Planting a seed

There’s this old Jewish story about a carob tree, I can’t recall where it comes from but it goes something like this:

A wise man was walking along the road and saw a poor man planting a carob tree. The wise man asks, “Why are you planting that tree? It will take 70 years to bear fruit. Do you think you will live another 70 years to eat the fruit of the tree?” The poor man answers, “maybe not. But, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

I’ve recently realized that so often in my work I am like the man planting the tree.

A small moment or routine part of my day, to a student in my office, may be huge. Like the man planting the carob tree, I often do not see the fruits of my labor. I often meet with students only once and do not know if they use the advice or information I give them. I can only hope that the students reflect and are able to see their own growth. I simply plant seeds, provide a watering can and sometimes sunlight.

There are people with whom I’ve spent just a few moments who have made the largest impact on me. They planted a seed. Where I am today, my professional path is largely due to the words and actions of other people. Most of those moments were, at the time, small and seemingly inconsequential. Only when I look back can I connect the dots and see the many people who have shaped my path – each adding a drop of water or a ray of sunlight.

My students and my mentors have helped me realize that you never truly know when your words or actions might make an impact on someone else. A little encouragement, acceptance or praise, small actions that seem insignificant may alter the course of someone’s life.

It’s hard to remember on those days when I have eight back-to-back meetings but I’m certain someone is going to benefit from the fruit, enjoy the shade and swing from the branches of my work.

Moving forward after irrational moments

If I had to pick my own spirit animal, this week I’d choose a deer. Imagine driving at dusk, a deer runs into the road and in front of your car, it freezes. I am that deer in headlights. Or at least, I was this week. In the fight or flight response I prefer freeze. My freeze is automatic and non-conscious.

At work this week I was the target of someone’s anger.  I know this certainly isn’t something unique to me yet, it’s important that I respond as, in the moment, I froze.

The only way to describe this individual’s action is an adult temper tantrum. It was irrational, uncontrollable rage.  I have worked with children and know how to handle a child throwing a temper tantrum but when someone in your workplace behaves irrationally – I’m unsure what to do.

Being the subject of someone’s anger in the workplace is belittling and can easily deflate ones self-esteem and sense of self-worth. It creates an unhealthy environment where you cannot express yourself without fear—where you cannot speak up or defend yourself without consequence.

Immediately after being yelled at, I cried (and called my dad). Despite him and others in whom I sought solace reminding me I have worth, I spent the rest of the workday feeling worthless.

Upon a few days reflection I’ve come to realize a few things:

Despite being the kind of person who often thinks that bad things occur to bad people, I’ve realized I did not deserve this treatment. Treating others without respect is not a reflection on the person being disrespected. Treating someone disrespectfully does not enable someone to gain respect but sometimes, it does enable brief control over another person. Power and control are what this person was trying to gain through my fear. Nothing more.

Temper tantrums (in this case, adult temper tantrums) are a performance of anger, power and control.  Think of a child throwing a tantrum – while yes, they may actually be hurt or upset that they did not get their way; much of their tantrum is an act.  This performance is intended to gain control (of the parent, in most cases)—to make them behave a certain way, to make them do what the child wants. In this instance, the person’s performance of anger was intended to gain control (over me or the situation) because they felt that their power had been violated or taken away.

I am moving forward and resisting my own feelings of worthlessness. I’ve decided to 1) let myself feel hurt. I have a right to my feelings and it’s totally okay and normal to experience them however they come. I’m working to get over that by 2) reflecting with others who I trust. Talking about my feelings is important. And 3) responding (through this post) in order to process and understand my experience.

Trusting their process?

Last weekend I spent some time at home with my two and a half year old niece. She is extremely well behaved (even cleans up after herself) but occasionally I was in the position to remind her to be cautious. I found myself using the voice I sometimes use with students. It went something like this – “before you walk on the edge of the stairs again, let’s think about what might happen,” or “let’s stop and think for a minute, what are the consequences of running around with food in your mouth?” While I know full well I said most of these things for the benefit of my sister, not my niece – I’m curious why the same voice I occasionally use with students came out toward a child.

In the last year anticipating potential consequences has become a regular part of my practice. While I understand that part of my role, as an administrator, is to see things in ways my students cannot, I wonder if my regulation of their ideas and creativity inhibits their growth.

It has occurred to me that being asked to constantly check in with those above me on each idea or new initiative my students dream up can serve to narrow, control and assist in pushing the ‘right’ agenda.  We tell ourselves that we don’t want students to fail or get out of hand; to this end we’ve implemented policies to protect students from themselves – but what are we inhibiting in doing so?  While I never enrolled in a legal issues course, I understand a little about liability and the ‘CYA’ thing. I get that we have regulations so that if something happens we can say we took measures to train and educate our students on X, Y or Z.

At the same time I’m expected to be a helicopter parent to my students because I must report up any change before it has the potential to happen to my own helicopter supervisors. The goal of the practice of reporting up is positive, soothing any possible tension before it happens but, I know, to my students – this feels like a restraint.

So – how do you flip the script? How do you allow students to follow through with their dreams when so many regulations are in place? What amazing things may happen if we stopped babying our students and allowed them to use their full potential? Sure, perhaps there may be some flops but unless we try, we have no idea what amazing initiatives, events or actions our students may engage in. Maybe I trust my students more than most but I’m willing to take a chance because I know the innovation of my students will challenge me to be a better professional.

is silence golden?

Silence is something I think about a lot. Usually while sitting in my apartment, listening to the little things, which aren’t silent at all – the hum of my appliances, students talking in the lounge outside my door, the ceiling fan clicking each time it turns. With this strange soundtrack as my backdrop, I often sit and think.

I didn’t talk a lot as a child. I was incredibly shy hardly speaking, even to close relatives. I began to break this silence at 16 when I enrolled at Perpich Center for Arts Education where I (ironically) studied voice. But, it’s not as though I went searching for my voice, it found me. During my time at Perpich, I sang my first solo, took creative writing and began journaling. I started speaking up and speaking out. I found ways to share my opinion with others even if it wasn’t popular.

I took my voice with me to college. At UVM I realized that my voice was appreciated and important.  Professors and student affairs professionals guided me and I began to understand how to articulate my values. My voice and I have had ups and downs since then but we always come back to the place we began, silence.

 

In some contexts, silence is terrible. When it’s important to speak up for something, silence can equal death.

 

But at other times, silence has power.

 

In yoga class where I can quiet the stresses and noise of my daily life, silence has so much power. Yoga ends with the savasana, or “corpse pose,” where you quietly lie on your back, close your eyes, and breathe deep, a practice intended to rejuvenate the mind, body, and spirit.

In relationships, there is something beautiful about silence. When a bond is so close between friends or family that I don’t have to say anything for my message to be received. But, silence in relationships can be painful. “Spiteful words can hurt your feelings but silence breaks your heart.” When others decide your silence is necessary it’s painful. The relationship goes ‘silent,’ your voice is lost.

How do you use that silence to rebuild and reclaim your voice? What are the sounds of silence? For me, lately, it’s sounded like mourning. It hurts – physically and emotionally. I’m trying to be patient and re-find my voice but I’m not sure how. How can I use this silence, which feels so destructive, to create? How can I work to listen to my voice even when it’s so quiet I can hardly hear it?

And so begins my journey to find my voice and myself. A better and whole me, respectful of myself along the way.

Being ‘the man’

This week I attended my campus’ Take Back the Night event.  The event is one of the hallmarks of Sexual Assault Awareness Month and provides a space for rallying as well as speaking out against power-based personal violence.

I’ve attended Take Back the Night events for the last several years but this year felt very different. This year was the first year I wasn’t sure if the space was mine. Every other year I’ve attended as a student. Whether in grad student or as an undergrad, the school was mine to learn from, it was a space for me. As a staff member, I am to provide that space. It isn’t about me anymore.

I’ve recently realized that I am becoming (or maybe I already am) ‘the man.’ Prior to attending and during the event I was concerned about my own presence in the space. I became incredibly aware that my presence could be seen as intrusive to a safe student space. I feel I am slowly becoming archetype of those whom I did not feel respected by and rallied against just a few years ago.

How do I work to create an environment where students do not feel disrespected by me even though, at times, I do have to be ‘the man’? How do I continue to do my job, often enforcing policies, while creating spaces for students to be authentic? How can I be authentic when I do not necessarily agree with policies and practices of my institution (especially when these policies and practices create a more hostile environment between the students and administrators)?

My small and momentary solution was to speak at Take Back the Night. In front of all the students, I read a poem I wrote. Hopefully, even for just a moment, I helped my students realize I am just like them in a lot of ways. Perhaps in the future they will think of that moment, where I was on their side and one of them when they feel hurt by the policies and practices I sometimes must enforce.

A journey toward justice.

This week marks the Jewish holiday of Passover. The theme of Passover is liberation from exile. It’s a tale of perseverance and I think it serves as a great opportunity to begin a dialogue around some of these issues.

Passover has four famous questions, typically recited by the youngest child. Each question gets at a component of the introductory question ‘why is this night different from all other nights?’ Yet, while reflecting on the holiday this week I kept coming back to the same question: Is this night any different than the exodus?

During the Passover Seder we symbolically reenact the exodus journey from Egypt. We engage with the community, welcoming the stranger and encouraging all who have no place to go to join us at our table. But, what if the stranger is the person you passed on your way home, holding a sign and asking for spare change? Would we invite them in or would we give our food and send them on their way? I think the ultimate message in Passover is not that we were slaves and now we are free, the ultimate message is a question; what are we doing with our freedom?

Activism is more than sharing a video on facebook, eating a piece of matzah and retelling our story. As we remember and eat our bread of affliction we need to realize that in our schools and on our streets all over the world many are still forced to eat their bread of affliction (if they have anything to eat at all). In reality, this night is not any different than the exodus for so many. And as long as we remain bystanders, that truth will keep us all in exile.

Fitting the ‘file’ image.

This week I’ve had the opportunity to interview many students for our summer staff positions. Prior, during and after I had a lot of conversations with my students who were going through the interview process. One in particular stood out – my student and I talked about how during interviews they often felt “fake.” They know what professional staff members in my department want to hear, they know the answers they are supposed to share and the “correct” outfit for the occasion but they simply feel that isn’t authentic to who they are.

Our conversation really made me think about how we can pigeonhole students through our interview processes. We are looking for students who look and act a certain way. But what way do we mean when we say that?

During the conversation, my student and I talked about the ‘just be yourself’ idea; but, perhaps what people really mean when they say that is, be a version of yourself that you pull out for occasions like this. Be yourself but a little more cleaned up. Be yourself but in an outfit you’d never typically wear. Be yourself but sell yourself through the experiences you’ve had. Be yourself but don’t really be yourself.

What message does this all send? We can be accepting if only you look, act and are a certain way?

I don’t think this is something only undergraduate students experience. It’s not something that can be chalked up to a “developmental phase” – it’s something, I believe, all feel pressure in.

I was thinking about this throughout the week and then something clicked. I had the opportunity to hear Jess Pettitt speak on social justice and I realized why this bothered me so much. It’s about power and privilege; it’s a social justice issue. I think I’m finally able to put some language to this feeling but bear with me as it may be a bit rough…

During the lecture, Jess Pettitt talked about envisioning a dentist. Do this. What does a dentist look like? Most people recalled an image of a white man. Then, perhaps an image of their own dentist. But the ‘file’ image in your brain for ‘dentist’ is a white man. What is the file image for RA? Student affairs professional? Etc.?

If you don’t fit this image, of who is first recalled in the mind of most when a particular profession is mentioned, how much harder do you have to try? How much more time do you spend making sure you look the part? What are the ways you compensate for not being the ‘file’ image?

The inauthenticity my student was feeling might be because they didn’t fit that file image. They were attempting to ‘fit’ a mold, which wasn’t ever made with them in mind.

This begs the question – what do we do to change this? Do we need to? Where is my role here? For now, I’m not sure but this is certainly something I will continue to reflect on.