Over the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot and often about the story of Me, capital M. I’ve always shied away from letting my life define me and firmly believed that using my personal narrative, or backstory, to help clarify my mission felt too much like the marketing tools used by salespeople to make human connections with their potential customers. This felt icky and insincere, so I kept it off the list of things that I deemed important for my success as an educator. But as Robert Frost’s line about “way leading onto way” became more striking and resonant each time I taught his timeless The Road Not Taken, I started to understand that my story is more important than I once let on. Being able to write it down and make sense out my story has allowed me to clarify not only who I am and want to be, it has been the driving force, an inner voice, that has come to define my mission as a teacher and changemaker.
Sometimes you don’t even need to set out to tell your story, it starts to tell itself for you. It begins to take form because it’s what you need to hear and understand at that moment. For me, my story started to take form the morning after Hurricane Sandy ruined my home. My mother was getting her first stem-cell replacement and I stood in front of our family’s ruined house thinking about how many people in the history of the world had it worse than we did. I thought about how I would relate my story to my students once I went back to work. There was a Maya Angelou idea I wanted them to understand, something about how you can experience defeat and not be defeated. Over the next months I learned the value of community, family, love, and the true value of the work an educator does as I labored hard to rebuild my house and neighborhood, watched my mom recover successfully from her stem-cell transplant, continued to see my own children grow, and stay focused on helping the students I stood in front of each day.
The hurricane also made me begin to see how systems are often broken; they aren’t human and are built with too many moving parts to work efficiently. On the homefront I saw how government was limited in assisting storm victims. At school I began to believe that what my colleagues and I were made to teach was often at the detriment to the kids we signed up to serve. As my mom’s cancer began to come back, I saw the predicament of hospitals, how they often have their hands tied in assisting the patients the way they set out to heal. In each of these experiences, which now were becoming part of my story, it became clear that there was no one person to blame. At each tier in each system people showed up, worked with what they had, and sighed and accepted that this was the way it is. But for me, at that point in my life, with all of these stories becoming part of mine, I learned that accepting the bureaucratic mediocrity wasn’t enough. I decided at the end of that school year I would take these experiences, the pain and joy and passion of each, and try to do my own thing with what I was learning.
I knew I wanted to remain a teacher, but I wanted to do it on my own terms, in order to help as many children as possible. My goal was (and still is) to build large-scale projects with students connected to their current curriculum and the real world. Learning that disaster can strike any moment, that systems were broken from the inside, allowed me to take a leap of faith and start developing my own programs. I was shaky on my feet and was lucky enough to work with two schools, visiting their classes to do hands-on builds connected to history and ELA with students. I also began to build makerspaces and run STEM-based writing programs. In the first year of starting Lower Bay Learner’s Guild, parts of my story began to make sense in ways I could have never imagined. The year I worked as a furniture maker in Brooklyn and at a frame shop in Colorado, the college summers spent as a janitor, my time as a web developer and video editor, hours spent in comic book shops, libraries and book shops — all of me, the bits and pieces of my story, were coming together in order to serve the kids I was working with.
As I watched my idea grow into a reality, my mother continued to battle for her life. Each night I sat with her knowing that our days together were limited. Counting days isn’t something we think about until we have to. Our conversations had a new value; they weren’t heavy, but more significant than our closest heart-to-heart. But it was often what she didn’t say that has become a big part of my story. At the time I was still unsure of my decision. It seemed crazy to leave a city job in order to try to do something on my own. I had kids to feed, retirement to think about, vacations to be lost. But in those months sitting with her, I knew none of my worries and anxieties about the future mattered. It was all speculative at best and my mother, who had only months to live, knew now that to not follow one’s story, to sit and wonder, to only follow the lives of others, to map their story and sit on the sidelines, was foolish and dangerous. In a very heartbreaking and close-up way, I learned that disease comes without warning, dying is mean, and that it is our only job to have our story count.
There is a mantra I have been rolling around in my head recently; it’s: this is where I stand, I know why I’m here. I don’t remember reading it anywhere, but I feel it keeps me honest, sincere, focused on my mission. It’s been four months since my mother has passed and I sometimes feel more upset now than I did when she first died. This is another part of my story, learning to grieve and live without one of the people who truly loves you. When I stand in front of a group of kids, or teachers, or I’m stuck in line at the grocery store behind someone I’ve decided is annoying, I stop now and realize each one of us has a story, we’re all trying to make sense of it. Sit down today and begin to tell your story, I promise you it will help you become a stronger leader, a more effective educator, a more compassionate person. It will help you know where you stand and why you’re there.