Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Fear of September (and Failure)

You dreaded it as a teenager yourself, rolled your eyes to welcome August, winced at the back-to-school sales, gripped the last days so tightly you got blisters on your tanned fingers.  And now you're here again as an adult with a few more wrinkles and a few less hairs (oh, just me?), doing it all over again.  

To cope, I initiate several diverse strategies:

1. Pretend September doesn't exist, is a mirage, is an illusion like everyone's eternal bliss and self-actualization on Facebook.  September is a rumor, I tell myself.  It's the tooth fairy, witches on broomsticks, Obama's foreign birth certificate, Ryan Lochte's robbery.  September is as real as having to wait 30 minutes after eating before you swim doggy-paddle stand in a pool, or digging so far in the sand you end up in China. And even if September did exist, not that it does, but if it did, it's light-years away, like robots who exercise for you.  Light-years away, like Cleveland winning a championship, George Clooney ever getting married, Brangelina splitting up, or Pokémon making a comeback. Light-years!  Ain't happening, you dig?  Maybe I'll meet ya in eighty years, September—if that's even your real name!       

2. Actually, that's the only strategy I use.  

By the time August 26th rolls around and denial is no longer an option, I cling to ice cream cones and pools, and live every day like it's my last one on earth and I just so happen to be in Disney World (rides! chicken fingers! for! breakfast! of! course! movies! popcorn! ocean! sunset! again! again!).  To live in exclamation points is exhausting, so I go to sleep, and there I dream of students not listening.  Then I try to convince myself that having only 4 days left isn't a bad thing; that it's a four-day weekend, and how happy would I be if someone offered me a four-day weekend in March?  But this is the voice of a used car salesman with a greasy chin and a comb over.  His breath smells like boloney.    

So, it's the day before school.  And in the whirlwind of supplies, seating charts, book lists, rules, regulations, expectations, policies, copies of your syllabus that always seems to have one typo, I try to decide what to prioritize this year in my classroom.

After 14 years of teaching, first in Baltimore through Teach for America, then in the Bronx, now on Long Island, this year I've decided to pick my battle with this phrase: “I’m not sure if this is right, but . . .” 

At my school, it is as commonplace to begin a sentence with "I'm not sure if this is right, but . . ." as it is to start with "um." Or "well."  Or a throat-clear. 

"I'm not sure if this is right, but _________ (insert opinion)."  

"I'm not sure if this is right, but isn’t Romeo being dramatic?"  

“I’m not sure if this is right, but I think that ‘elation’ might mean joy.”

"I'm not sure if this is right, but Tom Robinson, I don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that—well, he kinda sorta seems innocent to me, but that’s just me."

"I'm not sure if this is right, but I believe it's snowing—and, again, not certain of my accuracy, but I believe an early dismissal could be in order, and it’s possible I’d be more comfortable on my couch." 

Okay, that last one’s made up —don’t they always know the second it snows or rains?—  but why the need to add a disclaimer that there is a statistical chance you aren’t accurate before every sentence?  What are we so afraid of? 

“I don’t know if this is right, but . . .”

It's not an English teacher pet peeve like the Oxford comma, or too many semicolons, or using “I believe” in your paper.  It's not that I don't want students to sound unsure; I want them not to fret about failure.  It’s not about the form; it’s about the culture, and the I-don’t-know-if-this-is-right formulation encourages a classroom of hesitancy and self-doubt. I don’t want students to be afraid to be wrong.  It's the attitude that breeds rigid writing. It's the mindset Teenage Me had in my own language classes when answering what I did over the weekend.  I played soccer and basketball, I'd write, not because I actually did, but because I knew how to write it correctly.  I wouldn’t make a mistake that way. 

Now, yes, trying new words on all assignments, especially major ones, isn’t the greatest idea—at times it doesn’t pay to reach for a new word, as I recently saw on a t-shirt that read “Sometimes I use words I don’t understand so I can sound more photosynthesis”—but to err is not only human, it's the only way to grow.  Through missteps, we learn how to disagree, we learn resilience, we learn flexibility, we learn about ourselves.   

I mean, even if you're wrong, even it's on the very first day of school and you aren’t 100% accurate, what’s the worst that can happen?  Are we gonna sharpen a stick on both ends like Roger in Lord of the Flies?  Are we gonna push a boulder on you?  The only wrong thing you can say in a 9th grade English classroom is this:

That's wrong.  That's just mean.  

Other than that, if you’re “wrong,” nothing happens.  Well, something: our dialogue improves, the classroom becomes a respectful place for a fearless exchange of diverse opinions, ideas, proposals, projects that improve our world, even if that world is as small as our 2000 square-feet room, our 2 acres of school grounds, or our 4 mile town. 

“I’m not sure if this is right, but . . .”   

It reminds me of my cautious two year-old daughter staring at a bump in the sidewalk, then raising her toe, then her foot, then transferring her body weight, then considering whether Elmo’s nickname should be El or Mo, then clearing the bump, then saying, “byebye” to the bump, then moving forward.  The whole operation takes 20 seconds.  If we add up all the time that reticence and fear take up in a classroom—or in life?— it’s even longer than Sylvie’s heroic trek over the step.  It sets the wrong tone for the year. 

And in this month of (okay, fine it's real!) September, I'd like to set the right tone: Please don’t tread lightly with your ideas. Tread lightly with people’s feelings – be careful you’re not rude or arrogant, that you never say and hopefully never even think, whoa, you didn’t know that? – but don’t tread lightly with your willingness to try something new: to write in a new form, to butcher your second language in conversation, to acknowledge September, to try public speaking even if you have a mustard stain on your shirt and your pants and you doubt you'll speak confidently enough for people to listen.

"I'm not sure if this is right, but . . . " Sorry, you can't start sentences that way.    

(And this year, as a teacher, writer, person, and moving forward a more consistent blogger about writing and teaching, I will try to follow my own advice.)


  1. Very nice read Matt, best of luck on your first few weeks back at school!

  2. Love Scumbag Steve!! How fun!! Love the message.