Anxiety or Adolescence: The Horrors of 8th Grade and the Cinematic Masterpiece of “Eighth Grade”

I know I promised to stop writing to maintain anonymity and neutrality of my personal beliefs both in and outside of the classroom, but I have had such a visceral reaction to Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade that I need to write to sort it all out.

Why must I do it publicly?

Alexa, these are private thoughts. These are things we are not supposed to talk about. So, why must I blog about it? Right? Why not write it down in a little journal next to the nightstand? I can’t explain why. Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 11.13.51 PM

Maybe ask Kayla Day, the lead character in Eighth Grade. She makes YouTube videos with advice from her experiences, much like this blog, and much like my old cringe-worthy blog from middle school on Journal Space.

I was super shy then. Maybe I still am a bit. How could I post rambling blogs of the most menial parts of my day and the most private revelations on a public website, but when it came to walking the halls of middle school, I couldn’t even muster small talk? I don’t know. I don’t know how I could be so confident through a screen, but when faced in person, cower from insecurities. 

Much, much later in life, I discovered I suffered from General Anxiety Disorder. I remember being shocked when my doctor told me that it wasn’t normal to stress about having to go to a social event the entire preceding day before. It wasn’t normal to plan my meals around “safe,” bland foods if I knew something “scary” (like a work meeting) was coming up to prevent an upset, rumbly tummy. It was in this moment when I thought I was going to figure out the root of my “food allergies,” that an aghast doctor recommended medication to combat this abnormality. I realized then that my years of nerves as a teenager were because I have an anxiety disorder.

Or so I thought until I taught freshmen. I realized then that these “anxiety disorders” were rampant through the halls of high school. I brainstormed why there was so much anxiety amongst this generation of teenagers: technology? Difficulty of school? Disengaged parents?

Then, I watched Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade.

I will be honest when I heard that Bo Burnham (one of my favorite comedians!) was making a movie about what a teenage girl goes through in middle school, I was offended that he would try to portray such a complex experience: how could he know what it is like? I was so wrong.

I think I was so protective of this experience as an 8th grade girl because it was the worst year of my life thus far. I was bullied incessantly. Mocked. Tormented. Until my sophomore year of college, I sympathized with myself as a poor, helpless victim. As I got older, I realized that I was a brat. If someone could deserve to be bullied–or one of the more detestable phrases, “asked for it”–it was me in middle school. What a horrible thought though; do people deserve to get bullied? No, but I was a snob. I was also weird. I wore the most flamboyant outfits.  Someone told me once that I was fashionable and so I thought I was cutting edge when I wore a Hawaiian dress with four strings of pearls paired with patterned knee socks.

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Whenever I see pictures of myself, I bemoan my life choices. I always think, “Gross. I was so ‘cringy'” But I was also a know-it-all. I hate to admit this, but I thought I was better than other people: I invested in my education (I was “smart”). I followed the rules. I lived like you were supposed to. And I judged people who made different choices. Maybe I was the bully?

8th grade is so bizarre.  I try to forget that it ever existed, but I also can still feel that magnified terror and anxiety of social judgment.

Whenever I discover a fleck of pepper lodged into that one crook of my tooth (or Heaven forbid, I say something stupid!), I am transported to that terrified 8th grade girl. Cue the nervous script of horrors. They they think I am oblivious. They think I am stupid. They think I disgusting. This is what I get for opening my mouth. I should just shut up and try to be invisible.

I feel the panic for a few minutes and then I realize that it doesn’t really matter if I have food in my teeth: I still have a roof over my head. A job I love. An incredibly fluffy dog.A caring family. A perfect fiancé. Who cares if I have food in my teeth?

As an adult, I have more “perspective.”

Don’t get me wrong, I still get that feeling of utter dread walking into a big social event: What if no one will talk to me? What if I am all alone? What if people think I am a social outcast? And then I remember that my worth is not defined by my ability to maintain small talk. I have done this, this, and this. No one cares about what I do anyway. The world does not revolve around me. I know who I am and what I can do. I am not defined by what people think of me.

However, for a lot of teenagers, they haven’t realized that it doesn’t matter what people think about you. They don’t know if it “will all work out” in the end.

I think the reason that we have this great fear of what people think is because when we are young, we don’t know “who we are.”

We get our understanding of “who we are” from everyone else’s perception of who we are. So when you don’t know “who you are,” you care an awful lot about what people think of you.

That is what sucks about being a teenager.

Eighth Grade is not a sad movie, in fact it ends with a powerful declaration of self-realization and appreciation. However, I sobbed the whole way through it. I sobbed on the way home. I sobbed for Kayla Day. I sobbed for my poor freshmen. I sobbed for my 8th grade self.

Adolescence is hard.

I owe an apology to all of my high school students over the years. I have scoffed at the whining and complaints with the retort that “it just gets harder.” You have bills. You have to work all the time. You have to be responsible. We always tell kids to enjoy being kids because being an adult is so hard. And it is.

But so is being a kid.

I would never want to relive 8th grade. Ever. I’m glad for my experiences. I’m glad that I was confronted with my own narcissism, but there is no amount of money that would convince me to do it again. I’m so relieved that I am no longer that malleable little girl trying so desperately to do everything perfectly to be the person that I want to be. I am me. Like it or not. It is all I will ever know.

We take for granted the self-assurance we naturally get as we age. The level of insecurity and vulnerability in adolescence is both terrifying and precious. And Bo Burnham captured it so perfectly in all of its grotesque awkwardity* and momentous self-realization. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this much from a movie. Sure, I have thoughtful and provocative conversations around good movies, but from the time that I left the theatre after Eighth Grade, I haven’t been able to talk. Just feel.

Feel the pain of trying to fit in.

Feel the joy of accomplishing something scary.

Feel the love of a parent and child.

Feel the devastation of rejection.

Feel the pride of who I am now. 

Gah, “who I am” is such a vile phrase.It sets an unrealistic ideology that you have to become a final draft of a unique person–completely ignoring that life is just a process.

Your “self” is just a constantly evolving entity responding to life’s experience.

I can’t imagine how much more confusing this notion of identity is with the dawn of Snapchat and Instagram, but I know what I will do moving forward. I will be much more sympathetic with the quirks of pre-teens and the angst of my students because adolescence is a tough time. And adolescents deserve a hell of a lot more credit for fearlessly pursuing their fandoms and experimenting with “who they are” despite the previous generations’ constant rejection of what they do. Stop judging teenagers. They have to figure out how to survive in a world that is constantly changing while warped in the wrath of insecurities. 

*”Awkwardity” is not actually a word, but now that I am a somewhat-semi-confident adult, I don’t care. Shakespeare did it. And I have an English degree. 

 

Why I Stopped Writing

I guess I could blame it on writer’s block.

But more accurately, I blame it on my fear of my own voice. 

2017 has been a year of intense political strife and polarized arguments. It has been a year of crass journalism, de-friending social media debates, and endless euphemisms to avoid offense.

As a teacher, it meant trying to be a face of neutrality in a polarized and emotionally charged classroom. And after years of being accused of “indoctrinating homosexuality” and a “crude Feminist agenda,” I strive ever more to prove that I am just trying to cultivate discussion with critical thought that might challenge the homogenous population in Highlands Ranch for the sake of learning about various perspectives and experiences, as I thought were the duties of the English teacher.

I even learned to fear the books that I knew my students would actually care about because I knew I would be accused of robbing my high school students’ innocence as we read The Color Purple, or heaven forbid, Margaret Atwood. So instead, I carried along with the cult classics, which are ripe with depth and beauty, but often lose the reluctant readers with its complex language and cumbersome descriptions.

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However, I knew that if students read Toni Morrison or Rupi Kaur that they would have visceral responses and our discussions about the state of humanity would be urgent and important. Suddenly, English class would matter to them. They would be talking about it outside of class and grappling with the harsh realities that exist. Last year, I chickened out of The Color Purple in AP Lit and left it as an option for students. Sure enough, the students who picked that book devoured it in one sitting, contemplating abuse, spirituality, and identity. It shocked them. It mattered to them. And in a world where half the population can retweet #metoo, shouldn’t we let them talk about it?

 

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In fact, as I am writing these questions, I am pausing, backspacing, second guessing. What if I get in trouble for this? For maintaining my own personal blog? Outside of school, am I allowed to be a normal person? With thoughts and opinions? Or am I confined to being a calm voice of neutrality both in and outside of the classroom?

I think the right answer is the latter. But I can’t do it. In trying to prove I am a neutral teacher at all times in my life, from the hallways of school to the aisles of the grocery store, I have lost my voice. 

I’m afraid to say anything.
I don’t want to upset the multitudes of people that I know will disagree with me.
I don’t want to validate rumors of my political affiliations.
I don’t want to be accused of all of these falsehoods because students actually thought about something that mattered, even if it was controversial.
And somewhere along this list of fears, I forgot that I just want to be me. 

And “me” means that I cannot stifle my thoughts and my opinions when I am boiling at the injustices around me. I can be the consummate professional the 10 hours I spend at work, but at some point, in some place, I have to be myself again. For fear of students or parents stumbling across this blog and being offended by what they see, I lost any outlet for me to voice who I am and what I believe in the place that I created for that purpose. My mouth has been duct taped shut.

So every time I feel the familiar seize of words bubbling up on the latest political drama or the harrowing experience at work, I remember I cannot write about that. Because I have to be perfectly neutral at all times. I cannot offend anyone. I have to be Perfect Alexa.

So instead I try to write some safe, non-offensive piece (as if that is possible in 2017) and find myself deleting every word in disgust. Then, I will start aggressively tapping my keyboard in response to the latest incident of police brutality, and conversely, deleting every word.

So,

That’s why I stopped writing.

That’s why I stopped smiling.

That’s why I stopped being me

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If we can’t kneel or march in the streets, how can we peacefully protest this country’s injustices?

I cannot believe the country has come to this illogical dichotomy:

Kneeling NFL Players vs. our Brave Veterans

I hear all of the complaints: “leave politics out of football!” Let America enjoy this one unified pastime without desecrating it with political division. The same complaint can be applied to the Grammy’s and late night TV.

I agree. Politics suck.

However, since when should we silently ignore major violations of human rights? Just because politics is uncomfortable?

It must be nice for you to be able to sit at home, drink a beer, and watch a football game without any influence of politics (except for maybe those whiny millennials on your Facebook feed).

However, that is not the case for a massive part of the American population: for the dreamers wondering if they will be deported from this country, for the black teenagers pulled over on their way to the store for a halftime snack, for the transgender citizens banned from using the bathroom, for the white girl who feels helpless for the injustices committed in her country. 

Politics, whether you like it or not, are everywhere. You know why? Because the people of this great country care about each other and how we are governed as a civilized society. It is important to emphasize that these conversations to improve our country are not mutually exclusive with honoring our veterans.

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I am eternally grateful for those men and women who have given their lives to protect America and its freedoms. I am humbled by the sacrifices these people make to protect a country, who doesn’t even necessarily protect them when they come back home. My heart breaks for the soaring rates of veteran unemployment and homelessness. I know I am not selfless or brave enough to join the military, which is one of the reasons I am so thankful for those who do. You are brave. You are strong. You are selfless. Thank you.

Thank you for your service. You are heroes.

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And I’m sorry that your selfless service has been convoluted in this polarized argument of kneeling NFL players.

I will not submit my argument into this false dichotomy. 

I understand that it can be frustrating to see people kneeling during a National Anthem, which celebrates unity and freedom. I get it. We need to honor those who have died protecting us. But we must also honor those who have wrongfully died due to discrimination and systemic racism.

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When I was a junior in high school, I remember my History teacher chastising us for not being active citizens in society. He would show us powerful marches during the Civil Rights movement and the glorified heroes of human rights and equality. He would criticize us for being apathetic and lazy teenagers. I remember learning that peaceful protests were not only a tenet of this country, but ultimately a demonstration of patriotism to improve the place we call home.

Now, I watch these “peaceful” protests and see them developing into violent riots. How can we achieve peaceful protest? The inequalities evident in this country need to be protested.

But how?

  • If you go out on the streets, inevitably it comes to tear gas and hit-and-run drivers. It is no longer “peaceful.” 

  • If you post on Facebook, it creates an incessant curse-ridden back and forth that results in broken relationships. 

  • If you kneel on a football field, it denounces all of the veterans of this country and their brave service. 

So my sincere question is how: How do we protest these gross injustices in our society then?

I hear that these football players cannot do it on a national platform. Since when are protests supposed to be done from the comfort of our couches? The entire purpose of a protest is to mobilize change… How can that be done without drawing attention to it? I sincerely cannot figure out how we can address the systemic racism in our country.

However, I don’t think it fixes anything to boycott the NFL or to fire the kneeling players, as recommended by President Trump:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” -President Donald Trump on September 22, 2017

And Colin Kaepernick basically was fired. He remains a free agent because he is too controversial to participate in the NFL, but what about these controversial arrests of the 869 records of crimes committed by other NFL players? Apparently, it is okay to beat your girlfriend, but kneeling on a football field is too far for the American people. Domestic violence need not be a career-ending offense, but starting a peaceful protest sure does.

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I mean, how dare someone engage in peaceful protest?! How dare a citizen practice his or her first amendment right:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Protest is important. Especially when it is to honor and protect these American men and women:

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I stand for those wrongfully killed.

I stand for my police officers.

I stand for my veterans.

I stand for my country.

These are not mutually exclusive. Do not be fooled by this angry, polarized rhetoric. Just as there has been blacks vs. police. It isn’t a true dichotomy. It will only make America black and blue if we cannot reconcile that #blacklivesmatter, #bluelivesmatter, and #veteransmatter.*

*It might appear to be easier to say #alllivesmatter, but our society needs to recognize those that are specifically being attacked and facing discrimination. Our black men, women, and children need protection. Our brave police officers need protection. That is why I say #blacklivesmatter AND #bluelivesmatter. It is not a paradox. Don’t be fooled into these polarized dichotomies. 

Because I stand for all of these people and this country, I kneel. 

It is both a political and a patriotic act.

 

 

 

Look What You Made Me Do.

Everyone hates Taylor Swift.

(But then secretly sings along to her catchy hits as a guilty pleasure when the windows are up in the car during rush hour!).

She has been in the news a lot lately from the KYGO Butt-Grab scandal to the Kanye/Kim feuds. She is accused of playing the victim. She is accused of being a melodramatic, boy-crazy stalker. She is accused of manipulating her reputation.

What happened to the “sweet” and “innocent” Taylor circa “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on my Guitar” in her fairy tale ballgowns and golden ringlets of the early 2000s?

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The answer is in her new song, “Look What You Made Me Do.”

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To be honest, I despise(d?) the song. It is repetitive and sounds like a Selena-style-sell-out. However, then I watched the music video, which cites each accusation with poignant self-deprecating parody, and she “kills” the reputations of the “Old Taylor.” At first, I thought it was morbid and vindictive–worse than Wuthering HeightsHeathcliff.

But instead, this video seemed to me a bold, brave declaration of the consequences of hatred. 

As much as we want to refute that “they cannot make you do anything” or that you “can stay true to yourself,” things–or people–can ruin us (at least the “us” that the world used to know). Our innocence can be stripped away. I know what it is like to be “ruined.” To lose the love of my life. My home. And even my family. I tried to cling to the illusion that as long as I “stayed true to myself” that I could repair the wrongs that were done. I could fix it and stay on top. But no, my old life died. The person I knew myself to be died. But that is okay because the person that emerged was that much stronger for it.

Taylor tried to cling to the illusion that if we are nice and kind that the world will be fair with her song, “Mean.” Remember, why do you have to be so mean? 

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Guess what? The media didn’t get it. The populace didn’t get it.

And now? Will they get this video? No. Which is precisely why I am compelled to defend the singer-songwriter whose new beats don’t particularly strike my fancy. Taylor has frantically tried to be true to herself through her evolution through music, which some country fans find so disturbing because how could she go from being a cute cowgirl to an electronic dominatrix? How could she grow up and persevere through the nasty slights that haunt her every move?

I challenge you: What is wrong with her changing? What is wrong with her developing grit and strength?

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We can all try to stay “true to ourselves,” but we are fluid beings. Receptive to the environment that cultivates us. We cannot be the same person we were a decade ago. Especially in a world where everything we do is wrong. When everyone is a critic. I would hate it if I were the same girl I was in 8th grade. Why must we resist change?

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I want to listen to Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” and believe that true love and Romeo will solve all of my problems, but they won’t. Because I grew up. Some might call it “jaded.” I just have experienced too much in my life to earnestly believe that love can conquer it all. In fact, Shakespeare proved it in Romeo and Juliet. Death. Only death could solve the feuds of the families of Montague and Capulet. As much as we would like to believe that love can cure hatred, it doesn’t. Death does. But guess who dies? The innocent ones. Romeo and Juliet. Sweet Taylor. Sweet Alexa.

But not forever. Because we will emerge from the ashes. Determined. Strong. Different.

I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but we cannot be doe-eyed children in a world ruled by hate. But we will survive. Because we are strong. Because you made us do it.

Look what you made me do. 

 

 

The Reason I Got a Watercolor Tattoo of a Trio of Tulips on My Thunder Thigh

It all starts with my word of the year: change.

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It is such a perplexing, but necessary human experience. It is exciting–like getting the first apartment in college and adorning the walls in your own quirky art, but it is also painful–like driving through your hometown where the gas station is now shut down.

So much has changed for me in this past year. However, it happens every day, doesn’t it? Slowly. And then all at once. From hazelnut to vanilla creamer, to ultimately a new lover and a new life.

Talk about change. This is me in high school trying to look artistic with a flower. Why have I always been obsessed with flowers? I will try to explain.

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I’ve always loved flowers, especially orchids, plumerias, and tulips. Orchids are my favorite for their elegant grace (ask me about “Ophelia” and my orchid’s tragic death my freshman year of college).

I also have a tattoo of a plumeria on my foot (each petal symbolizing a Hawaiian virtue: sincerity, faith, devotion, courage, and endurance) to recognize my family’s intimate connection to Maui and to honor my dear Oma.

Additionally, the plumeria (encircled by an infinity symbol of pearls) symbolized the lesson learned from the writer, Anais Nin.

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From my diary in high school (April 2010)

As a shy girl growing up, I was always afraid to open up to the world and instead show my fierce dedication to my comfort zone, where I was safe.

Lately though, I have had a bizarre obsession with tulips. Aside from being my favorite springtime tradition, they also hold a simple, but powerful lesson for me. When I was growing up, I was in charge of the little garden behind the white picket fence in our front yard. Yes, I literally lived in the middle of the suburbs with an actual white picket fence around our garden of flowers.

My mom planted tulips long before I was old enough to garden and once they had blossomed and died, I went to Nick’s Garden Center to pick out some new flowers to spruce up our garden.  While shopping, my sweet Oma would gently advise me to pick the flowers with the most newborn buds so that they would last longer. As much as I treasured my Oma’s input, I always picked the most mature, full-bodied flowers with ostentatious petals. If I bought the ones with a bunch of baby green buds on it, who knew if it would ever bloom? Who knew if a hail storm would come (after all it is Colorado!)? It was because of my lack of faith in Mother Nature that I preferred to plant the most exquisite, albeit mature, flowers I could find. When I brought my blooming beauties home, I started to dig holes and discovered brown, ridged balls in the soil. I remember splitting some in half accidentally, exposing a white alien-looking newborn Pokemon. I would dig them up, throw them out, and replace them with the roots and sprouts of some blooming dahlias and violets. Once I was finished, I was so proud of my planted perfection.

I remember being confused and shocked when my mom was upset that I replaced those nasty bulbs in the ground with beautiful blooming flowers.

I could not understand that the latent seeds were enough because I couldn’t see them. I guess I knew that the tulips would come eventually, but all I saw was dirt at the time. How could I trust they would come back? That they would bloom again?

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Despite the 2Lip Massacre of 1999, the following Spring, the surviving tulips popped up in their simple glory. The flowers I planted the previous summer were dead and gone for the season. I didn’t have to do anything to bring the tulips back. They just came. Kind of like each new day. Kind of like the new love of my life.

Do you see how this functions as a metaphor for life?

You see, I think this is why I hate change. I like my present and immediate future, but I do not hold the patience to see wormy looking bulbs become beautiful tulips. Just as all moments of life, when they are dreary and painful, I just think back to the nice times I’ve had instead of patiently anticipating what joys can bloom from the sorrows.

Tulips taught me that as ugly as those bulbs can be, as dead as the sprouted stems can rot, and as empty as the garden can look, I have to trust that something beautiful will bloom there. 

So rather than tattoo a burnt-looking garlic head on my body, I decided to plant my blooming tulips.
Now, as an AP Lit teacher, you must expect some significance of the three (besides your typical archetype of the Trinity):

  • Tulip #1 (named “Rose”*): No, it is not a floral identity crisis. This tulip honors my Oma, who has taught me everything I know about trying to make the world a better place than I found it. I know it would make more sense to have a rose tattoo, but my Oma preferred tulips and irony anyway.
  • Tulip #2 (named “Holly”): I planned my tattoo before my European getaway to complete my transformation from heart-broken ex-girlfriend into strong, independent woman. As I journeyed on, I wanted something to commemorate my trip, my precious once-in-a-lifetime experience. A couple fellow travelers received tattoos of airplanes, but based on how much I hug the barf bag on those massive machines, I knew it wouldn’t work for me. It was a sure stroke of fate (or whatever you would like to call it) when I arrived in my last destination of my European road trip and I recognized the “Tulip Mania” of Amsterdam. During the Dutch Golden Age, people sold and traded their houses and land in exchange for tulip bulbs–the symbol of beauty and luxury. Now, “Tulip Mania” refers to money-sucking economic bubbles–probably much like my tattoo to be honest. However, it also stands for the reminder that I blossomed when my garden was destroyed. 
  • Tulip #3 (named “Paige”): Remember this lesson forever, Alexa Paige Brooks.

*I apologize for reaching a whole new level of pathetic in naming each individual tulip in my tattoo, but honestly what did you expect from a neurotic? 

Moral of the story: We are all those gross garlicky crusty poop sacks that sometimes are just barren bulbs in dirt. Sometimes, we are the magnificent Dutch treasures welcoming warmer weather and Spring. And regardless of where we are in our growth, it is a cyclical part of life.

Even if when you bloom you are one of those funny-looking stripped ones, those tulips were worth the most in Holland. It is ironic though because they were later discovered as genetic mutations (meaning the imperfect tulips).

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I will be honest, my carefully calculated tattoo did not come out exactly as I had imagined. Just like life. It isn’t what I expected, but it is just as lovely. And because of its lack of realism and imperfections, I love it even more. It reminds me that I do not have to be perfect. I need not seek perfection. In fact, I should embrace my imperfection (like those thunderous Brooks family thighs!) just as the freakish striped tulips of mutation ended up being worthy of some Dutchman trading his home for a packet of bulbs.

I know that some people will despise my new addition and I understand that point of view, but I have found freedom in relinquishing the need to find approval and praise from everyone around me. In digging up my garden, I have found the courage to be the messy, dirty version of myself that I have for too long buried. It is time to stop existing for the masses, for the temporary praise of the blossom, and to start living for my own growth and development as a bulb in the soil of society.

I think it is time to bury this metaphor. 😉

Musings of My Mind

I was stuck on a ten and a half hour flight with a book, journal, and my brain. The first part of the list was glorious, but the latter a nuisance. 

Naturally, being bored on a plane, I vomited the irony of my mind and the dangers of perfection in words and doodles “bullet” journal style. Evidently, bullet journaling is code for people who buy blank notebooks and design it into a Lilly Pulitzer-winning planner/diary as people who have way too much time on their hands. Sort of like people stuck on a ten hour international flight. 

So if you dare, enjoy the musings of mind: 







After my messy two and a half weeks of travelling, I have to say my favorite is when I get lost in a city, stumbling upon secret gems. Maybe the “not perfect” route is much more fulfilling than we thought…
Bon Voyage! 

The Reason Why Suicide Doesn’t Solve Suffering

I have always wanted to write about *whispers* …suicide, but I have refrained from writing on this topic because of the “suicide paradox.” However, in the past 10 days, there have been 4 teen suicides in our state of Colorado.  Colorado ranks 3rd in the nation for teen suicides. I cannot be silent. 

It is like how people are afraid to say the words: “cancer” or “mass shooting,” as if uttering those words will curse you with the affliction. Some Harry Potter-esque curse that summons He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

There is some evidence, however, of a legitimate reason for navigating the topic of suicide carefully because of the “Suicide Paradox.” Freakonomics explored how when a celebrity commits suicide, there is a response of copycat suicides or how when the media discusses a prevalence in suicide, it results in even more. It is called the Werther Effect. The name comes from Goethe’s 18-century novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a semi-autobiographical tale that explores a young man’s determination of suicide as the only option through epistles. Countries started banning Goethe’s famous work because men were found dead with a pistol and the book opened to that final scene.

Now, there is a new Werther in town: Thirteen Reasons Why.

I read the book in 2012 and posted a review; I said:

This book rails against complacency and challenges us to take responsibility for the people around us and most importantly, ourselves: how we can impact people with the “smallest” of actions.

-Alexa Brooks, BooksofBrooks Review, Spring 2012

Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 12.11.46 PMAs I reread my book review after the sensational Netflix series, I find it still contains truth. I appreciate how both the book and the TV show force viewers to be accountable for their actions and how it critiques the bystander complacency that plagues high school hallways. I also appreciate that 13 Reasons Why forces a conversation that is important; it forces us to say “suicide” aloud.

However, as I watched the TV series, I was seized with worries about The Werther Effect. As much as the show tries to show the gruesome nature of suicide (and apathy), it also creates a sick revenge fantasy that emerges from desperation.

I recognized it immediately because I remember feeling like Hannah Baker in middle school. I remember being shoved and made fun of for what I wore. For the poems I wrote. For the teachers I pleased. I remember coming home to Myspace messages featuring my epitaph, of how everyone would celebrate if I was gone. That they wouldn’t have to see my ugly outfits and my disgusting “teacher’s pet” attitude in class. I remember receiving death threats of how they were going to kill me for being such a stuck-up snob, but they simultaneously called me a “slut” because I was such a prude. I remember them ganging up on me and shoving me against my locker while they attacked me with their malicious remarks and snide laughter. I also remember writing a long letter. It was well-written, but it was angry: each kid had a paragraph explaining how their malice led to my suicide. It ended with a plea for compassion. I was going to be a martyr for the terrors of bullying.

But I never did it. I thought about it. I dreamed about it. But I couldn’t do that to my mom. So you know what I decided? I took the blade and shredded that vengeful letter and decided I was going to teach middle school, so I could stop the atrocities from happening to others. That’s why I wanted to be a teacher.

The central fault with 13 Reasons Why and American perception of suicide is that people forget it is a choice. I completely understand that so many injustices and mental health issues cultivate an attitude of contemplation, but ultimately: the action is a choice. Hannah Baker is at fault for her suicide, despite the horrible atrocities that she had to endure, she chose to kill herself. If I would have committed suicide in 8th grade, it would have been my fault, not the bullies. As much I wanted to blame everyone else, it would have been my own autonomous choice.

So let’s remember that central fact in our discussions of suicide: it is a choice. By that same token, our choices are influenced by others. So please, as 13 Reasons Why illustrates so beautifully, choose to live with kindness. Choose to be a person who makes others feel valued and important. Choose to be an active defender and not a silent bystander of injustice.

And ultimately, choose to persevere in your circumstances. No matter how crippling and awful they might be. In desperation, suicide seems like the only option, but by definition, it is an option. Shakespeare shows it with Hamlet:

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Why is the “To Be or Not to Be” cliche so famous? Because it explores the central choice of our existence: to live or to die. But as Ophelia, Hannah Baker, and all of these teens illustrate, death does not destroy the pain. As Newton describes that no energy can be created or destroyed, so is it with pain. Suicide only redistributes the pain to ones you love. 

So choose life. 

Nice guys don’t win because that would mean that nice girls would have to win.

“Nice guys never win.”

I hear it so often and roll my eyes at the obvious generalization of it.

However, then I think back to all the “nice” guys in my life. The ones that I loved to spend time with, but never shared a romantic attraction. I’ve always liked the guys who seemed just permanently outside of my grasp. In their elusive nature, I would fight to win their affections, while the affections of the “nice” guys stagnated around me.

While I am not sure I can say confidently that I am not a self-destructive lighthouse for douchebags, I have noticed this pattern exists among many of my friends, my mom even.

My mom always bemoaned how men were selfish heartbreakers. I can think back to my Aunt always telling my mom to stop going for the big-biceps-bro types. That if she went for the nice, mellow guys, that maybe she could find lasting love. But she couldn’t do it. My Aunt held out for the “nice” guy and is now living quite the dream (with the exception of Football Sundays when the Chiefs play the Broncos; no amount of “nice-guy-ness” can replace the passion of NFL fandom).

So why do nice guys usually not win?

I think Stephen Chbosky says it best in The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

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For so long, I thought that I knew “love.” I thought I was so special that a handsome man would be able to see past my jelly rolls and late night grading sessions to love me. In fact, it was such a special rarity that I knew I had to cling to it for fear that it would never happen again. How could someone love a neurotic workaholic with too much jiggle? How could someone love a “fun-sucking” fat girl?

Someone like that must be pretty special…

So what if he yells at me?
I’m stubborn.

So what if he is high all the time?
I’m boring.

So what if he steals from me?
I’m spoiled.

So what if he cheats on me?
I’m undesirable.

So what if he doesn’t love me?
I’m unloveable. 

I couldn’t believe that someone could love me when I definitely couldn’t love myself, but what I didn’t realize is all of the self-love meant for me, I funneled into someone else.

Rupi Kaur describes this phenomenon in milk and honey:

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Depending on who you are, it could be a sincere wish or a harrowing curse, but I hope that you receive the love you deserve.

Nice guys, start demanding it.
You are worth it.
Nice girls, stop accepting any less.
You are worth it.

I think it is finally time for a nice girl to win with a nice guy.

We can’t trust teachers because of their “agendas,” but do you know what it is?

If I asked anyone to describe me, I’m sure the response would be either “neurotic,” “sassy,” or “teacher.” The first two adjectives are profoundly accurate descriptors of my personality, and the last depicts perfectly, not my career, but my life.

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Even in 11th grade, I worked in a middle school classroom.  #yikes #teachmetodomyhair

I cannot say without tears welling in my eyes how much I love my students and my job. Though I have been faced with the hardest trials in my life since I began teaching from the death of my favorite person in the first two months of my career to vandalism and threats to my safety in the last five, I wake up every morning excited to go to work. Now, I’m not saying I wake up smiling and singing to the birds like in Clean&Clear commercials, but I am genuinely excited to see my students because I love them so much, even if it take two cups of coffee to get me there. It brings me such joy to hear about what colleges they are accepted to and how much they despise the latest chapter of Great Expectations.

Don’t get me wrong: some days are ugly. Some days I lose my voice from passionately explaining how to remember to fix a comma splice. Some days a kid is mad at me for having to discipline him. Some days I want to bash my head into a white board because they cannot remember that the repetition of a phrase at the beginning of a sentence is called anaphora (like “some days” in this particular instance).

But no matter what, I love them. All of them. I am excited to see them. To go to their games. To watch them perform. My students give me such hope for the future in a somewhat bleak world. I can breathe easily knowing that there are some amazing human beings in this next generation.

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But my job does not make me “happy” necessarily. It is grueling work. It is putting on the best performance every day regardless of sickness or mood. It is grading essays while cooking breakfast on Saturday morning. It is sitting in hour long training on state testing. It is giving advice on how to ask a boy to the dance. It is writing recommendation letters on a Sunday night. It is making mandatory abuse reports. It is staying up until 11:00pm to answer parent emails. It is counseling a student over her parent’s divorce. It is sleeping on the floor to chaperone lock-ins. It is re-reading the same book nine times to follow along with the kids. It is putting myself aside to do what is best for my kids every single day. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is the greatest thing I have ever done.

Despite it all, I find my heart full–though my body exhausted.

Not to exacerbate an old trope, but I clearly do not do this job for the money. In fact, I am currently living on my cousin’s couch because with my salary alone I cannot afford a place to rent or buy in the Metro area. I have come to terms with the fact that I make only a few thousand over poverty-line in the United States (as a college-educated Honors graduate) because working with these kids has spoiled me. I cannot imagine sitting at a desk from 9-5 organizing spreadsheets when I have the privilege of hanging out with kids and reading Shakespeare all day. I mean, I’m living the dream, right?

However, today–unlike others–I am not crying because a student just overcame her eating disorder or because a boy confided his depression to prevent him from committing suicide. No, I’m not crying tears of joy or tears of pride today. Instead, I am in tears because some people don’t trust my ability to do my job. 

I do my job wholeheartedly. I push. I agitate. You will not find me putting on movies and having my students answer questions out of a textbook. I work to transform my classroom into a relevant, meaningful place that requires critical thinking. Yes, critical thinking. Schools and parents love to hear that term until it means their kids ask them questions, discuss lessons outside of class, and engage in meaningful (albeit sometimes controversial) conversations. Aristotle says, “it is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” My job is to make kids think. Even if it makes you uncomfortable. If you can’t trust me to not indoctrinate your child into whatever political or religious beliefs I have, at least trust your children enough to be able to think for themselves. I know I do. 

As a society, we need to start trusting professionals to do their job–I’m guilty of it too. Do I really think my Google search on Web MD is more informative than 8 years of medical school?

I know it is hard, but please trust that I am doing what I think is best for our kids. Why else would I go thousands of dollars into student debt just to spend all of my weekends grading essays?* 

I do it because I love your kid. I do it because I trust your kid is an awesome human being who will contribute greats things to the world. And I know all my extra work is worth it.

I know the other famous trope: we can’t trust teachers because they have an agenda. And I will be the first to admit that I do have an agenda. What is my agenda?

My “agenda” is to empower each individual student to recognize his or her value and to develop the skills necessary to confidently achieve their dreams with integrity.

I understand if you cannot trust me because of my “agenda,” but please, let me do my job.

*Due to the generosity of my mom, I am not afflicted with student loans–but many teachers do face unsurmountable debt due to the cost of the degree versus professional income.  

 

 

 

 

 

Can poetry heal anxiety? Probably not, but we will see.

It strikes at the most interesting times. The pain. The panic. The anxiety.

From curled up with tea and Netflix to pacing and shortness of breath–it happens instantly. At any time.

“Triggers,” they say.

How do you know what makes you anxious when it seems everything can? How can you possibly know what triggers it? At this point, I have it narrowed down to… Oxygen? H20 maybe?

It is at these times of hyperventilation and crippling depression that I lather on my essential oils: pure lavender and some relaxation blends. I honestly do not think they do anything. The only consolation is that for a fraction of a minute, I feel like I have the control to heal my body instead of letting it destroy itself on its own. But it is fleeting. It doesn’t work. Not once the anxiety attack has started. Nothing can stop it or make it feel better. It just has to run its course. So the origin of the anxiety–feeling out of control–manifests itself until complete submission. It is a cruel self-fulfilling prophecy.

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At this point in my blog, I like to write some great insight I have learned from my tribulation. Like take five ten second breaths in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth. Rub the “miraculous” lavender oil into your palms and temples. Go for a walk. Pet a dog.

Sometimes it works. And sometimes I sit in complete desperation on an empty blog screen in the hope that writing will help (it is not by the way–not this time).

The unfortunate reality of living with anxiety is that it cannot be magically  healed with a teaspoon of sugar.

But maybe it can with the magic of poetry–something as abstract as the random attacks of anxiety? Let’s find out.

take me

it all flashes back when I see those lights
take one
the sweet tunes of snow patrol
take two 
i can smell it in the closet
take three
the crunching of the autumn leaves
take me

i want another scene

no, i don’t– 
not with you
(oh but i do) 

it’s a new film
so don’t make a mess
but i’m the same actress. 

I don’t think it worked. Unless you define poetry as an attempt to understand–because now I do.