to incredibly overjoyed at my situation. For the next three months, I spent my time cleaning, feeding, and playing with those kids. Every day, I would walk in and suddenly be absorbed into the gleeful screams and hugs of 30 children. The children loved me for who I was, and, in return, I gave them the love that they weren’t receiving at home. To them, I was American father, chio, –which is Portuguese for “uncle”—and brother. It wasn’t until I left that I realized how much I loved them, and how they were like my children.

When the volunteering ended and I flew back to the States, the experience and change in my life didn’t hit me until I lay back in my bed for the first time, crying, realizing what an unexpected miracle Salvador had been for me. The combination of the way I lived, the culture, and the work with the kids mixed together to give me a truly euphoric feeling. I had grown so much as a person, and the way I had gone outside of my comfort zone had allowed me to develop into a man who was ready to take the next step. I was confident, determined, and prepared to move on with my life. It was time to stop dwelling on the mistakes of the past and work towards my goals for the future.

Brazil is what gave me the confidence to start classes at Great Bay Community College as a full time student. Brazil is what gave me the energy and motivation to apply for a job at a software company, rock the interview, and then get the job. Brazil will always be remembered as the place where I blossomed into the man I am today. The friends I made and the experiences I had have helped me understand myself in a way I could never do in high school. I was that kid who had no idea what he was going to do. Now, I feel like an unstoppable force ready to take on the world. I miss my South American friends, Salvador, and the gift they gave me. I can truly say I will always have a bit of a Brazilian soul.

Footnotes:

1 I originally only volunteered at Orfanato Vo Flor, but I also ended up teaching two separate English classes for adults and teenagers (Centro Redentorista Missionary) and working at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS (CAASAH).
2 A favela is an urban slum in Brazil.

How different our world would be if more “lost and unsure” students could have this type of experience.

 

 

Friday Writing Challenge: A Favorite Movie

Inside OutInside Out

I know. This is a Wednesday, but when I started writing about Inside Out last Friday, I realized this movie was a post I needed to write about, not for writing practice, but to explore why it impacted me so profoundly.

When I taught American Literature, I told my students that we study history to know the facts of a time period, and we study literature to know how people felt about those facts. That’s one of the reasons I love this movie. Inside Out goes beyond entertainment; it is film as literature. It’s a film that illustrates how we feel about the increase in childhood depression and parental over-involvement, and how we feel about creativity and imagination being replaced with rigid curriculum.

On the surface, Inside Out is a brilliant illustration of the way our emotions work to protect and guide us on our journey.

The story revolves around Riley, a young girl, and the emotions that work the control panel in her head. The first emotion we encounter is Joy with Riley’s first coo, which is immediately followed by Sadness with Riley’s first newborn cry. Next, we meet Fear; he keeps Riley safe. Disgust keeps Riley from being “poisoned, physically and socially.” Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair.” The personification of emotions lends itself to comedic situations.

The deeper level, however, illuminates two very real problems in our society today: depression and helicopter parenting.

Right from the beginning of the movie, we see that the battle between Joy and Sadness will determine what kind of life Riley has. What we discover by the end is that the key to a healthy, well-balanced life is to accept the importance of all emotions in our lives, and that Joy and Sadness complement each other, rather than cancel each other out. The other commentary is on helicopter parenting: Joy, as wonderful as she is, starts off bragging about Riley’s “mostly happy memories.” She wrongfully takes credit for Riley being happy, which gives her the false notion that she has to control everything in Riley’s life.

The movie takes us on Riley’s physical journey as she moves from Minnesota to San Francisco with her parents, as well as Riley’s emotional journey because of that move. With each disappointment Riley faces at her new home, we see that Joy pushes the other emotions out of Riley’s life. At first, it looks like Joy is right–always looking on the bright side of things is the best way to get through these problems.

It isn’t until Riley’s dad is angry on the phone and has to leave that we see Joy’s need to control Riley’s mood might become an issue. Riley is fearful and sad, but Joy won’t let Sadness take over. She insists on Riley being happy.

When Riley is remembering a funny moment from their travels, Sadness touches a gold memory orb, and it turns blue. Joy can’t turn it back, and she doesn’t understand why. Sadness needs to touch the happy memories, but because of Joy’s pride over her role in Riley’s life, Joy begins to make a series of bad choices that affect all of Riley’s emotions.

While talking to Sadness, Joy says, “Well…you know what? You can’t focus on what’s going wrong. There’s always a way to turn things around, to find the fun!” At first, it sounds like solid advice, but this might not be the healthiest way to deal with difficult and painful situations. Avoiding sadness implies that there is something wrong with that emotion.

Joy then wants the emotions to make a list of everything Riley should be happy about. At one point, Anger says, “No, Joy. There’s absolutely no reason for Riley to be happy right now. Let us handle this.” If Riley would’ve expressed her anger, fear, disgust, and sadness, she could have gotten the help she needed from her parents. But when Riley pretends that she is okay, it leads to more suppression of emotions.

Riley’s mom says something to Riley that seems innocent and appropriate: “Your dad’s under a lot of pressure. But if you and I can keep smiling, it would be a big help.” Asking Riley to be their “happy girl” and to be responsible for her dad’s feelings are requests we should never make of our children.

After this interaction, Riley falls asleep and Joy controls Riley’s dreams– Joy doesn’t think the dream is appropriate for Riley. This is such a powerful statement on helicopter parenting. I’ve seen too many parents do this to their children–from sports to careers–parents are choosing what they think is appropriate, regardless of what the child wants, loves, or excels at.

Here is what I have learned as a mom, teacher, and child advocate: Parents need to love their child as he or she is, not as the parents want him or her to be. I get it. Parents have dreams as well–dreams about their children living a happy, fulfilling life. Who better to help their child navigate through that life than the parents who know their child’s strengths and weaknesses? However, once they start this process, parents rationalize the control over every decision and direction.

But the reality is everyone is on his or her own path–our children included. We really don’t know what another person needs in order to learn and grow. I know that the control comes from a loving place: Parents are trying to spare a child from feelings of heartbreak and disappointment. But when parents jump in and try to manage their child’s path, feelings, or experiences, they rob the child of a lesson he or she needed in order to learn and grow. If parents don’t let a child have the experiences of heartbreak, disappointment, and failure, the child will never develop the ability to figure out how to do it differently next time.

A great illustration of this is when Joy plays the accordion loud and fast the day after the first major crisis. Joy says, “I don’t think of it as playing so much as hugging.” Joy is trying to distract Riley and the other emotions from dealing with the real issues. If everyone does what Joy deems as the correct path, everyone will forget how horrible life is in that moment.

Throughout, Joy also tries to control Sadness. Joy’s goal is to help Riley have a “good day… good week…good year, which turns into a good life!” But whose definition of “good” is Joy using? She is using her own, and she thinks she knows Riley better than anyone. Instead of being one emotion in Riley’s life, Joy is trying to become the only emotion in Riley’s life.

When Riley starts crying on her first day of school, she starts a negative spiral, not because crying/sadness was bad, but because Riley feared the judgment. Then, because Joy couldn’t accept that Riley was sad, Joy tries to control the core memories, which leads to something in Riley breaking. If Joy would have allowed Riley to feel the sadness and fear, it might have led down a healthy path. Instead, Joy’s controlling behavior led to Joy and Sadness being sucked out of the control room. Riley is then left with only Fear, Anger, and Disgust to control her emotions–definitely a recipe for disaster.

Riley now has to navigate her life without Joy and Sadness. Disgust helps Riley give an attitude to her parents in the form of sarcasm. Anger leads Riley to tell her parents to “Just shut up!” emotionally pushing them away while simultaneously invoking Dad’s Anger.

Dad adds to the problems by not having an honest conversation with Riley. He says, “Things just got out of hand,” and “Where’s my happy girl?” These are distractions and avoidance rather than helpful when Riley can’t communicate her pain. After this interaction is when “Goofball Island” crumbles. Then Anger destroys Friendship Island. Riley’s three remaining emotions fight with each other and can’t access the necessary emotions to open up and release the pain. The beauty of this interaction, as difficult as it may be to watch, is that it shows how Anger, Disgust, and Fear push people away. Sadness, however, draws people in. We just have to be willing and vulnerable enough to let people see our sadness.

The crumbling Islands of Personality is an incredible visual for what happens inside of a person experiencing depression. I can only speak from my own experiences with depression, but it does feel like something is breaking inside. It’s hard to access the good memories. Anger and fear control my thoughts and actions, which then pushes away the people who love me the most. If I can’t have a good cry about it and share my pain with someone who lets me feel my pain without judgment or trying to fix me, the depression will last longer.

Halfway through the movie, Bing Bong, Riley’s silly, long-forgotten imaginary friend, shows up. He helps and hinders the progress, but in the end, it is this imaginary figure that becomes the catalyst to Riley’s healing. He also adds humorous scenes. I love Imaginationland, where Bing Bong is “practically the mayor,” for all the beauty and creativity Riley, at one time, accessed daily. It is Imaginationland that saves her in the end. Again, Inside Out subtly points to the importance of creativity and imagination. We should be nurturing that in our children, not taking it out of schools and forcing children to grow up too quickly.

Back in the control room, Anger, Fear, and Disgust try to help Riley with her hockey tryouts, but, seriously, how can anything go well when Anger, Fear, and Disgust have the reigns? As Riley is struggling even to skate well, Disgust says a funny but poignant line: “It’s like we don’t learn anything.” Learning cannot take place if the main operating strategies of a child are embroiled in anger, fear, and disgust.

This interaction results in Hockey Island crumbling. As Riley’s Islands of Personality crumble, her dream worlds in Imaginationland are also being crushed. It is here that we see what Riley’s dad should have done when Riley was angry earlier.

Bing Bong is upset that his rocket was tossed into the dump. Joy tries to make silly faces, just like Dad tried to do with Riley, but that’s not the appropriate response to anger, fear, or pain. What is the right response? Giving the person permission to be sad, sitting next to the person and listening, holding his or her hand, and understanding the pain. Sadness sits next to Bing Bong and says: “I’m sorry they took your rocket. They took something that you loved. It’s gone forever (Joy hates this and thinks Sadness is making the situation worse). . . . I bet you and Riley had great adventures. . . . Yeah. It’s sad.” Bing Bong puts his head on Sadness’ shoulder and cries. Sadness puts an arm around Bing Bong until he’s done crying. After Bing Bong feels heard, understood, and has cried, he can move forward.

Even though Joy has seen how Sadness helps in many situations, she pushes Sadness away when they try to get back to Riley through the memory recall tube. This interaction delays their return to the control room. As Family Island falls apart, it cracks the recall tube and sends Joy and Bing Bong to the abyss of lost memories.

This leads to the most important, poignant, and heartbreaking scene in the movie. Joy tries to get out of the abyss, but it’s useless. Bing Bong states: “Don’t you get it, Joy? We’re stuck down here. We’re forgotten.” Joy falls to her knees when she sees the blue core memory of Riley crying in class. As Joy watches other sweet memories fade into ash, she cries, “I just wanted Riley to be happy. And now…” Joy finally cries a long, painful cry–Joy finally feels sadness. She wipes a tear away from a gold memory, which rewinds the memory orb to show that the joy Riley felt with her teammates actually started with sadness. It was Sadness that brought Joy–that brought her parents to her side, that brought her teammates to encourage Riley. Joy finally understands the necessity of Sadness. She also understands that Riley’s path is not Joy’s to control. With renewed determination, she has a plan to get back to Riley: Bing Bong’s Rocket. Bing Bong helps Joy get out of the abyss, but he sacrifices himself out of love for Riley. Another beautiful illustration of love.

Back in the control room, Anger, Fear, and Disgust have realized their mistake and try to change Riley’s plan, but it’s too late. The console has turned almost black, and Fear states: “Guys. We can’t make Riley feel anything.” My heart aches here, not just for Riley, but for every student I have worked with who had that empty stare. For those beautiful lives that had stopped feeling well before they got to me. I was able to help some, but too many of them were too far into their depression to hear my pleas, to see me sitting next to them offering my shoulder.

Through a series of incredible steps and feats, Joy and Sadness get to the control room, but it’s Sadness that has the power to remove the Idea Bulb and change Riley’s path. Sadness touches all the core memories, turning them blue so that Riley can finally speak her pain to her parents. It’s important to note that Riley’s parents speak their own sadness–they are honest with Riley; they don’t try to cover it up or sugar coat it. It is at this point that the three of them are in an embrace, crying and comforting each other so that Riley can finally smile again. Sadness brought Joy.

The rest of the movie is filled with much needed comic relief moments. We laugh through our own tears and, hopefully, accept the necessity of sadness in our lives.

Friday Writing Challenge: Tattoos

Writing Prompt #2: What tattoos do you have, or what tattoos would you get, and why?

My one and onlyJuly 31, 2013: I’m sitting on a table watching Bryan artistically carve my children’s names into my ankle. The pain is so intense that I’m screaming out obscenities–words that explode out of my mouth even as my clenched teeth try to hold them in. A few times Bryan looks at Carol Linn, wondering if he should stop.

I’m sure Bryan is not used to seeing people like me in his studio. At 48, I was getting my first tattoo–reluctantly. I had always wanted to get a tattoo but was too afraid of the pain to actually do it. As the years passed, I not only refused to get one, but I became opposed to people marking up their bodies with ink. I didn’t mind the small, meaningful tattoos, but large, body-covering tattoos seemed to be a sickness–those people proved that tattoos were addicting; they couldn’t stop even if they wanted to. Yet, there I was, in pain, getting my first tattoo, clutching the table even though my mind was telling me to run away from the pain.

Why, then, would I agree to this?

Carol Linn is my middle child, the child most like me–the girl in the middle, the one who wanted to stand out yet wanted to belong. Like me, she fought for independence through her pre-teen and teen years in a family who confused control with parenting. Like me, she struggled with identifying with her place in this world.

When I looked at her, I saw my perfect little girl, lost and confused. I thought my job as her mother was to make her see herself the way I saw her–or, more accurately, the way I wanted her to be. I thought my words and actions could influence her decisions.

For her 16th birthday, she got her first tattoo. Her dad went with her to sign the permission sheet, while I stayed home and cried. It was painful thinking about her intentionally scarring her beautiful skin–the skin I created. Her body began in my body: I carried her for nine months; I went through intense pain to give her life–and now, the perfection, the miracle would be forever scarred. I couldn’t look at her tattoo when she got home. She was beaming with joy; my heart ached. With every tattoo, my reaction was the same: I cried and ached and refused to look at her intentional scars.

What I didn’t know was that my attitude was creating different types of scars–scars within Carol Linn and scars between us.

She finally told me one day: “Mom, it hurts me that you don’t support something I love and that has become a part of me.” After that, I tried to support her decisions for her life–even the scarring ones. We seemed to be on the road to healing; however, it wasn’t until I confided in her that I had always wanted a tattoo that our paths merged. Carol Linn’s eyes lit up: “It would mean so much to me if you got a tattoo with my tattoo artist.”

So, I found myself clutching that table. While I screamed out F-bombs, Carol Linn rubbed my shoulder, telling me to breathe through the pain. She held my hand and told me to squeeze it hard. She cried and smiled as she watched the swirls and hearts form on my ankle, birthing a new bond with my intentional scar.

 

 

Writing is my exhale. I’ve realized I’ve been holding my breath for far too long. At least once a week I will exhale, which I hope leads to a healthier breathing pattern. I encourage you to join me by either sharing your writing on my blog in the comments or posting a link to your own platform. Here’s to breathing!

Next Friday’s Writing Challenge: Five of your earliest memories.