Learner’s Autobiography

In my mind, which enjoys lists and categories, there are two kinds of learning: the informational kind, where you gather facts and play Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit really well, can fill in the right bubble, take your pick from A, B, C, or D and pass without really knowing much, and then there is everything else.

For a long time, I was most interested in the first kind of learning. I like concrete. I like knowing where I stand, seeing a numerical value and inflating it into a much bigger emotional value. I still do it. (Just so you know, I currently have a 4.0 GPA, graduated with a 3.8 GPA — Magna Cum Laude — from Farmington, and was in the top 10% of my graduating class in high school.) These numbers, let’s admit this together, are meaningless. And yet, they are so validating for me. They tell me things about myself, whisper such good things to me, things I am not able to say on my own. These numbers often feel like armor against the numerous missteps and failures I’ve made.

It’s when I step outside of those numbers, and the academic landscape that has fostered them,  I begin to be present in my life. That presence is harsh sometimes, because I become keenly aware of all those things I’ve done wrong. I start to feel nauseous and hot, like I’m suddenly under an especially bright spotlight, and I want to scramble back into the safety of four walls and a whiteboard. The classroom may not be reality, but at least it is safe and I know what I’m doing and who I am. In the world outside, it’s a different story. But one cannot stay inside forever, hiding from all of who they are, and though I frequently find myself retreating to the classroom when things start to become scary (I’m here, aren’t I?), I am also learning what it’s like to stretch my legs and be outside.

Lots of things push me out of doors — sometimes happily, sometimes less so. Some things push me right back inside and I have to remind myself that there’s a whole world out there and I’m going miss it if I don’t at least go look out a window. What follows are four things, most beautiful, some kind of awful, that have thrust me back and forth over the threshold of the classroom and have taught me more than almost any teacher, textbook, or lesson plan I can remember.

My Body and Mind:

I had my first panic attack around eleven, though it would be a solid fifteen years before I realized that’s what I experienced. It wasn’t something that happened to me often, thank goodness, but anxiety and depression are twin plagues that have dogged me for most of my life. And to medicate myself, to keep those thoughts of self-harm and suicide at bay, I ate. I binged until I was ill. I also participated in some risky behavior, which did come to an end when I met my husband. He became, a lot of ways, my straight and narrow, my safe space.

But the bingeing never stopped.

Part of the reason it never stopped was because I never knew what it was. I just thought I had no control, that I was just fat, and this was what fat people did. If you’re fat, you eat when you’re happy, you eat when you’re sad, you eat when you’re bored, and if you’re feeling any of those emotions in an extreme (and I feel all my emotions in extremes), then by golly, you eat A LOT.

Deeply intertwined with my mental health and my eating is my body image and anxieties over my health. My body image was, and remains to an extent, pretty strong. As a teenager, I loved my body. As an adult, it’s more of a struggle, and not necessarily because I carry some more weight and stretch marks and cellulite, but possibly because I’ve just had more time to ingest the bullshit I’m inundated with via the internet. As a teen, I wasn’t exposed to much media. I didn’t read magazines, I didn’t watch much TV or see many movies, and so my body got to be my own standard of beauty.

Now, I’m on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest and everything else, and even though I’m older and more self-aware than I was at 16 or 17, I’m far more insecure. I’m constantly bombarded by images of airbrushed beauty and ten different exercise routines and I’ve just had three friends ask me if I’d like to buy some shake thing that comes with free Seran wrap that’s supposed to shrink my abdomen. I have often told my husband that while I may still find myself sexy and beautiful, no one else does (which annoys him to no end, because of course he does, too, but that’s not what I mean). It is hard when you’re constantly receiving the message your own body is unacceptable.

I have spent a long time, a few years, in fact, working to identify just what it is that ails me. What causes the bingeing? What causes the anxiety and the depression? What makes me hate myself, sometimes right down to the very flesh that let’s me exist in this world? How do all of these things come together into this intricate and dangerous cycle that leaves me feeling simultaneously hollowed and so full that I could explode?

As always, there’s still a lot to learn, lots of whys and hows to sort through, and honestly, at the moment, things have gotten worse before they’re about to get better, but I suppose that means there is work in progress.

This is what I’ve learned so far:

    • Chemically speaking, I just don’t make enough serotonin, and it’s okay if I take something to help me with that.
    • I have an eating disorder and having that knowledge is powerful and helpful.
    • It’s also okay that I don’t “look like” I have an eating disorder
    • If I surround myself with images of women who are beautiful and look like me on social media, I feel better about myself.
    • Yoga makes me feel strong and powerful.
    • Having depression and anxiety and just now learning to cope with them at 29 does not mean I’m weak.
    • I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.
    • Food is fuel…delicious fuel. It’s not a reward or a weapon.
    • I have a hard time talking about how I feel, which is amazing, because I love to talk about myself.
    • I hate workouts. Like, loath them. But I will walk, run (sometimes), and hike as much as I can get outside to do them. But for the love of God, don’t ask me to do anything with Jillian Michaels or Shaun T.

My Husband and Our Marriage:

I met my husband, Mike, on a blind date when I was 18. He was 22, and we both started out the date thinking the other was 20. This was perhaps the first thing we learned together: don’t trust anyone named Precious, even if she sets you up on a date with the person who you’ll spend the rest of your life with.

Our relationship moved fast. By the time we’d been dating a year we were engaged and had signed a lease for our first apartment together in Farmington. We’d also almost broken up a couple of times, and I’m sure anyone who lived around us thought we were destined for some sort cataclysmic end to our relationship.

But it never did end, it still hasn’t, despite all the growing pains we’ve had together. We sometimes forget how far we’ve come, how sure we are of our marriage and our love, but there are times when we stop and can see the progress we’ve made, hardly able to make out the kids we left in the dust when our relationship took off in 2006. There’s much more: trust, good sex, long talks about everything; and less (okay, zero): cops showing up at our house to break up fights. (True story.)

But of course, Mike and I are still learning all the trademark skills of a good marriage: patience, listening, selflessness, true and deep love that goes beyond that heart-quickening, obsessive kind of love from the early moments of relationships. We are each others training ground for learning how to be compassionate for others in our lives. We are both so different from one another, from learning style to hobbies to politics, that we’ve found if we can carry on a fulfilling marriage, then it should be nothing to be respectful and compassionate for someone you deal with in passing, whether at work or in daily life.

My husband, more than any course I’ve taken, has prepared me for my work as an adult educator. He has shown me what it means to be someone who thinks in a way that isn’t conducive to our sit down, shut up, and remember way of teaching and learning. He has shown me what it is like to need to work at a young age, and to value handwork in labor rather than just in the classroom. He has taught me what it looks like to swallow fear and to return to a place that wasn’t always kind to you in pursuit of more opportunities.

While I am harder on him than I am on any student that has ever come into my classroom, I am prouder of him than anyone I know, and have benefited from knowing him more than anyone else in my life, and probably more than he’s benefited from knowing me.

My Children:

I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand how much children can teach you, but there is something exceptional about what you learn from your own kids.

I have two: Elizabeth, who knows herself more completely at 9 than most adults I know, and Michael, the boy who in the same breath laments the lost days of his babyhood (“Mama, do you remember when I was a tiny baby?”) while insisting that he is far too big for music time at the library and will only read “cool big kid books without pictures.” He’s four.

If you know anything about raising children and having it in your mind to do it well, you know this is no small act. Though bringing up kids feels like it ought to be something you learn how to do before it happens, much like studying for a driver’s exam or learning how to work the register before you cashier, being a parent is the sort of thing you learn about in the moment or, as it most often happens to me, at night, as you lay awake, considering everything you have done that will result in your child becoming a serial killer.

I’m going say something extremely egotistical: If you know my children, truly know them and spend time with them, then you would likely counter my above statement with, “But Kirsten, they’re such good kids. You’re doing a great job.”

But I don’t know how this happened. 

It certainly wasn’t on purpose, or, rather, I can’t pinpoint precisely what it is my husband and I have done that has resulted in two moderately well-adjusted, kind, and intelligent children. We certainly don’t feel we’re particularly good parents. We swear too much in front of them. We sometimes forget to tell them to brush their teeth (for days at a time). Often, we spoil them. And sometimes we eat dinner on the couch while watching The Middle, even though Michael hates that show.

But we do try. We love them fiercely. We play and read. We talk to each other, even if we’re sometimes angry with one another. With my daughter especially, I have had many moments of, “Ah! So this is how it should be done.” And so, after screwing up half a dozen times, I can finally get it right, sometimes with her, but more often with my son. And that may be the first thing my children have taught me — that my best efforts, however glorious or fruitless they may feel in the moment, do not go unnoticed or unfelt. Though I couldn’t exactly tell you what it is I’ve done right (and could tell you everything I’ve done wrong), I have learned that in parenting, as in many other parts of life, if you wake up each day with the intention to do better and learn from yesterday’s mistakes, you might not turn someone into a murderer after all.

My Work:

I remember going into the book room with my AP English Lit teacher, Hank, to help him pick out our books for the first half the spring semester. Why he had asked me was a mystery, but because I worshipped him, I followed unquestioning. We spent an hour or so discussing the merits of different authors and genres, what benefits the class might get from studying a particular topic or theme as we prepared for the AP exam in a few months. It was the first time an adult had approached me as a consultant in my learning rather than simply as a receptacle, and it was exhilarating.

After selecting three or four books, we walked back to the classroom. It was then Hank asked me, “Kirsten, have you thought about becoming a teacher?”

I was appalled by the question. Other than briefly considering teaching in the 8th grade, specifically so I could coach middle school field hockey, the idea had never held much sway. By my senior year in high school, I was fairly certain I would be writing about politics for the New Yorker. But, because I adored Hank and didn’t want to offend him, I simply said, “Nah, I don’t think I’m cut out for it. I’d rather just write.” He nodded slowly, then looked down at me and smiled.

“Okay,” he said. “We’ll see.”

Well, damn him. He cursed me from that moment on.

Or perhaps I was cursed before that. Both sides of my family have teachers with long careers in education. On my mother’s side, we’re four generations deep into this gig. So, regardless of Hank’s prognostication, I may have just been genetically predispositioned for a spot in the classroom.

I won’t bore you with the details of my work in education before adult education, in part, because there wasn’t much to it, and also because it’s not where my heart has been. In fact, before adult ed, I was thinking about leaving education, but then, sort of serendipitously, I found myself in the library of my old high school from 4:30 to 8:30 two nights a week, helping folks study for the GED. I had planned on just working part-time to supplement my husband’s income while I was at home with our kids, a kindergartener and infant at the time, but I was slowly sucked in, and four years later found myself as the full-time English teacher and my entire outlook on life and how it can be lived had changed.

I have so often said, and will say again now, because it is the absolute truth, that before I took this job, I was a snob. I was clueless about it, too. In fact, I thought I was pretty great person, very open-minded, all that stuff. But I wasn’t. From the moment I began with our program my mind has repeatedly been blown.

Here are just a few things I have learned:

    • The English language is malleable; there is no one right way to speak, write, or communicate.
    • Generational poverty is a thing, it is vicious, and anyone who is trying to escape is far stronger than I.
    • We are products of our environment and not everyone’s environment sets them up to accept the same opportunities.
    • You can partake in morally questionable things and still be a moral person.
    • Our educational system has never truly worked with students who are either a) not wired to learn in a certain way or b) are not from a middle class culture (emphasis on culture, not wealth; you can be a poor middle class person — I was, growing up), and if you’re a combination of those two things, you’re kind of fucked.
    • Despite mounting odds, if a person is properly supported, he or she can learn, can get an education, can succeed, but you can’t want it more than they do.
    • Adult education should be viewed (but is often not) as a cornerstone of public education. If the adults in the community are educated and value education, then very often, children will be educated and value it, too. It’s the only kind of trickle-down economics I’ve seen work.

My work as an educator is shaped directly by all of these (and a multitude of other things I’m sure I’m forgetting), and while I know that I still have so much more to learn, so many other ways to improve on myself, I know that my students and my work with them is symbiotic. I pull as much from them as (I hope) they pull from me.

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