Lately, every time I leave class I’m in a bad mood. When I walk home I call a friend and typically I spend the next twenty minutes complaining. When finally do stop I realize I’m exhausted. I am tired from the daily narrative that consists of me explaining, perhaps defending, why I hate this school. Every day. I find myself talking faster and faster and with each new iteration of that day’s rationale, I puzzle through this roller coaster called graduate school. Ultimately I slam the breaks and reach this abrupt conclusion as arrive at the end of my monologue: “I just want to quit”.
For vulnerability (and positivity) sake, I don’t hate EVERYTHING at this school. And while I’m apprehensive to admit it the redeeming qualities of my experience thus far may be reasons I don’t actually quit. However, overwhelmingly the biggest reason for not wanting to quit is having to explain my rationale to other people. I realize that my quitting probably won’t influence their lives nearly as much as it will influence mine. I do realize this.
You see, I haven’t yet overcome a fundamental tendency of mine to measure my self worth by my perception of other’s approval of my accomplishments. It’s always been about moving forward, about being better, about doing better, about doing too much. Even the choice to come to this school wasn’t a choice. It was the obvious decision I had to make based on the pressure I felt I would endure trying to explain why I picked UConn despite this competitive, glamorous alternative. How could I explain that? And then, everyone’s so quick to respond to my complaints by offering, “this was your choice”. First, NOT HELPFUL! Second, was it really? Was there a choice or were there hours of conversations that backed me into a corner so the decision was forced upon me but we lied to ourselves and called it “obvious”? There was no choice. So then, how could I EVER explain that I quit? Or even, let’s back up, how could I explain why I want to quit? And how could I overcome the feeling that I let so many people down or that I didn’t meet their expectations? For complicating things sake, how do I reconcile that I let myself down or that I didn’t meet my own expectations for myself (regardless of how deeply embedded my personal expectations for myself are reliant on others’ approval)? So that’s where my head is right now. That’s the context for my story today.
[WARNING: This is about to get messy and uncomfortable. I’m going to privilege being genuine and attending to my emotions in this moment. This will be raw material edited for typos only]
Here we go:
The world of urban education policy is messy. It is always complicated by game changing insertions of race, class, ethnicity, etc. to the conversation. Tonight, I was keenly aware of my positonality in this conversation but even more than that, I was paying attention to who was “tuned in” and who was “tuned out” when certain people spoke in class. It’s been said that in our own classrooms we replay and represent they very systems we critique and try so fervently to reform. I think that’s true but I think we also can’t help but bring our own biases to the table. Instead of suspending judgement in favor of a collective, constructive learning space we allow these ideas to bleed into the conversation. Each of our pervasive thoughts poison the air making every genuine attempt to contribute vulnerable to quick criticism. Once we put the words out there, the way they’re experienced and interpreted is out of our control. So we take risks. We talk about what we know (or what we think we know). We ask about what we don’t. And the conversation moves quickly. Ideas bouncing from person to person. Defensiveness grows taller and stronger as ideas are upheld or squashed by louder more powerful voices that signal to everyone else what we should agree is important and what ideas we should entertain. Some forge ahead while others lag behind. Some voices don’t even make it out of the gate.
In this fast paced intimidating space I felt both inside and outside of the conversation at the same time. It was like I was watching this unfold. It made me uncomfortable. We created and are now maintaining a space where certain perspectives, voices, and opinions spoken from specific individuals are privileged and others are instantly neglected. I felt small and timid. I felt like I needed to defend myself before I started talking. Speaking bluntly, I needed to defend a not subtle implication that because I am white (regardless of my many other minority identities) it wasn’t my place to enter the conversation and my experience (regardless of my preparation, training, or due diligence) wasn’t enough for me to speak knowledgeably about issues related specifically to minority groups. I’m not saying I know their lived experience. I’m not saying my voice is the only one that should be heard. I am saying I deserve to be considered too and not immediately “tuned out” because I’m a white girl trying to say something about race and minority groups. So as the class persisted, I watched as some voices were elevated and others were depressed. I listened to which statements were engaged with and conversely which were simply acknowledged and then moved past. The stage, the arena, tonight was for certain voices. I watched backs turn and eyes roll. I heard raised voices and aggressive tones garner respect while neutrality and curiosity were overlooked.
For all the times I’ve walked into class feeling like I could do this, like I was good enough, like I could ask good questions my confidence was quickly, and yet again, crushed by an environment that feels like it is only open to certain peoples’, certain voices’, interjections to the discussion. So, yes I hate this! I hate feeling small and having to defend myself. And no, it’s not because I just want people to agree with me. It’s not because I’m not used to my ideas being challenged. It’s because I don’t respond well to competitive environments. I’m my biggest competition and critic. I’m harsh enough on myself. I don’t need to endure it from others too [side note: I also don’t want to hear right now any sass about the “real world” k, thanks]. When I offer my perspective just know I’ve thought about the alternatives and the misconceptions. And so, in spite of the intimidation I feel I speak up. But all too often, my spoke words don’t weigh up. My intentions get misconstrued and easily ripped apart.
Why should I keep trying in this aggressive space? Is it because I have to overcome this to add it to my list of successes? Is it because I don’t value my happiness as much as I value others’ approval?
Today I watched intensely what was happening in my environment. I watched who was respected and heard. I watched whose agency was met with enthusiasm and whose attempt was disregarded. I listened. I observed the dynamics. I was disappointed. I want to quit.