We’re Butterflies!

We are not who we were yesterday. I mean, we are. But we’re not. 

As I sat in my graduate school classroom and heard my cohort discuss their frustrations with their students, this back and forth about identity is all I could contemplate. For context, my cohort was filled with school teachers. I was earning my Masters in Education from a renowned institution that was known for training teachers and guidance counsellors. While my own career aspirations were slightly different, this is the crowd I found life had somehow brought me towards. 

It was a common occurrence to hear teachers in class vent to each other about their school boards, unruly parents, and disengaged students. I usually drowned out the noise as I awaited my own class to begin. But this day was different; I heard a spirited exchange unfold before me. 

“He is always late. He’s skipped a ton of class. There’s no way this will be okay when he gets to high school,” one teacher expressed.

“Yes, absolutely. He’ll flunk out,” another replied.

“What if he doesn’t?” Someone asked. Silence emerged and glares came my way. I was the Someone who asked, forgetting as I often do that an inside thought only stays inside if you don’t open your mouth. Recognizing that my question had made things awkward, I expanded, “he’s only 13. Couldn’t he just be going through a rough patch? Maybe he’ll turn things around.” Expressions around me softened and I was reminded of my naivety. People don’t change once they get to that age, I was told. He was a lost cause, likely due to bad parenting – not his fault. 

That should have been my cue to be quiet, perhaps. But I felt compelled to share my own story instead. The one that I knew all of my classmates would be surprised to learn about me. The one that illustrated a pre-teen version of myself hating school, skipping more than 90 days in a single school year, crying most mornings because I didn’t want to go, being mistaken by teachers as the new kid despite having been registered there for three years, and telling everyone I could find that once I finished high school, I was done with formal education. To say the least, middle school was rocky. But was I one of those “bad” or “troubled” kids? I don’t believe I was… 

I was simply unprepared for the transition from my small elementary school into my huge middle school. The fact that the school was also known for team sports and the arts made matters worse as I didn’t feel any belonging to those groups. And the school itself just felt too adult for me at that time; I was still very much wanting to enjoy my innocence in an environment that felt comfortable. At home, I was happy. The only argument was ever about school. And yet, I can recall teachers telling me how I would also flunk out once I made it to high school. They scheduled meetings with my parents and interrogated them with threats of phone calls to children’s services because they were certain there was trouble behind the scenes. Never once did it occur to them that the problem could be at the school I was so desperate to avoid. 

Although I had been warned that I may have to repeat a year, I was passed forward. As names for the honour roll students were called up, my mother looked disapprovingly in the crowd, and later said to me that I should have been there. Girls in pretty pink and baby blue gowns cried on each other’s arms and talked about how much they would miss that place and each other. Meanwhile, I happily skipped along knowing I just had to survive a new chapter in high school now. 

Thankfully, my family decided to let me choose my school. They knew I needed to have some autonomy if there was any chance at me being successful and they felt that would release them from future blame if bad patterns persisted. So, I chose a small school. It was one that a cousin had gone to and was actually still attending – he was going into senior year. The whole population consisted of just 900 students and resembled a community more than a shopping mall or prison. Before I knew it, I was earning a spot on the honour roll. I went from skipping class weekly to having barely any absences. I was happy – I found my fit. I made incredible new friends and had fun in artsy classes like drama, and felt more confident in gym despite struggling with my body. Being so encouraged there changed my direction, and well, since I opened with the end here, you already know that ironically, I now have a Master’s in the Education with a focus on counselling. 

Here’s the thing… my story isn’t necessarily that unique. So often, we write off children and assume that who they are at a young age is who they will be forever. We shame them for not doing well in situations that we force them into. Meanwhile, as an adult, most wouldn’t bat an eye if we heard someone quit a job and found a new one more in alignment with who they are. Yet, we enroll kids into schools and programs with the assumption that there is no such thing as alignment for them. We declare any problem is an indication that they are smart but “don’t apply themselves”, or have a bad family life. And while it’s important to consider those things as possibilities, what I would really love to see is some institutional humility on the part of educators. I wish to be in a world where teachers could ask, “is something here not welcoming to this person, perhaps?” 

Sadly, that judgment and elitism gets worse instead of better the further we climb the ladder in academia. Indeed, I can recall a professor once welcoming us into the grad school seminar room by telling us how wonderful we were for choosing a noble profession. She proceeded to unpack the very word, “profession” and explain to us how there may some out there who might argue that plumbers have professions, but we should be weary of such arguments. It was us – we were the ones who had real professions. Yet again, there I sat with the recognition that I was the daughter of a construction worker and retail manager. I was the girl who scraped by in middle school. I wondered if I belonged. I had to remind myself of this again very recently when a colleague joked (upon hearing about my childhood days) and said sarcastically, “guess it’s a good thing that you don’t advise students or anything!” I told him that my struggle probably made me the best person to advise students. 

And the thing is; I know with certainty that I do. So, my nudge to educators everywhere is to think outside the box and stop trying to teach only to who you think will do well because they’re already on the honour roll. Teach everyone because they all matter. Recognize your own position in the classroom and the weight your words may have on someone. And to people struggling with academics, my words of affirmation are that in many cases the problem is them, not you… Finding your fit, a subject you enjoy, and people who are in your corner is possible. If you’re struggling today, that doesn’t define you. Schools – and teachers – are not holy; they aren’t all-knowing. Question (respectfully) authority. Question yourself. Question it all because at the end of the day, school can be beautiful, but it can be meaningless, too. Take it from someone who stuck it out long enough to get a couple of degrees… they do not define you.

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