Introverted, Not Spineless

I woke up this morning mildly disturbed by a vivid dream. On the edge of a huge tank, perched precariously on the edge was a tiny bowl with a violet beta fish languidly mulling about. Inexplicably, a huge royal blue fish jumped out of the tank to hover over the small bowl. The beta immediately hopped out of its tank as I attempted to snatch the looming predator away. As the gigantic fish flipped and flopped about, he made a mad dash into a corner where he proceeded to gasp for air. Due to my fury at this fish lunging at a smaller one or perhaps recovering from the surprise at the larger fish lunging out of the tank, I left him gasping until his scales turned different colors, from blue to purple to red. For whatever reason, I took the near-limp fish and eased him back into the tank just in time. Before I woke up, what I remember is feeling the fish’s pronounced, bony backbone.

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I always assumed that it would always be the beta who needed saving, the little fish who appeared defenselessly before this unknown, ominous entity. However, it was this huge fish with a solid spine that, in the end, was deemed weak. Among several of the critiques as a new teacher I received this year, one particularly passive aggressive feedback was the notion that I was somehow spineless. That, being quiet or introverted, was akin to an unfavorable timidity. However, I think my unconscious was trying to tell me something else entirely. What comes to mind is this passage in 2 Corinthians which speaks on how the weak will be made strong. So much of this year was focused on being loud and “power-posing.” To “fake it until you make it” and like-minded cliches. However, as time went on, I felt so fake and inauthentic. I felt as if I was betraying my quieter students, the ones who preferred to work on their own rather than in randomly assigned small groups. I forgot to make time and space for those who don’t like group work or who may need some time to themselves.

I will always choose the title of facilitator over teacher. Teacher has come to mean so many things which are not true to the profession – lecturer, disciplinarian, dictator. While I do believe rules and regulations have a time and place in creating a healthy classroom ecology, I do not believe in instilling a culture of fear. So much of this year has been simply keeping the fear at bay, both the anger and impatience in my heart and managing the anxiety my students felt about their over-tested academics.

“For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I wonder if in my dream, I was the beta or the predator. Certainly, this year, I felt like the beta who would puff up lace-like fins in order to look just a bit larger than I actually was, to falsify bravado I had no business knitting together. I wonder, if, in some ways, the predator was an omen of a possible future. Perhaps, one day, I will be a big fish in a big pond but the moment I denigrate or condescend is the moment power will corrupt absolutely.

To the people who told me, both upfront and behind my back, that I was spineless and that I had no business in a classroom: who made you the arbiter of all classroom decisions? Who said that only the loud, the outwardly strong and extroverted, are the ones who belong in the profession? Introversion is a precious gift, a means to reflect deeply and unperturbed by the many distractions allotted by our sales-centric world. Gandhi, Lincoln, Maya Lin…the people I look up to all took time for introspection. Jesus was recorded in scripture as taking time away from the crowds, to escape and to pray. I think about the creatures in this vast wilderness who are legitimately spineless.  The Irukandji, or Kingslayer, jellyfish is the world’s smallest yet most deadly jellyfish with a sting more potent than 100 cobras. Invetebrates though they are, jellyfish are some of the oldest and most mesmerizing organisms still in existence today. Some of them are even so-called “immortals” who age backwards. Spineless is just an ill-informed, derogatory phrase for people who want to look down on others wired differently than they are.

So much of our lives are focused on more or bigger. “A spine made of steel,” bigger paychecks, greater confidence, and more stability. Yet, in our efforts to grow up and maximize so much superficiality, we forget the value of small. My voice might be soft spoken but the words I have to say are no less valuable. Three of the simplest, monosyllabic words in the English language can be combined to create a powerful, some would say life-altering statement: “I love you.” Small is might too. It matters when you take time out of a class period to check in with a student who is crying. It matters when you go back and talk with a student who blew up in your class or who believes you to be unfair. It matters if you take the time to say thank you, to write a note, or to give an encouragement…even if you receive nothing in return.

I think the beta and the predator live in tandem inside me. Like many people, I feel the call to dominate or to be “strong” in some worldly sense, but another side of me, the kinder voice, reminds me to take time and reflect, to not jump so recklessly into risks. I need them both. One to remind me to think wildly outside the tank, the other to examine the steps already taken. But, perhaps, the most valuable lessons are learned from the jellyfish who is not actually a fish at all. Spineless, yes, but with a powerful punch. Softbodied yet deadly.

There is this quote I will never forget on the wall of the middle school counselor’s office. It read, “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.” I don’t know enough about the world, and I do not claim to master anything here. I will forever be a learner, forever ready for the next onslaught of reproach from people who disagree or who come bearing a methodology of “they know best.” The difference, I suppose, is not what you do, but how you do it.

Stay with your soft voice. Do not believe the voices who want to turn you into their version of loud.

Stay driven. Do not let this world slow down your intrinsic motivation.

Stay young at heart. Only the disenchanted really and truly age.

I’ve not yet healed from this year. I betrayed my own inherent needs to reflect, to ponder, and to slow down. It will take time for me to come to terms with many of the decisions I made in my classroom that I now wish to revise. However, maybe that is the most important part of this entire process — to learn deeply from mistakes made on ground zero.

I have seen too many talented peers leave the classroom. I do not know what my future holds, but I will tell you this:

I will stay soft.

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