On Being Stubborn

Happy first week of August! For a lot of my teacher friends, we’re gearing up to go back to school; the first day for teachers in my district is next Thursday, and students come back the Wednesday after that. If you’re headed back soon, best of luck!

As I say farewell to my summer, I’m thinking a lot about all my wonderful adventures this summer. I got to spend a lot of time hiking, biking, camping, and swimming in mountains all over the western half of the US, more than I have in quite a while. And in doing so, I’m getting reacquainted with a personality trait that can go by many different names. I say I’m stubborn. Tactful people tell me I’m persistent, and my brother sometimes tells me I’m being dumb (he’s usually right).

My whole family can be stubborn at times, including all four of my grandparents! I could tell you stories for days. I learned not only from them, but also from an entire childhood of keeping up. I spent a significant amount of time running around with the kids on my ski team, where the social currency was based on pulling off crazy physical stunts. I was nowhere near as crazy as some of the boys – some of them are lucky they aren’t permanently injured. But whether we were biking, skiing, playing soccer, running, or lifting, the name of the game was to push the edge.

Being stubborn served me very well in my athletic endeavors. It helped me keep going during races and get stronger during training. Even when I had a bad run or a tired day, I knew I had to get up and keep going. I know when I can push my body just a little further and when I’m really at the end of my rope.

But being stubborn isn’t only applicable to athletics. Every once in a while I find it in myself to get stubborn about a class. When I was in college, I struggled in chemistry. Especially my first semester, I took Chem 1 with a very brilliant professor who was not very good at understanding why I didn’t understand. Chem 2 wasn’t really any better. I thoroughly enjoyed organic chemistry, but still found it challenging, and then truly met my nemesis when I took physical chemistry. The last chemistry class I took was biochemistry, and at this point, I had had enough.

I decided that I was – finally – going to get an A in a chemistry class at CU. I did everything I was supposed to do; I read the textbook before I went to lecture. I did all the homework sets. I printed the slides before I went to class and took diligent notes. I drew molecular mechanisms for hours in the engineering center lobby. The more nervous I got about graduation, the more I poured all that energy into that class. Even when I was tired, or my brain felt fried, or I had a million other projects, I pushed through.

I aced that class. It was one of the more satisfying moments of my college career.

But being stubborn is, like many traits, a two-sided coin, and there have definitely been moments when I’ve clung to goals or ideas long past where I should have let them go. When I was twelve, I continued to run on a hyper-extended left knee and compressed the meniscus. When I was eighteen, I partially tore my MCL in the same knee and proceed to race on it all season. My left knee likes to remind me of this with increasing frequency these days, particularly when I’m walking downhill with any kind of heavy pack.

I also find myself doing this in my teaching. I’ll set goals for what I can get done in a day (grade these papers, write this lesson, prep this lab) and I’ll want to stay until I get it all done. What ends up happening is me, staring at the wall, not willing to walk away but too tired to really be thoughtful. I end up wasting time rather than taking a break so I could come back refreshed. This kind of stubborn is not at all helpful.

When I was ski racing I came up with a pain scale to figure out when I could push through and when I needed to slow down and take care of myself. I will fully admit that during both of the left knee incidents I described, I knew I was pushing too hard! And as I got reacquainted with my adventuring this summer, it didn’t take me long to start feeling that out again. I don’t, however, have any kind of related scale for my intellectual and emotional energy. What was it about my situation with biochemistry that helped make me successful, and when do I need to set my grading aside and do something different for a while?

Your homework is simply a more generalized version of the question I asked myself; how do you know when to push yourself and when to take a break?

Hej då,

Jamie

Balance

Well, I am writing to you from yet another state this week! I’m currently in New York City with a girl from my teaching fellowship. Our summer meeting is at the end of the week and I came a few days early to experience the city. I’m sure I’ll write about that next week! But for now, I’m going to come at the idea of balance a little more head on, rather than as an application to other parts of my life. And I’m going to do that through the lens of yoga.

The first time I tried yoga was in high school with my ski team. I remember laughing at the weird names for the poses and generally feeling very silly. I also remember trying crow pose and landing on my face, which was not my favorite thing to do. So I gave up on yoga for quite some time.

In fact, I didn’t try again until the summer of 2013, when I lived in Bocas del Toro. There was an in-house yoga studio three houses down from us, and when the girls and I decided we were curious, we tried it out. Sarah and Amber got bored fairly quickly, but I was hooked. At first I liked the core work and the stretching, which were familiar to me from ski racing. Then I started to like the shoulder strength, which is not something ski racers generally care much about! But what became really important to me were the breathing (not something that should be taken for granted, though I often do!) and the three principles the instructor shared with us.

Laura Kay grounded all of our practices in these three principles. The first was a good attitude. When people walked through the door and nervously mentioned they weren’t very flexible, Laura Kay would ask them to ditch that attitude and instead take up one of optimism and gratitude. The second principle was foundation: having strong legs and good alignment for the safety of all the joints involved. My knees certainly appreciated that one! The third and last principle was about opening the heart to shine our light out. Now, you can interpret that statement any way you like; my favorite way to think about it is how Laura Kay would tell us that smiling was the most advanced form of the pose.

One pose we did frequently in that class was called half moon pose, and it looks like this:

half moon pose

(Thanks to the Creative Commons Search, where I can look for pictures tagged for reuse!)

This can be quite the tricky balancing pose! I’m usually very good at standing on one foot, and I can also bend forward to touch the ground on one foot. But turn it sideways, and life gets a whole lot more exciting! Often I wobbled, or tried to lean too far backwards or reach too high up, and I flailed and fell over. When this happened, I would laugh. And it wasn’t the embarrassed nervous laughter of worrying about being judged; it was a genuine “that probably looked really silly and I’m glad I was pushing my limits” laughter.

When I came home from Bocas, I didn’t practice much for nearly two years. I tried a couple of different studios in Boulder, but they all felt competitive and like I had to push myself to keep up.

Enter Keeli, my freshman college roommate. She’s a ski racer from Winter Park I randomly got placed with our first year, and we’ve been great friends ever since. She’s awesome at spontaneously calling me and dragging me on adventures. One time she did just that and took me to her friend Maggie’s yoga class. Maggie teaches with a non-profit called Grass Roots Yoga in a large-ish classroom at CU. I’ve been going steadily ever since!

I like the mix of people in class – some older, some students – and I actually really like that it’s not in a traditional studio. Especially without mirrors, I feel much less pressure to be a “good yogi” and get into the “perfect” pose. And I especially love Maggie. I love how she offers modifications to change the poses for different bodies and different needs. Some days I need to push myself to be stronger and burn off some energy. Some days I need to chill out a little bit. I even spent the entirety of one class in child’s pose, because that’s what I needed that day.

One of my favorite things that Maggie has taught me is that balance is not a destination to be achieved. Rather, balance is a process that is constantly changing. In yoga, this means that we’re humans, not statues! Instead of trying to achieve stillness, the goal of a balancing pose is to learn to feel the wobbles and ride them.

But yoga advice is usually pretty good off the mat as well, and I think that’s definitely the case for balance. I can’t begin to explain the variety of advice I’ve gotten about work-life balance as a teacher. One mentor told me I should always take Friday night and Saturday completely off from school. Another told me I should make sure I have an hour for self-care every day. Yet another told me not to bother with all this new-age crap, and that I’d feel better if I just got stuff of my to-do list. And I do constantly feel the pressure to do more, be more efficient, and work harder.

This pressure exists in the consistent tasks in my life (grading, anyone?) but also in the one-time pressures. Test proctoring, extra (awesome) professional projects. Piloting a new textbook. Attending a conference. All the hard-and-fast rules I’ve read fall apart in the face of this inconsistency. I’ve been trying to figure out for years how to achieve balance in all of this.

But did you catch my language there? It’s not about achieving anything. The idea that balance is a process can apply to the rest of my life too. It means being observant of what’s going on in my life and how I’m reacting, and knowing how to ride out all the wobbles. I’ll candidly admit I’m quite terrible at this right now, but it seems like a worthwhile thing to practice.

My homework for you: How do you balance the important things in your life? How do you respond to all the varying pressures?

Hej då,

Jamie

A Mid-Year Accounting

Hej everyone! Today is July 2nd, and it is officially the 26th anniversary of the day you all got stuck with me. I love my birthday for a couple of (completely unrelated) reasons.

My Grandma Gay’s birthday was July 4th. She used to joke and say it was because she was such a firecracker, and she was right! Grandma loved to cook, clean, and sew, and she painted ceramics and porcelain dolls. She loved roses and lace and pink, and I learned a lot about being girly from her. However, she also loved snowmobiling and tubing behind a speedboat, and she even went parasailing in Switzerland one time.

When I was little, Grandma and Grandpa used to come to Steamboat to celebrate our birthdays. But I didn’t totally grasp the whole concept of the 4th of July, and so every year I experienced a powerful wave of jealousy. Every single year, Grandma got fireworks for her birthday, and I didn’t! I have since learned a bit about our national history, but I still find it amusing to imagine six-year-old me getting all worked up about the whole thing.

The second reason I love my birthday is because my mom and I go for birthday hikes, just the two of us, each year. We started this tradition when I turned fifteen, and even though I’m lucky to see my mom far more often than just once a year, I still love that we carve out this time.

But the last reason I love my birthday is because July 2nd is the exact middle day of the year. There are 182 days before it, and 182 days after it (unless Leap Day messes with it). Often people use New Year’s to make goals or resolutions for the coming year. I’m fortunate because I have a ready-made reason to reflect on the other side of the year’s arc.

So what can I say about the last sixth months? What have I learned?

As an adventurer, I got back on my mountain bike and I’ve ridden more this summer than I have in the last three summers combined. I was given many opportunities to remember how much I love being outside, feeling my muscles contract and release, and getting sweaty and dusty. I’ve also learned that I can swing too far into adventure mode and forget the other parts of myself.

As a nerd, I had some incredible learning experiences this spring semester. I got to present for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the National Science Teacher’s Association and work with the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study on their STeLLA project. STeLLA is based on instructional strategies to understand student thinking and create a coherent content story line. I’ve really only been focused on three of the eight student thinking strategies, but they’ve changed the way I teach.

But I also struggled with taking on way too many things this spring. In the fall semester I did a good job of limiting my involvement in things outside my everyday teaching job. I was happier and had more energy to be present in my classroom. In the spring, all these fantastic opportunities arose, and I took them! I don’t regret a single one, because they all had hugely positive impacts on my teaching. But I did let my nerdiness, particularly the teaching vein of it, take over everything else.

As for my hobbit-self, I think the thing I’m most happy about is my renewed commitment to my friends and family, especially this summer. I’ve visited Granny (my mom’s mom) more often in these last couple of months, and I’ve done better at staying in contact with with my friends who are far away. Traveling is not a hobbit trait, but finding my people is; I can officially say I’ve spent nine days in Boulder since May 27th. The rest of the time I’ve been with the people I care the most about. I’ve learned a lot about how to share and accept love, and how to really see the people around me.

But in many ways, I neglected the hobbit part of myself in these last six months. Exactly why this happened requires a bit of backstory.

In one of my (far) earlier posts, I described how I had a massive blood clot in my right leg when I was nineteen. I had just been to a cadaver lab, and was feeling incredibly grateful for how well my body works. What I chose not to describe in that post were some of the after-effects of the clot. Most people notice very quickly that I wear one knee-high compression sock on my right leg. The clot destroyed the valves in those veins that help push blood back up, which means the blood will pool in my foot. The compression sock helps ameliorate this problem. What most people didn’t see was the fact that I was on an anticoagulant (blood thinner) for five and a half years.

Being on an anticoagulant meant I had to stop ski racing and mountain bike racing. I had to be careful when I did pretty much anything, because any concussion or internal injury could be very, very bad. Losing the ability to do these activities changed the way I viewed my own identity; I lost my connection with my adventurer. I threw a lot of my energy into nerdy pursuits, and this is also when I developed a lot of my hobbit hobbies.

This past October, I made the decision to stop taking anticoagulants. I feel better and I got all of my adventuring back! It’s been a process of learning how to not hold back and remember all of my love for being outside. But in that process, I lost some of my hobbit-ness, and I started using it as a means to recover instead of loving it for itself.

As I look forward to the next six months, I have a lot of really exciting things coming. I have six more glorious weeks of summer, which includes going to Yosemite National Park for a professional development about naturalism and water ecology, visiting Ogden and Steamboat again, visiting Knowles friends in New York, and going to the Knowles Summer Meeting. I have the fall semester of my third year of teaching, complete with piloting a brand new textbook in biology. I get to attend conferences about teaching and ski race officiating. I have two baby blankets to knit, and some canning to do.

I think my goal for all of these things is balance. I want to express all three parts of me because I can learn from and enjoy each part. I don’t mean to say I’ll create equal time for each thing, but I want to be intentional about how I engage in doing the things I love.

Goals are slippery things. How will I engage in this goal? By writing to you all, of course. This space to reflect will be both part of my process and my measurement.

Your homework: Do your own mid-year review! Write a paragraph about what you want your life to look like for the next six months. How will you engage your goals?

Hej då,

Jamie

 

 

Summer Rest Days

It’s quite possible you’ve noticed a theme in my last couple of blog posts. I really, really like to be outside. I like to be in the sun, or in the water, and I like to get sweaty and dusty and tired. I’m really not picky about how this happens; I could be hiking or biking or backpacking or doing yoga on my porch or playing Frisbee with my brother. There’s a part of me that feels like any summer day that didn’t require sunscreen is a day wasted.

And so far, this has been glorious. In this past week I’ve been biking and hiking around Ogden, Utah, and I spent three days camping and hiking in Zion National Park. (I will 100% be writing an adventure post about that trip at a later date; it was incredible!) But today was one of those days where I just hit the wall.

Today I had the pleasure of enjoying a very lazy day of summer. I had a lazy breakfast, laid on the couch and called my dad for Father’s Day, knitted for a bit, read for a bit, and now I’m writing for you. I’m hiding my sunburn from the sun a little bit, and I’m letting my calves and hamstrings recover. I’ve also realized it is high time to do some laundry and reorganize and clean all my toys.

In short, I’m having a hobbit day.

In some ways, this is really hard! The sky is blue but it’s not too hot. I want to go explore a whole unknown trail complex at the base of the Wasatch mountain range. I want to find new flowers and ferns and creeks and butterflies (there are AMAZING butterflies here!), and feel that delicious tired feeling in my legs and ribcage. But this is the adventurer in me, and I’ve been indulging her quite lot lately.

Actually, now that I’m writing this, I’m realizing something else about how these three parts of me work together. (I love this aspect of writing. It helps me think about things I otherwise wouldn’t think about.) I’ve been rather out of balance for the last three weeks since I’ve been on summer break. I’ve been in almost full-on adventure mode, with only hints here and there of the nerd and hobbit.

I have spent a chunk of time working with a new biology book I’m piloting next year. I have read a novel that Mom lent me. I have been knitting. (Actually, I knit for almost two days straight last week. But that’s also a post for another time.) But almost every single day has involved some kind of outside adventure. So today’s hobbit rest day is long overdue.

I think that, in part, this is because I’ve been unbalanced for such a long time. This spring semester, I took on several projects outside of normal teaching, including presenting for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the National Science Teachers Association annual conference. These projects were huge honors to be a part of, and I learned so much from them. But I really do think I took on one (or three) too many projects, and I was in full-on nerd mode for way, way too long. I really lost my adventurer for most of the spring semester.

Being an adventurer is really important to me. It makes me feel strong. It brings me a lot of joy. Being outside makes me, and consequently my worries, feel smaller. It makes me feel connected to a living, changing world that’s much bigger than I am. Ignoring that part of me for such a long time means losing an important part of myself. But at the same time, being a nerd is really important to me. I get great satisfaction solving problems and being creative in my classroom. I deeply enjoy stories and understanding how the world around me works. I love asking questions and contemplating answers. Ignoring that part of me would also be doing myself a huge disservice.

So where does all of this thinking and reflecting lead me? To a new commitment. I want to be more aware of how I’m balancing these three parts of myself. I don’t want to lose the adventurer during the school year, or the nerd during the summer. These two parts of myself often seem like such opposites (high school stereotypes, anyone?) but I think they can inform each other in really beautiful days.

I also think I’ve been underserving the hobbit aspects of my personality. I think I’ve been using those things as “rest days” in between working hard on school or adventuring; the purpose has been to recover just enough to get back to it (whatever “it” happened to be). But that’s not why I knit, or bake, or play music. That’s not why I seek out quiet gatherings with the people I love. I knit because I love to knit. I like the colors and textures of the yarn, I like choosing the patterns, and I like watching a tangible thing grow out of a literal ball of string. This part of me is just as important in its own right, rather than in relationship to the adventurer and nerd.

Well, there you go. Just in writing this, I’ve changed my perspective on what I’m doing today. I certainly am not enjoying it any more or less (it’s been pretty glorious so far!) but my purpose has shifted somewhat. Today, rather than being a “rest day,” is about nurturing the hobbit-ness in me.

My homework for you: How do you rest? Why do you rest?

Hej då,

Jamie

Flow

For the last three weeks, I’ve been exploring creativity from the perspective of being an adventurer, a scientist, and a hobbit. I’ve talked about how being creative is amazing because it’s about overcoming challenges, exploring the new and unknown, and being part of a larger conversation about being human. These things are all true, and I’ve loved the responses I’ve gotten from you all.

But there’s something more, I think, to creativity, than just these pieces. Creating something is a really special experience.

Mihály Csíkszentmihály is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the term “flow” to refer to a state where a person is so engrossed in their task they are oblivious to the outside world. There are a lot of brilliant people who have reported this feeling; Newton, for example, regularly forgot to eat for several days at a time when he was working on a little book called Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica.

There are lots of studies out there about how engaging in flow is good for you. It can create a sense of purpose and engagement. It’s energizing and uplifting. It allows a growth in perspective. But the thing I wanted to talk about in all of this was that growth.

In teaching, we talk about something called the zone of proximal development. This is the mental and emotional place where a student is encountering something new and it’s a little outside of their comfort zone. However, it’s also totally possible to push a student beyond the zone of proximal development into the danger zone. When students feel threatened, whether that’s confronting an idea that conflicts with their world view or the fear of looking dumb or too smart, they can’t learn anything at all.

It’s important for teachers to recognize where this is for each student. Students in their comfort zone won’t grow, and students in the danger zone can’t grow. Think about it like a graph, with the level of challenge on the x axis (the bottom) and the level of skill someone has on the y axis (the vertical one). As you move from left to right, the challenge of the task gets harder. As you move from top to bottom, the skill level of the person doing the task increases.

There is a magical line running from bottom left to top right of this graph that balances challenge and skill so learning can happen. If the challenge is too high and the skill too low (bottom right) then the person gets frustrated and gives up. If the skill is too high and the challenge too low (top left) the person is bored. This is a visual I keep constantly in the back of my head as I’m teaching.

But hold on a moment here. I moved from creativity to teaching. How’d I do that?

Learning is creating. It’s not always creating something physical; in fact, it’s usually creating something super abstract. Learning is about constructing a framework of thoughts, ideas, and understandings.

If you think about the zone of proximal development, it’s true for every sport ever played. You don’t throw a beginning skier down the hardest run on the hill. That would be a recipe for injury! Coaches help athletes build skills slowly. It’s also true for every art form. I began practicing piano by playing the five notes under my fingers without moving my hands. The first bread I made was not a yeast bread. As I learned, the pieces I played and the recipes I used grew more complex.

But this isn’t some pathway, where I can complete step 1 and “level up” so I can complete step 2. It’s a constant balancing act of knowing when to push to a challenge I might not totally be ready for, but I’m ready to learn from, and when to practice something I already know. Being creative requires knowing myself, and then getting outside myself to really get into this feeling of flow. And that’s a really cool experience.

Your homework: Have you experienced flow? What were you doing?

Hej då,

Jamie

Balance

Well, everyone, I’m writing to you from yet another state this week! I’m currently in New York City with another teaching fellow in the lead up to our summer meeting. I’m experimenting with being a city girl…I’ll let you know how that goes next week! After all the reflection and mixed-up-ed-ness of the last month, I thought I’d focus a little bit more on balance as a concept, rather just than as it applies.

The first time I ever did yoga I was with my ski team. I remember being in a circle in one of the baseball fields at the bottom of Howelsen Hill, trying to figure out what on earth we were doing while feeling very silly. Most of us were scoffing and generally blowing it off. I mostly remember face-planting in the grass trying to do a pose called crow pose. As you can imagine, I was not a fan!

Then when I lived in Bocas del Toro, Panama, I lived two houses away from a home yoga studio that offered classes for $5. The girls I was living with and I decided we were bored and wanted a work-out, so we tried it. Amber and Sarah lost interest pretty quickly, but I was hooked. At first I liked the core work and the stretching, which were the most familiar to me from my years of ski racing. Then I started to enjoy how it made my shoulders stronger (which was not something ski racers focus much on) and how it challenged my brain to get my body into interesting new shapes. I enjoyed being conscious of how good it felt to just breathe.

And the more I went, the more I appreciated the three principles my teacher, Laura Kay, said were the foundation of every yoga practice. Principle 1 was to have a positive attitude. Every time someone came in saying, “oh, I’m not very flexible,” Laura Kay would remind them to appreciate the things their body could do rather than bemoaning the things it couldn’t. Principle 2 was to have strong legs and good alignment to protect joints and prevent injuries. And principle 3 was to open our hearts and radiate out our light. You can take this any number of ways, but my favorite explanation was when Laura Kay would tell us that smiling was the most advanced form of the pose.

One pose we did a lot was called ardha chandrasana, or half moon pose. It’s a balancing pose that looks like this:

half moon pose

(Thank you to Creative Commons Search, which allows me to find images that are tagged for reuse!)

This pose is hard! I am fairly good at balancing on one foot. I can even bend forward and touch the ground on one foot. But turning sideways makes it WAY more interesting. I can’t tell you how many times I leaned a little too far back and tipped over. But the marvelous thing about yoga with Laura Kay was that the typical response to something like this was to laugh and try again. And it wasn’t embarrassed laughter. It was “that was awesome because I was trying and pushing myself and I definitely looked really silly as I flailed” laughter.

I stopped practicing yoga for nearly two years after I came back to Boulder. I tried out a couple of classes here, but a lot of them felt really serious. I felt like I had to try to keep up, and I missed the laughter.

Enter Keeli, my freshman college roommate. We grew up ski racing against each other, but barely knew each other until CU randomly matched us up. She’s awesome at calling me randomly and dragging me along on some spontaneous adventure. That time, she wanted me to go with her to a yoga class that her friend Maggie taught every Tuesday night. It was with a non-profit group called Grass Roots Yoga that held classes in a big CU classroom on east campus.

That was a year and a half ago, and I have completely fallen in love with the class. I like the group of people who practice. It’s a mix of all ages, and several of the people are science and engineering researchers at CU. I actually really like that it’s not a proper studio; there are no mirrors and no pressure to be a “good yogi.” And I really love Maggie’s teaching style. She’s wonderful about giving modifications for poses and she’s a huge advocate for listening to what our bodies need. Some days that’s pushing myself to get stronger. Other days, I opt for variations of the poses that require less energy. One day, I was so exhausted that I chilled in child’s pose for literally the entire hour-long class.

One of my favorite things Maggie has ever taught me about is balance. She taught me that balance is not a destination. It’s not something I can achieve. It’s a process, and it’s always changing.

This idea TOTALLY changed how I viewed balancing poses. When balancing is a process, that means wobbles are a good thing. Falling over is a good thing. This fit in so beautifully with how I remembered feeling while I was practicing half moon pose with Laura Kay. The goal is not to achieve stillness, it’s to learn to respond to what we’re feeling and doing. Maggie often laughs and tells us “we’re humans, not statues!”

I have lots of reasons I enjoy practicing yoga. I still like the stretching and the core work, the shoulder strength and the mental challenge. I like being conscious of my breathing. But my favorite thing about yoga is how the principles of practice don’t just apply to yoga. They apply to life as well.

Lots of people talk about balancing responsibilities or managing their time. I can’t tell you how many posts I see about achieving work-life balancing. And the messages are incredibly mixed! One mentor told me never to think about school on Friday night or Saturday. One post I read suggested carving out one hour a day for self-care time. But I also feel incredible, constant pressure to get more done, or to take advantage of opportunities. And while I feel like some of my responsibilities are consistent (grading, anyone?) some of them vary, be that proctoring standardized testing or one of the (totally amazing) professional projects I take on beyond my classroom. When every day is different, how do I achieve balance?

And even beyond balancing my time, I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance who I am. That’s part of what I’m doing here! How do I balance being an adventurer, a nerd, and a hobbit? How do those things intersect and how do they contradict?

These questions have been driving me crazy for years, until I realized that I was asking the wrong questions. I don’t achieve balance. As Maggie said, I’m a human, not a statue. As life changes, I need to adapt. That’s partially why hard rules like the ones I mentioned above were frustrating to me; they assumed I could do the same thing every single day or week.

Now, I’m not great at adapting. I don’t like change. (This is a bit of an understatement; my mom can tell you some fairly hilarious stories to illustrate this point.) But maybe if I practice enough sideways balancing poses, if I can learn to laugh when I fall over, then I can learn to manage the wobbliness that comes with balancing life.

Your homework: How do you work towards balance in your life? How do you (or how could you) embrace the wobbles?

Hej då,

Jamie

Seeing and Being Seen

Last fall I decided to do an experiment; I wanted to see if I could bias my Facebook feed towards showing me positive things. I liked pages like Love What Matters, People are Awesome, and Drawing the Soul. I found people who posted awesome heartfelt things like Liz Gilbert, who wrote that bit about being a crone I liked so much, Maggie Boissard, my yoga teacher, and Malinda Kathleen Reese, who is the hilariously talented creator of Google Translate Sings. (This was one of the best things I ever did on social media, as a side note. I would highly recommend it.  I prefer to get my news from the BBC and NY Times anyway.)

I particularly like the Love What Matters page. They post stories of kindness, good deeds, and hope. They post stories about families being reunited, random acts of giving, overcoming difficulty, and finding human connection across differences. This page reminds me to believe in the goodness of other people and to do random acts of kindness when I can.

Sometimes I’ll tape a candy bar to a colleague’s door, or I’ll “cookie” the science department by leaving treats on everyone’s desk. One of the history teachers returns the favors by leaving sticky notes on my car window or notes on my board. Kelly, who teaches next door, freely shares her chocolate with me. These little things can bring a smile (and sometimes a much-needed sugar rush!) when we’re tired.

But I had an experience this week that made me reevaluate my thoughts on random acts of kindness. They’re awesome, to be sure. But I think it’s the act of kindness that ISN’T random that is the most powerful.

Last Tuesday I was having a day reminiscent of poor Alexander’s in the children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I woke up not feeling very good, forgot to pack my thermos for tea, had a weird schedule because of state standardized testing that meant I saw five classes instead of my normal four, forgot I was seeing the fifth class and didn’t really have a lesson plan for them, proctored through my planning period, and had a lunch meeting AND a meeting after school that shouldn’t have been a surprise (but it was). My kids were squirrely because the schedule was odd, and I was exhausted and didn’t have much patience.

But the beautiful thing about terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days is that the people who love you come through. One colleague offered to cover my proctoring. Kelly was also having a similar day and we laughed about it together. And one of my students did one of those little acts of kindness that completely brought me to tears.

This girl is my aide for the last class I saw that day. She found me hiding in my back office in the ten minute break before her class started; I was slouched in my chair staring out the window. Our conversation went something like this.

“Whatcha doing, miss?” she asked.

“Absolutely nothing, and it’s glorious,” I informed her.

She cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Long day?”

“Yeah, I don’t feel very good today. I’d really rather be in bed,” I admitted.

She nodded knowingly. “I feel that,” she said.

I sat there for a moment more and sighed. “But there is one more class, and it’s time to get to it,” I said, more to myself to her.

I checked with her to see what she was working on, and then went back into my classroom and got my class started. Partway through the period, she came out of my office, grabbed the pass, and waved at me. I gave her a thumbs up and let her go without pausing my current conversation. I barely noticed her come back in, and she ducked out at the end of class with a quick wave.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my car that I figured out where she’d gone when she’d left my class. I was looking for my sunglasses when I noticed a wrapper of something in my bag. I didn’t remember putting anything in my bag that had a wrapper, so I pulled it out. I found two Hershey’s bars with a sticky note on top. In six different colors, it said “This is for you, for being the BEST even at your WORST.”

I cried. Like, hand over mouth, it’s a good thing the car wasn’t moving yet or I would’ve had to pull over, cried.

It wasn’t a huge gesture. It was some chocolate and a sticky note. But for me, there was so much more than that tied up in it.

It was a reminder that people are good. High schoolers (anyone, actually) can be snarky and mean and nasty. But in the ~500 students I’ve worked with so far in my career, every single one of them has had moments of genuine goodness and curiosity. Sometimes it can feel hard to find those moments; sometimes it takes all year to get past the layers of defense some of these kids have built up. But this is possibly the most important part of my job. If I can see the value in a kid, then I can start to help them see it too.

Even more than that, I think it was so powerful because this girl had seen me. She saw that I was struggling and that I was still there trying. Being seen like that made me feel valued. It made me feel important to her. It made all the effort I was putting in feel worth it. And that’s what brought me to tears. This wasn’t a random act of kindness. It was purposeful. My aide saw a need and she did something about it. It was a pretty incredible lesson about kindness and caring.

The chocolate is long gone, but that sticky note will be in a small box on top of my desk for a very, very long time. It’s a reminder of when someone cared about me, and of how even the sassiest students, sometimes especially the sassiest students, have value. And it’s also a reminder of a new commitment I’m making; I want to keep my eyes open. I want to learn from my students as much as I teach them. And I want to see my students, and everyone I care about in my life.

Your homework this week: When was the last time you were really seen? When is the last time you really saw someone else, and acted on what you saw? Will you join me in my commitment to keeping my eyes open?

Hej då,

Jamie