Penance

I’ve been to a lot of trainings to learn “what the students’ lives are like.”  These presenters are usually people who don’t spent 8 hours a day, every day, with students.   Instead, they are university-level experts in cultural differences and student psychology.

Sure, when you start teaching, you should learn about the students you’re working with.  But for the last five years, I’ve read my students’ journals and essays.  It’s hard to let go of the dark stories I find there, both the usual pains of growing up, and the nastier societal evils that pop up, the shakiness of poverty and the scraps of racism that stick in people’s throats.  Why would anyone think I don’t know that stuff?  I have the opposite problem: I can’t forget it.

These earnest lecturers ask us to fill out surveys (most of the time), or worse, walk around a room (as we did yesterday), to show what our upbringings were like.  This is supposed to help us accept how different our students’ lives might be.

Did my parents go to college?  Yes.  (Even some of my grandparents.)  Did we have more than 50 books?  Oh, goodness, yes.  Avalanches of books.  Did they own our home?  Yes.  Did I ever go without food?  No, only without dessert.

We held hands and walked forward and back, all the teachers and administrators, showing our answers to these questions physically.  I was doing what I was told.  My anger came later.  That was pretty personal information!  I felt awkward sharing it (did people hate me?) and awkward knowing which of my coworkers had gone without food (how awful!).

As an English teacher, I think carefully about what I ask students, how I want to direct their thought processes, and then what to ask them to share.  There are certain trains of thought I don’t want to encourage, like self-pity or shallowness.  And in the sharing, I don’t want anyone to be shamed.  It doesn’t seem like our presenters are as reflective.

It does make me burn with guilt to admit my privilege.  And then it makes me want to stop everyone and explain, “My parents divorced, though!  And I suffered!”  I did.  But did I suffer enough as a child?  Or have I paid the penance for privilege?  How many years of sacrifice as an adult make up for years of plenty as a child?  Although I know these are ridiculous questions, born from ideas I don’t even believe in, they still taunt me.

Maybe it’s oldest child overcompensating.  When you’re the oldest, you feel like you must be the one.  You must fix things.  Make things right.  As soon as I showed up here, everything my parents could not or did not do was left for me.  And I was always overwhelmed with my own incompetence.  I will never be as wise or capable as my parents.  They are way ahead of me.  The world’s evils will always be too big for me to wrap my arms around, and I take more naturally to anger and shame than humility.

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