Seeing Me in My Students

1:09 PM Shonell Bacon 0 Comments

It’s been about a year since I’ve been in a classroom as a teacher. With the heavy course load I have my first year of doctoral work, I can’t say I’m overly sad to not be a teacher. But today, I miss it.

Why?

I miss the students like me that I saw walking into the classroom. Every semester there was a handful, and while teaching underprepared and underrepresented students through the Louisiana Academy for Innovative Teaching and Learning (LAITL) program at McNeese State University, I saw many students just. like. me.

I was a first-generation student, which meant I had no one in my family to help me through the process of applying to schools, of applying for financial aid, of starting school, and most importantly, of staying in school.

I was fairly smart in high school; I had a lot going for me besides book smarts, such as singing (initially, going into undergrad, I wanted to major in music, become an opera singer, and then a music teacher) and sports (loved softball, soccer, and lax). I was the kid seen as the Great Black Hope. I was going to do something beyond get a high school diploma and a job. I was going to go to college and get a career.

But there were a lot of hurdles before me – both educationally and personally.

Though I did well in school, I couldn’t “pass” an SAT test to save my life, no matter how many classes I took or hours I studied. This initially kept me from getting into the schools I wanted. This moment, this inability to do well on an SAT (which later became the GREs), would haunt me for most of my academic career, even now. No matter how well I do in the classroom, there is a part of me always waiting for the other shoe to fall, to show me that my “smarts” are really just smoke and mirrors. I have to combat this demon on a daily basis. I can get an e-mail right now stating I made an A on a project, and my emotions will go as follows: Immediate excitement and thanking of God. Almost immediate thought of “Well, that was an easy assignment” or “I have to do better than this” or “I don’t know how long I can keep this fa├žade up.” Someday, I hope to have this issue nipped in the bud.

Personally, I was dealing with major problems that took away from my ability to focus on college. My stepfather was (and still is) a raging alcoholic, who was always verbally and emotionally abusive and times, physically so, too. As the oldest child, I wanted to protect my siblings, but I couldn’t always do that.

It’s hard, walking into a classroom and pretending to care about environmental science when you know that the minute you step into your house, you might have to call the police yet again because your father is on a drunken rampage and wants to act a fool on your front porch.

Some didn’t understand my need to take a break from school when my mother became ill and almost died. They didn’t know how important my family was to me. They didn’t know my inner workings, the thoughts that said school will always be there; my family won’t. They didn’t realize that with a basically absentee father, I would have to step up and make some dinners and lunches, wash the clothes, the keep up the house, take care of me and my siblings while my mother recovered. They didn’t see the times I broke down, thinking all was lost only to get back up and go back to the classroom and pass a test or write a paper despite the problems that raged about in my head.

I was a student, yes.

But I was a person, too. And sometimes, the person I am—the person you are—can affect the student you want to be.

I get that.

Some don’t.

There are many who roam the halls of universities and colleges and only look at the SAT, the GRE. They only look at what a student produces for the class, without thinking that this young adult could actually be brilliant, but because we’re only worried about the numbers at the end of the day, we would never know what that student is truly capable of. We don’t see that if we just paused and listened to a student, truly heard him or her, we could begin to unleash some of those problems for students and aid them in academic success.

And I have to admit, because you guys who read me here know I work hard to be truthful, that I was one of those teachers when I first started. The first couple years of teaching were a training of a lecture-assignment-grade-return cycle, and it was hard to break out of it.

And then I taught for LAITL. My first semester in that program, I had to call security. A lot. Students were rowdy. Sometimes fights broke out. I felt like I was starring in a remake of Lean on Me.

One day, I broke. And I got real with the students. I told them a bit about my struggles with school and my determination to make it through despite outside forces, to include family, friends, and especially those within the education system that—though I hate to admit—wait to see you become a statistic.

After my moment of realness, I dismissed class and went back to my office. I was drained. Upset. Memories of my hardships flooded me. I was ready, after only a few weeks into the program, to call defeat. I was done.

And then there was a knock on my door a few hours later. A black male student, one that thought he was the life of my classroom party, was standing at the door, looking ashamed. Almost immediately he apologized for disrespecting me and the classroom. You see, for him, I was the first black teacher he had ever had. The minute he saw me, he thought, “Oh yeah. Got a cool black teacher? It’s about to be on.” He was ready for fun and cuttin’ up because he thought I was down. He didn’t realize that down for me as a teacher in a university meant coming to class on time, participating in class, doing the work, and being a productive member of the classroom.

He didn’t have many people of color in his life that could act as a role model, that could guide him, show him how to make a way…sometimes out of no way.

My story made him realize that he and I weren’t that different. Like me, he worked hard to help his family, which often meant he didn’t have much time to help himself—which explained the late assignments.

My presence in the classroom made him—and a lot of the students in my classes—realize that blacks were educated and could be an agent of change within the classroom, and beyond.

And I miss that. I miss being a difference. I miss seeing students like me, full of circumstances that want to keep them bogged down in muck and wishful thinking, rise to match the brilliance that they hold within themselves. I miss seeing a student “get it” and begin to take autonomy of their academic career, their life. I miss seeing that change that occurs when a student who’s been told “You can’t” and “No” all her life decides to open her mouth and shout, “I can” and “Yes.”

Seeing these things, experiencing these things gives me personal worth as an educator. Accolades are nice. Getting something published, great. But the joy of seeing the fruits of your labor grow and aid in the growth of others? Can’t be beat.

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And then it comes to me like an epiphany...

6:00 AM Shonell Bacon 1 Comments

I do love Chrisette Michele's song, "Epiphany," but I use a line of her song as title because yesterday, something came to me suddenly: an epiphany.

For just a split second, I was sitting at my laptop, having full-blown angst over trying to get my mind, my energy to focus on something, anything, when I got quiet. It was no longer than a minute. But I didn't hear the TV. I wasn't thinking. It was full, complete silence.

And in that one-minute of silence, I heard one sentence: Nothing inspires me.

And I tilted my head to the side, thought about the sentence and said, "That's it."

Since the new year, there has been a change in me. I would argue the "change" started months before this, but I felt its presence strongly after the new year.

But I didn't see it as me being uninspired.

I saw it as issues with me.

I was very depressed in January, and I spent a great deal of time being mad at myself for feeling the way I did. I struggled with thoughts. I struggled with understanding the most basic instructions for an assignment. I struggled in writing assignments. I struggled in having conversations with people. I struggled with thinking creatively. I struggled with ME, in all ways.

February brought less depression, but it didn't alleviate the struggle for me to accomplish any task. In those few instances where I was sparked to act and do something, the feeling was fleeting. I would start a project and then immediately my energy would diminish and nothing would get finished until it had to get finished because of a deadline.

When I heard the sentence - Nothing inspires me - I knew it was true.

There is nothing inside me right now that is urging me, pushing me forward.

Last year, I had so many things.

All the firsts I accomplished were spurred on by one word: independence

Once I got to school, completing coursework was spurred on by my need to succeed and prove I could do it and have my family proud of me.

Writing, though it came slowly, was spurred on by NaNoWriMo. The writing wasn't great, but I was writing, so that was something.

Now, as I move into 2010, I'm looking around me like, "What will inspire me now?"

Honestly, I have to say I have NO idea.

I don't know what that SPARK will be to set me in motion again.

Right now, I'm doing what I normally don't do--whatever will get the job done.

I will say I am using this revelation as a positive.

When I heard Nothing inspires me, I did smile.

Why?

Because now I have a rationale. For awhile, I've been spiraling in this whole What's going on with me mode, and my emotions were running rampant because of it. Now, at least I know the cause of my actions. I can take it and ask myself, "What will inspire me?" And from this question, I can explore what it is I need to restore the parts that are broken and dismantled.

And that's something.

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The Importance of Movement

1:39 PM Shonell Bacon 0 Comments

Last week, I talked about the Forward March. This "movement" is a bit different. This one is about the movement that keeps your body at its optimal level, that keeps your feeling good, that keeps your healthier.

Before I came to Lubbock in August '09, I was on the road to better movement. I exercised three, four times a week. I drank less coffee. I drank less soda. I drank more water. I cut a lot of fast food, fried foods from my diet. And it showed. Not only was my cholesterol levels getting back to normal, but I was also losing weight. Was even able to purchase jeans two sizes smaller than the ones I had worn in what felt like forever.

And then I moved.

Have you ever heard of the Freshman 10? Freshman 15 (probably now the Freshman 20!)? It's the theory (very loose theory) that when a freshman goes off to college, he or she (usually she) will probably gain about 10, 15 pounds.

Well, I'm here to tell you that not only is this theory true (for me anyway), but it also moves outside of the "freshman" arena. Here I am a grown woman, a PhDer, and I couldn't stop the pounds from accumulating.

And the thing is I didn't, at first, see the weight piling on. I felt it. When I stood. When I turned a certain way. When I got into the car. When I got out of the car. When I just tossed my foot up on my knee (or attempted to) to tie my shoes. When I walked from classroom building to the Frozen Tundra (where I park).

By the time I went home for Christmas break, I had confirmation I had gained weight: a pair of my jeans was just a wee bit too snug. They are now on the floor in the back of my closet.

It wasn't hard to see what had happened. Five months of running out to buy Mickey D's instead of making dinner. Of buying white chocolate mochas from the Bux with whip and real milk (none of that low-fat mess). Of placing comfort food between lips when I was homesick, depressed, etc. And especially--of no movement.

I had stopped moving. There was no exercising. Of course, I was constantly running across campus and moving from here to there, but that all became a part of my life. It wasn't an exercise regimen. It was what my body got used to doing because of my new role. In fact, that part of my life wasn't too different. Back home in LA, I went from here to there all the time. And I sat on my butt a lot, too, editing and writing. The difference was three, four times a week, I dedicated 45 minutes to an hour riding my bike or going for walks or lifting weight or a combination of these and other exercises.

By the time I came back to the Buck (for Lubbock, not to be confused with the Bux for Starbucks), the problem with my weight became one component of my depression. And I didn't want to talk about it. Mainly because I was embarrassed. I let myself get like this. I wasn't sure I could get myself out of it. I mean there was no way I was just going to stand up and do an hour of cardio. I knew I'd pass out before that happened.

Last week, I was talking to my sister from another mother about some random thing, and all of the sudden, I blurted out my frustration with my weight and how it made me feel. She suggested I not think so BIG. Not think about jumping on the bike and riding for an hour. To start small. Take ten minutes out of the day for light cardio, for movement. Do that for two weeks, then move up to 15 or 20 minutes and do that for two weeks, and on and on until I get up to where I used to be.

I thought, Surely I can dedicate 10 minutes out of 24 hours to move for the betterment of me, so I did it that night. By the third night, I actually felt more loose, able to move in ways that didn't tire me as much. By the fourth night, it became fun. I would be out somewhere and thinking about what I would do for my ten minutes when I got home.

This is day five, and I'm already feeling the "burn" in my arms from the weights and in my legs from the stepping machine. And better than all of day, mentally, I feel better. Because I made a decision and then acted upon that decision, I see me differently now. I don't just see what I am today but what I can become tomorrow, and the next day if I continue to act, to move.

Sure, there are going to be days I will say, "Screw this. Mickey D's!" But now that I have put myself in movement, my mind will question those thoughts and maybe, more often than not, I will go home to the baked fish and steamed vegetables and feel better having done so.

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Forward March

5:13 PM Shonell Bacon 0 Comments

I have a good author-friend named Fon James whose latest novel is titled Forward March. I remember doing editorial work on the novel for Fon last year, and when I read the title, I smiled. Each word in that title illustrates a movement, and every time I read the words, I think about my life and where it's going or not going and how, at the end of the day, it's about the Forward March.

Even when insanity brews in your life, you have to forward march. Yes, there is time to stand still, to deal with the insanity, to listen to God and have him aid you in your movement, but the result is always about the forward march.

It's funny how the mind works. I wasn't sure what I would mention here today. I wasn't sure I would mention anything. My life over the past week has been pretty uneventful, and to be honest, I've been having a fluctuating mood--moving from pure happiness or abysmal sadness in the matter of minutes, and I wasn't really in the mood to talk about it. Not because I didn't want to share. I'm all about sharing as those of you who have read this blog know. It was just that I didn't want to read my words on the screen. I didn't want those words to be read, to rechannel themselves into my psyche and affect my mood, a mood that is quite delicate these days.

I sat before my laptop, looking at the screen, wondering, What might I say today? I could talk about the day I went from the elation of reading a professor's evaluation of me to doubt in my abilities when I received news that made me question my intelligence. I could talk about the homesickness I still feel that keeps me from immersing myself into the semester like I know I should. I could talk about the growing feelings of "Don't care" that makes me just want to bury myself in my comforter and sleep for a really, really long time.

Yeah, I could talk, in detail, about those things, but as I opened up the blog space to write, I thought, Forward March, and I smiled.

Because even though right now, as I type these words, I have this mixture of anxiety/stress/sadness/pessimism brewing about me, I still get up, put on my clothes, grab my jacket and run my errands. I still do my school work. I still talk to people though I would prefer to be left alone. I still edit. I still write (well try!). I still do the million and one things I do because quite honestly, I don't know how to do anything but the forward march. It's been ingrained in me since childhood. Since I watched my grandparents work at the same place for more years than I've been alive. Since I watched my grandparents get up and move despite the illnesses that would eventually take their lives. Since I watched my mother take ill and almost die but recovered and went right back to work. Since I saw my mother do these things despite what she might have been feeling inside, in her heart, as she stayed in a marriage that had died decades ago. Since I watched my mother have to bury her parents within months from each other's death; she had a grace, a forward march about her that I know I will never be able to replicate.

I have been born into a long line of forward marchers: grandparents, mother, uncles, aunts, cousins...

And even when I think I can do no more, even when I don't want to do any more...

I do. Because I have to. And if I do more enough, I will get through the problems that beset me.

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