ONE. DUMB. CLASS.

This is the story of the day I began to believe I was not a writer.

I was 21 years old, and almost halfway through my junior year in college. I went to a small, private college with less than a thousand students. On this particular day, I walked across the student union, my footsteps echoing behind me. 

The thing I liked best about the union were the echoes of my feet shuffling and the reverberating voices of friends you could hear as you walked through. I have a memory of a day my mom and I walked through the union during winter break when no one was around, and we sang the hymn, “Trust and Obey,” acapella. She sang soprano and I sang alto. Our echoing song gave me chills. 

But, I digress. On this particular day that I formed my belief that I wasn’t a writer, there were no songs and no happy voices that I remember. All I remember was walking over to my mailbox in the union, turning the key, and anxiously pulling out the paper I had written for British Literature, Second Survey. 

This paper had a big, fat, ugly, red C written on it at the top. 

My heart began to race. This was my third C on a paper in this English class, AND I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR FOR GOD’S SAKE! I was an honor roll student–NOT a C student, and I couldn’t bear the thought of committing myself to a field where I was not excelling. I felt a mix of anxiety and anger, as I clutched the paper close to me. 

I decided to do what I always did in college when I was freaking out:  I RAN. 

I didn’t even know where the heck I was running to. I just carelessly sprinted across campus, becoming more winded by the second, as I breathed in the blustery air of Northern Indiana. 

As I reached the other end of campus, I looked up and saw Shoup House. 

Shoup House was not my campus house. But it was a house where a few of my friends lived. One of those friends was an English major. 

“Becca!” I shouted. “I’m going to see Becca,” as if my subconscious knew where I was headed all along.

I ran in, sped up the wooden stairway, where I was greeted at the top by Becca and two of my friends. They quickly noticed I was not there for just a friendly chat. I was there because I was having a moment

“Damn that son of a bitch!! 😡” I yelled, throwing my paper on the floor. 

The girls quickly realized the “son of a bitch” I was referring to was Professor Tom David. Professor David was young, cool, and some girls even thought he was hot. (Gag.) His muscles and boyish good looks appeared fake to me, just like his neatly coifed hair.  During my sophomore and junior years of college, Tom was unfortunately teaching a larger number of classes than normal for the English department, since two other professors were on sabbatical, as I remember. 

Every English class with Professor David was PAINFUL. My upper level English classes typically had anywhere from 15-20 students in them. Tom displayed an obvious favoritism for the outspoken hipster students in the class from day 1. He would start anecdotes with, “Last night I was at the Electric Brew, having coffee with Caitlin and Brad, and we got into this really interesting conversation about the use of imagery in William Carlos Williams’ poetry…” And I would be forced to listen to him name drop the names of the “cool kids” throughout a story that had NOTHING to do with William Carlos Williams.

I simply could not compete with the Caitlins and the Brads. They were badass,  cool, confident, highly-favored hipsters. They loved Tom, despite his preppy cardigans and argyle sweaters, and he loved them.

The non-hipsters in the class, me and my friend, Michelle, sat off to the side in class, furiously taking notes. Todd never called on us, and may have even forgotten we were there, until one of us had the courage to timidly raise our hand, with our voice shaking, heart palpitating, and finally saying, “Um, I think that T.S. Eliot’s use of the objective correlative in British literature is actually used by a lot of screenwriters nowadays,” and mid-sentence we would suddenly realize that Tom David DIDN’T EVEN GIVE A SHIT, and wasn’t listening to what we were saying. And so we would suddenly forget the very important, courageous thing we were trying to say, and end up stuttering as we looked around the room at people who refused to make eye contact. 

And then, eventually, we stopped speaking in his classes. Like totally. We became selective mutes, since we grew  tired of his disdain for us. 

We were also tired of feeling knocked down. Tired of feeling not enough. I was doing everything I could to write a good English paper, but I continued to receive Cs that were covered with negative, red slashes all over my paper. 

I felt like my identity as a writer was being stripped away. 

I had been working as the student manager/director of the writing center at my college. I was responsible for tutoring several students to write papers. I was helping them succeed. Yet, I couldn’t seem to catch a break myself. I felt like a fraud

And this feeling was enough to cause me  to withdraw from my English classes at college and drop my English major, even though I was one class away from completing it. ONE. DUMB. CLASS. With dumb Tom David. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

Not only that, I stopped writing completely. I didn’t write anything substantial for sixteen years. And for sixteen years I felt a certain degree of emptiness–an emptiness that haunts you when you aren’t fully doing what you were meant to do. 

You guys, 

that.

is.

scary. 

It’s scary because I let one person–one teacher–have that kind of effect on my life. And it shows how we, as teachers, play a major role in how our students view themselves.

Tom David (as far as I could assess in my 21 year old brain) thought I couldn’t do it–I couldn’t write a paper worthy of his intellectual time or a decent grade. He showed me through his body language that my comments in class were not worthy of even being acknowledged. 

And I believed him. Even though he was ONE PERSON. 

He was my teacher. And now that I’m a teacher myself, I try to remind myself of this experience as much as possible, because it keeps me focused on the task at hand: teaching my students to BELIEVE they can GROW academically in their abilities.

If I don’t believe that, how will they?

I have the opportunity to show my students that the most important part of learning is growth. I modify instruction and student work, while looking at students’ data over time. Each child is unique and has a specific set of challenges and abilities. As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 
Oh my god, I think I need to say that again. 

As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 

That, right there, ⬆️ was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I dropped my English major when it got difficult, because I didn’t know that I could improve anymore. 

Anyone will quit something he thinks he sucks at, if he doesn’t believe he can improve. Anyone–adult or child.

Now, I don’t blame Tom David for my decision to quit my English classes. I was the quitter. I was the one who gave up. I was so intimidated by him that I didn’t ask for help, nor did I get a tutor, because I was too proud. That was my choice, and I learned from it. 

And what I learned is actually invaluable–I learned that I have INCREDIBLE power as an educator to help my students develop beliefs about themselves–beliefs that can set them on a positive trajectory for life. And the first belief I want to instill is that it is through hard work–not just being smart, that one accomplishes the work that he or she was born to do. ❤️

Me (in the red) and a bunch of other non-English major college peeps, doing our non-English major thing.

Grapefruit, Old Lady Perfumes, and Velvet

When I was in college, my brilliant friend, Patty, had this thing called a happiness book (at least I think that’s what it was called). It was a blank book, actually, where she asked everyone that lived on the floor of our college dorm to write down their own “happiness lists.” 

Empathy came easy to Patty. Patty is someone who, if she saw someone crying, would immediately provide comfort. Her own eyes would often well up with tears when she saw others hurting. She was just a beloved person, that Patty. Although I can’t speak for Patty in terms of specifically why she asked us to make our own happiness lists, it is no surprise to me that she cared enough about others’ wellbeing that she wanted her friends to know how to make themselves happy. 

And in college, there was a lot of heartbreak. I went through a sad breakup with a boy my first year, as did many girls on the floor. We cried together, we lifted each other up, and we made up funny games/inside jokes to make each other laugh. In that close community of Miller dorm, second floor, we helped each other grow up during our first year away from home.  

The other day, something happened which caused me to think about this happiness book. An acquaintance of mine was naming the simple pleasures in life that cause her to feel happy; meaning, the things in her physical environment or space that cause her to feel joy or peace.  She said that she loves an orange blossom scented essential oil and a specific hand cream–that these are simple things that make her happy. So when she’s having “a moment,” she smells her essential oil or rubs the hand cream onto her hands. 

At first, I was standing there thinking, “Seriously? You gotta be freaking kidding me…A hand cream? A cream makes you happy? A cream brings you peace? Like, you can just rub a cream on your hands when you’re sad and all of a sudden you’ll feel as happy as a clam?” 😐

Upon pondering this further, though, I realized this seemed so bizarre to me only because of how far removed I actually have become from simple pleasures. I’m a rather hyper, fidgety person by nature. Self-soothing does not come naturally to me. Granted, when I feel down, I do have a couple of tools I utilize to bring me up. These tools, however, involve DOING things. Because I am, by nature, A DOER OF THINGS. 

When I feel upset, for example, I typically feel a strong desire to go and exercise–like go to the gym and lift the most heavy-ass weights that I can or go for a run and run until I can’t run anymore. (And I actually really dislike running until I’m doing it.) Another thing I do is go to one of those $25 foot massage parlors in town and pay someone to rub my feet. 😳

However, sometimes I can’t exercise and I can’t just go and get a massage. Sometimes I’m at work and something stressful happens and it’s not like I can just get up and leave. Sometimes it’s time for my daughter to go to bed and she’s acting like I’m the worst mother in the world, and I can’t just leave the house and go for a run. 

And then I thought of Patty’s happiness book and I realized how genius that is. I realized that I need an actual physical toolkit or an accessible written list of things that make me feel happy, so I can go to it when I feel angry or scared or annoyed. 

So that’s what I’m trying to do right now–think upon my damn happy list. And so far I’ve only come up with three things besides exercising and foot massages: 

  • A rose water perfume/oil smell because it reminds me of my grandmother who gave the best hugs to me when I was a little girl. 
  • Velvet cloth. I don’t have a reason for this other than it might possibly remind me of my grandmother as well. She had a velvet rocker.  Can you see my obsession with my grandmother? 😱
  • Oranges and lemons and grapefruits, because I think they taste and smell fresh and juicy. 

Okay, so that just felt weird and incredibly vulnerable to me to share these things with you. But now I’m on my way to figuring out more things on my list. 

And in the meantime, I’m going to carry a grapefruit and cut off a piece of velvet from my daughter’s baby dress, and buy some old lady rose perfume to carry with me everywhere I go. Every time someone says something mean to me, I’m going to pull out that velvet cloth and touch it. I may even hold it out in front of my body, to act as a shield that protects me from the mean person. (I totally want to draw a picture of me doing this, but I’m too tired. 😂) And every time an unexpected stressor occurs, I will take my perfume out of my purse and start spraying it all over my entire body and into the air within  six feet around me. And every time I feel anxious about something, I’ll start biting into my grapefruit. I won’t even bother to peel it. (I’ll peel it with my own teeth, perhaps.) And everyone will think I’m super wacko but I don’t care, because I’m pretty sure all these things would actually make me happy. 

Cheers to our happiness lists.