I recently came across this photo of little me in a box of photos that had belonged to my grandmother. I had never seen this picture before, and as I looked at it, first, I smiled, and then I had the thought that all people, particularly young people, should have a photo of themselves at this age, wearing exactly this t-shirt. I thought of so many students I am working with now or I have worked with in the past, and what a powerful reminder a photo like this would be for those students struggling with any aspect of Life. "I'm Lovable." I know some young people as well as some adults who would be stopped in their tracks and turned toward the light if they could thoroughly internalize that realization that they are lovable.
I believe every child, every person is lovable and needs love, compassion, guidance and opportunity to fully realize and grow into their potential to live a rich life and contribute positively to our world. As an educator, what never fails me in learning to understand each of my students in order to know how to best work with them, is to know their story. The reason I go to the story behind each of my students is because I know I have my own story, and I know that my story- the events that have made up my life and the personal growth and learning that occurred as a result of those events, is the lifeblood and passion that runs through me today. My story is what shaped me to be the mother and educator I am today, and it starts like this:
I was born in 1974 to young parents in Manassas, Virginia. My parents were both raised on the east coast, and all of our family lived there. After several moves that included Rhode Island, Massachusetts and upstate New York, where my younger brother was born, my parents decided to drive us across country to live in California. I was four years old. In California, away from family, we created a new family network in many friends. I remember living in Long Beach, California, on Market Street, a long, busy street lined with duplexes, and it is there that I remember the happiest years of my young life. The families that made up our new family network were warm, amazing people, and being that it was the 1970's, these young parents did a lot of partying. As a child, I remember always an air of happiness: always music and happy people around. Block parties, barbecues, pool parties, kids, adults... good times. Of course I know now that I saw those years through the eyes of a child, and my parents would probably tell me today that even during those happy times that I perceived, there were challenges for them.
Age 7 we moved away from that scene as my parents purchased their first home in Rowland Heights, California. Things took quite a turn at age 9 when my parents divorced, my mother moved out, and I lived with my very distraught father. I soon learned that my mother had a chemical dependency that would prevent her, for several years, from being the mother I now know her to be. Ages 9 through 12 were tough years for me as I tried to endure what unfolded in my parents' lives. My father's grief over his divorce and changes in his life became too overwhelming for me as a 9 year-old, and I asked to move in with my mother. Looking back, I marvel at my ability to know when I couldn't handle any more, emotionally, and was able to articulate that to my father at that age. I really went from bad to worse as I moved into a situation with my mother, where substances were in control of her life, and I was witness to many things and experienced many emotions that are not comforting or stabilizing to a child. There were many times when I felt alone and scared. I do believe that there is a natural resiliency in most children, and somehow there rose up in me a protective instinct concerning my mother, my own well-being, and that of my brother. It is difficult to remember and express the emotions and unsafe feelings that surround those years of my life, but because I endured them and came through them, I know other people can. Those experiences in my life have truly shaped me, and I now know that many times good things can come out of tough experiences in our lives.
My mother sought out and received the help she needed (incidentally, with the help of my father, and I am so happy to be able to write that today my parents are friends), and from the time I was 13, she turned her life around and worked hard, inside and out, to create the authentic life she was really meant to have. She put herself through college in her 30's, earning her bachelor's degree, then law school where she earned her JD, then two master's degrees, and now her Ph.D. She is a professor at a university, a writer, my favorite poet, and a grandmother of six grandchildren. She now lives Life so big, so deeply, and so passionately... she is completely contagious in her pursuance of fun and meaningful life experiences. As her daughter, watching her change her life so dramatically was something fantastically inspirational that I internalized. I felt her growth change me as well. So not only does my story shape me, but so does the story of my mother. I have watched her, since the time I was 13, model that it is never too late to create the life you want, and you never have to resign yourself to your circumstances, even if the circumstances are of your own creating. Her lessons became my lessons. Following her lead, I put myself through college... and my story goes on from there.
But the most important lesson for me is that every person's story is personally powerful, and as an educator, the most surefire way to reach and educate students is to know what makes them tick, to know where they come from, and to help them remember that they are lovable and that they matter.
NOTE: No parents were harmed in the writing of this blog post ;-) Due to the intensely personal nature of this writing I sent it to my mother and asked how she felt about me posting this on my blog. I told her that I could write about something else if it made her uncomfortable. Not only did she give me her blessing, but she wrote a really sweet reply posted below.