A few things have happened with my students at school recently that got me thinking even more than usual about how hard or easy it is to be yourself. I probably think about this on a daily basis as I try encourage my students through peer pressure situations, to do what they know is right or want to do no matter what anybody else says or does. That last part about “no matter what anybody else says or does,” is from a wonderful program the kids went through from the Camp Fire organization, and we say it so often that the kids finish my sentence in a sing song-y kind of way. But still, they struggle with it. And it breaks my heart sometimes.
It was recently Dr. Seuss’s birthday. In many schools, and in years past at our school, this is cause for celebration of the dress up like a cat in a hat variety. Except that, this year, for I don’t know what reason or no real reason at all, we didn’t plan a dress up day. One little girl did her own though. Picture cute painted on whiskers and a fluffy black tail pinned to her pants. Adorable, right? Except she didn’t think so. I imagine she loved it at home, but changed her mind when she walked into school and saw no one else dressed up. She had washed the whiskers off before I even saw her. In fact, I didn’t even notice the faint remnants of them on her cheeks when I greeted her at the classroom door. What I did notice though, were her red eyes, though she was trying hard to look like she wasn’t crying. It took a bit of cajoling for her to tell me why she was upset and to reveal the tail that she was hiding under her jacket. I offered all kinds of ideas and tried my best to pump her up to stay in costume and wear what she had planned, but she wasn’t having it. She wanted the tail off and to wash her face even more. I wished I could have encouraged her to celebrate and wear what she had planned even though no one else was, but I had to respect her feelings, so I took the tail off for her and I could see the relief flood through her.
On the flip side of this being yourself thing, a few days later we had a book fair at school and a family night when kids from all the grades and their parents came to school at night to shop for books. I was there chatting and visiting with the kids and their families, when one of my students yelled my name across the very crowded room. And as I started to walk over to him, he yelled some more, seeming no to care at all who heard, “None of my friends are getting historical books! I’m the only one!” I started to respond with what I thought was some good teacher cheer-leading, “That’s okay. You can get whichever books YOU want.” But he didn’t need it. He was already shouting again and smiling, “I don’t care if no one else gets these books! I LOVE history! I can’t wait to read these!” High five, buddy!
What is it that makes it so easy sometimes and so hard other times? So easy for some kids (and grown ups!) and so hard for others? I feel like we’ve come so far as a whole society in what we know about how to help people build self esteem. We teach kids so many coping skills now that I know I wasn’t taught in elementary school. But still, that doesn’t take away the individual struggles and learning that each person must go through. I wish I could take away the struggling times for my students (and family and friends and self), but I know I can’t and, as hard as it feels, I know that taking it away might not even be best, because it is often those times of struggle that build who we are, who we become. I came across this sentence in my morning book by Mark Nepo the other day and it beautifully reminds me of this lesson, “Too often we struggle stubbornly in an attempt to protect ourselves from the friction of being alive, when it is precisely that friction that works our spirit into a seeable gem.” So if I can’t take the struggle away, I’ll try to do what I can — love them (us) through it and bring attention to the shining gem that is always peeking through. Shine on, kids! Whiskers, history books and all!