by Conlee Ricketts
I am patient. Until I’m not
I am strong. Until I’m not
I am funny, brave, hardworking,
Anything really. Until I’m not
A flash of anger, impatience, intolerance
Any other mood or behavior I call “ugly”
And as quick as it comes, it goes
Then once again
I am patient
I am kind
I am full of forgiveness and grace
My moral compass
My belief that I should “always” be these things
This “should” pulls me down
This is not an “always”
A compass floats
And so must I
Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash
by Conlee Ricketts
It’s about to get quiet here.
A different quiet.
I work all day, so does my daughter. So I’m familiar with “that” quiet. In the evenings, she watches YouTube, goes out with friends, or is scrolling her phone. So I’m familiar with “that” quiet.
She’s nineteen and the quiet of essentially being ignored but present with her is something I’ve grown accustomed to over the past four years.
In two days, I help her load up and move out to start her world. It’s an exciting time for her. Planning her color schemes, future furniture, all things decorating. She will be nearby, not a huge geographic distance. She still “needs” me; I helped her learn how to set up utilities for the first time, renters insurance, sign a lease, etc. But once she is out on her own, I’m pretty sure she will realize she can handle so much more on her own than she thought she could, and I’m excited to see her realize that.
My emotions waffle back and forth. Some days this week I’m wanting to rip the bandage off. Wanting moving day to come and go, so I can start my shuffling through the house re-arranging my things to fill the empty spaces she left behind. Both physically and metaphorically, I guess. It’s a sad form of being excited for her, and me just wanting to get it over with, but also wanting to travel back in time and have more time with her.
Other days I’m lost wondering, “What the fuck?” I’ve had nineteen beautiful, stressful, amazing, years with her as the daily center of my purpose and attention, and WHAM! in one 24-hour period it ends, and I have permission for it to end, but it seems really unfair!
She leaves the nest.
It’s the permission to let her go. Go and learn how to be an adult through trial and error, small successes, and big failures. While I sit and hope her failures are nowhere as big as mine were at nineteen, I am grateful for the relationship we built over these nineteen years. She’s leaving because she’s excited to start a life, not because I’m forcing her to leave or because she can’t stand me. I consider myself very lucky.
Of course, I know logically that our relationship doesn’t “end.” Our relationship however, will never be the same...so in a way... yes it does end this week. We won’t return to the flow of our old life; we will need to build a new flow. My logical understanding of this is helpful but doesn’t make this week any less fucking sad.
So for the next two days, I just keep my head down, do my work, offer suggestions here and there, and wait for moving day to be over. I return the moving truck and drive home alone.
What happens next is really up to me.
Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash
Flashes of a life unlived
Memories of things
All undone, untried, unseen
Glamorous New Year’s Eve parties
A kiss at twelve
The Grand Canyon
Giant redwood trees
The Isle of Skye
White sandy beaches
Breath taken by the view
A fancy apartment with a city view
A cozy cabin hidden in the woods
Romantic evenings by a fire
To hug and be hugged in love
A place to call mine and ours
A confident smile passing through a room
A lithe frame able to dance, jump, and glide
A heart unbroken and full of forever
Memories shared with another
Not alone in my mind undone, untried, unseen
To be fully alive is the most courageous thing we do for our soul
I box—I pack—I stow it away
I am very good at this
No one knows what’s in my boxes
I like it that way
Controlled—At arm’s length
No caught off guard
No feeling foolish
No feeling shame
My boxes don’t prevent feeling sad
My boxes don’t prevent feeling loss
And it’s a lie to say they prevent feeling shame
To open the boxes means to say what needs to be said much earlier
To trust my gut immediately
To accept nothing less than I’m willing to give
To open the boxes means to step into my life
To be fully alive is the most courageous thing we do for our soul
I’m fascinated beyond measure by “that which doesn’t last”
Every morning the sun shines I watch in wonder
All the floating particles
It’s a magic dust full of the day’s potential
Not a layer of the day’s chores
I want so much to float at dawn
I’ve been that way forever
tby Conlee Ricketts
Someone once told me a lie
It took over my life as absolute truth:
No one likes you Connie
My triggers pop as I stand at every gathering
How do you unlearn a lie?
Reinforced by the circumstance
Reinforced by the cruel voices that have become my own
Someone once told me a lie designed to inflict a momentary wound that has lasted a lifetime
How do you unlearn a lie?
Thank you for visiting my blog. If you enjoyed this you might also enjoy "Middle School Growing Pains"
by Conlee Ricketts
Traditions all around me are crumbling to the ground: Weddings, funerals, birthdays, graduations, baby showers, gender reveal parties…
Currently I’m mourning the loss of “the graduation ceremony.” A ceremony that is steeped in so many institutional traditions that both students and parents anticipate what it will be like potentially years ahead of the event. I have attended many different graduation ceremonies across the school systems I’ve worked and the college I attended. I’ve come to a conclusion; the grander the production and deeper the traditions, the harder the emotional blow of this type of loss. The loss of a ceremony due to the need for social distancing, quarantines, and staying away from one another in order to protect one another.
It feels overwhelmingly terrible, sad, and hurtful. All the work done to help students feel celebrated is amazing. But it can’t really “fix” the sadness and feelings of loss. And it shouldn’t. I’m a firm believer in feeling the pain, acknowledging it exists and has a place in my personal journey, and therefore deserves some bit of honoring the very fact that it hurts so damn much.
Once I honor my pain, my “survivor-nature” kicks in and tries to figure out how to avoid this type of pain in the future. For that, I turn to my very basic-toddler level understanding of Buddhism. Being alive means I will feel pain and/or suffer; a lot of the pain I feel I am likely creating myself—typically by my nature of wanting things to be other than the way they are. So, to ease my pain and suffering I need to learn to detach from the outcomes I “demand” and “want” and accept things as they are.
Sounds pretty simple right? Hahaha….wait a minute while I stop rolling my damn eyes.
So, being fairly pragmatic I need to start making a list. My list of things I should start detaching myself from right now, so I can (maybe) prevent or at least, lessen the level of sorrow and grief I'm feeling right now.
My child will be starting her senior year of high school in August under what I can only imagine will be uncertain and/or unusual. Will there be Friday night football games for her marching band to perform at half-time? Will she get a Senior Night in the stadium under the lights? Will she finish out her senior year at home just like this year? Her summer band camp, parades, and street concerts have already been canceled so “the last time” to enjoy those already happened. We just didn’t know at the time it was “the last time.” She couldn’t wear the awesome dress we picked out for her Junior Prom; will there even be any dances or Senior Prom?
To prepare myself for the potential loss of these traditions by acknowledging that the loss may happen is the only way for me to detach from the outcome. Every year at Senior Night in the football stadium I would get teary-eyed and imagine my daughter surrounded by all of us celebrating her final year in Marching Band. It would be a lie to say that I can easily detach from this; I can’t. But, I need to have my list to emotionally prepare for the potential of all these “losses.”
My thoughts are that the list is helping me. I'm certain I will still be blindsided by some “loss” that didn’t make it on my list, but if I can tell myself today, “Yes, this may happen,” then I have already taken a single step toward detaching from the outcome.
My full heart goes out to everyone suffering any type of unexpected loss right now. Take time to feel this and take care of yourself. Just know that someone out there is thinking of you. -xoxo Conlee
Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but the point is…it will.
To venture through life unscathed is one of the most defeating expectations there could possibly be. Not only is it ridiculously unrealistic, it just sets you up for disappointment over and over again. The way I tend to prepare for most things in my wacky brain is “worst case scenario thinking.” I admit that is NOT the healthiest way to handle situations, but in this case it will ease my mind and soften the blow.
In preparation of my inevitable future 1-Star Review of my debut book, I took a gander at some 1-star reviews of people that have influenced me, write what I've read, and are people I respect.
Here’s what I learned:
For my first book, the entire process holds a mountain of learning opportunities. In the days after I finally approved the work and edits I found mistakes, had edits I wish I hadn't approved, and I made of list of things I will do differently for book number two. So I already have my list of things readers could pick apart and determine it a 1-star book. That's okay. It has to be okay because that is the whole point of learning through challenges.
What I do know is regardless of how many people I come into contact with through this experience, it has helped me start writing again, helped me step out of my cozy hermit lifestyle, and helped me connect with some pretty amazing people! And if you’re reading this, then by default you are one of my amazing people! Thank you!
If after reading my own 1-star reviews of my work, you want to pick up your own copy of 26 Days to Practice Peace, click HERE. Sign up for my Newsletter for inspiring random fun notes in your Inbox too!
by Conlee Ricketts
I'm not sure if it is fake, false, pretend, or just plain award-winning acting, but I have appeared far more courageous when my child is watching than I really am. I have kept my shit together so my child would feel calm and safe while on the inside I was screaming or crying. Each illness, bloody knee & nose, or broken bone (mine), I plastered a calm “everything is going to be just fine” smile on my face. I'm certain this has helped me grow as a person, but at the time it was exhausting.
I can pinpoint two events where my courage was 100 percent fabricated! One event was a temporary kind of “hold it together” and the other was more of an ongoing “holding it together.”
Short term holding it together: Eleven-year-old daughter
Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom; Expedition Everest ride: (Spoiler Alert; read at your own risk).
I had never been to Disney World before and I had done all that I possibly could to save for this trip. I wanted my daughter to enjoy a last hurrah before "stay at home mom" became "working mom" again. We decided to be brave and ride the roller coaster Expedition Everest. We waited in line, read all about the Yeti, finally got buckled in and we were off!
The roller coaster was chugging up to get ready for its first big hill. I’m laughing and enjoying my daughter’s screams of enjoyment. Then all the cars came to a slow stop as we reach the peak. I’m cool, sometimes reaching the top of that first big hill a coaster slows as it clicks its way up, so I give my daughter a confident smile.
Something is wrong, we have stopped for way too long. Suddenly the cars chug and slip and we begin to start flying backward down the track. My daughter grabs me and screams. I look down at her with a giant smile glued to my face while trying to memorize her face in the last few moments of our life together on Earth. I was certain we were going to die and I wanted to remain calm for her. Inside I was scared shitless. Period. Convinced we were going to die on this %#*ing roller coaster.
It took me a few moments to notice that the scenery was different; we were no longer outside in the sunshine but inside the Yeti's cave. The damn ride was supposed to go backward! I was unaware. Not being a “Disney Pro” I had no clue what this ride was about.
I never told my daughter I thought we were going to die that day until last month and her "high schooler" response, “Oh my god! Really Mom? That’s hilarious and so sad!”
Long-term holding it together: Six-year-old daughter
The year my marriage ended and I lost our house was all about fake courage and putting on a brave face—for my child and basically for the entire outside world.
I had to schedule time to cry. Hiding my sobs and screams locked in my car alone in a parking lot, or on the front porch at 1 A.M. while my daughter slept. She was so young, and while I have no problem letting my daughter know that emotions are healthy and that crying is okay, this type of raw emotion from me was not something a six-year-old would understand.
I am the “Mom” and moms take care of shit, moms are protectors and problem solvers, and moms, dare I say it, are magic. We can kiss it and make it better.
All the details of my life at that time were all very grown-up problems that had absolutely nothing to do with my child's health and happiness. I refused to burden her with my grown-up problems and emotions. All she needed to know was that we were going to move into a very cool new apartment, life was still going to be great, and that I would take care of anything and everything. Nothing to worry about.
Looking back that’s exactly the way it turned out and everything was fine. I survived it all, and for the most part, I did an okay job at keeping my shit together. I wasn’t perfect and I’m sure there are a few scars that remain for my daughter from that period, but I was as courageous as I could possibly be.
I think trying to help our kids feel safe and protected creates many opportunities for this “courageous parenting” which feels like a giant game of pretend. I'm not sure if others will agree with my choice to schedule time to cry or putting a brave face on things to get through them, but it’s how I have chosen to help my daughter enjoy childhood. I don’t want her to feel responsible for me, or my problems, or my happiness. She is the child and I am the parent, and I’m supposed to be able to handle all the bullshit tossed my way. How I choose to handle the rough stuff helps her see how to deal with her own future struggles.
Right now, she just needs to enjoy her childhood. And truth be told, after twenty-seven years in a classroom, I could re-write this entire essay for teachers. Teaching=Fake Courage. Years of illnesses, bloody knees & noses, fire drills, tornado drills, and every lock down, my face must display the similar “everything is going to be just fine” face that I’ve mustered for my own child because I’m protecting someone else’s child. This is one of those rare skills that actually translates very well to the classroom.
So, as our kids head back to school we put on that all-knowing face of courage for our kids to let them know everything is going to be just fine. And if it isn’t? Well, as the grown-ups in charge, we need to work to support our children through the “not fine” in a calm, all-knowing, and courageous way—whether we feel that way or not.
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My Morning Coffee or Understanding Longfellow
by Conlee Ricketts
I’m sure most of us can point fingers and blame someone guilty of taking us for granted at one moment or another across our life. That isn’t what this is about.
I was dissecting the phrase “taken for granted” the other day over and over in my head as I have a habit of doing. There are so many things that I simply had the assumption of “continuous presence” in my world. I had an expectation of permanence. A completely unrealistic expectation that is so obvious on the surface, yet I clung to the expectation blindly without question, and I neglected to enjoy something or someone or some moment. I neglected to savor it, say thank you, smile and breathe.
What started this was visiting friends and watching the couple who had been together for maybe ten years or so navigate the kitchen of their home, talk, joke, roll eyes, misunderstand one another, be irritated, laugh, brush shit off, and move on to the next task.
I was envious.
Had I ever had a relationship like that in my life? Of course I had, but I don’t now, and I think I took it for granted.
When I was in high school, my mom told me, “All relationships end.”
She was very matter of fact and followed up with, “It will happen at some point no matter what; the longest relationship with anyone ends with death of course.”
She wasn’t sad, she was just being realistic, stoic, no nonsense, basically her charming self. Not that I really want to argue with her now, and yes our physical relationship did “end” with her death 20 years ago, but that was just the physical in-person relationship. She is still around in my emotional and cerebral world so, as expected, and not at all surprising to anyone who knew us….we disagree :-)
I’m pondering the words of wisdom I want my daughter to remember, and I am leaning heavily toward appreciation. Appreciation of the presence of anything in the moment it is present. Beginning with a list of a few things I took for granted back in the day:
I want my daughter to attempt to appreciate her moments now while she’s in the middle of them. Her joy and her pain while still in high school. I want to tell her to “enjoy” any heartbreak that might come her way in the next ten years, as well as the love that she thinks will never come her way; to enjoy the friendships, laughter, and drama that is part of the everyday. Because these next ten years or so will be when she is most likely to truly feel everything the deepest. I don’t want her to take any of that joy or pain for granted and assume she will have an endless supply of these intense experiences throughout life. While we continue to have experiences throughout life, the good and the bad, the way they feel in intensity changes over time. It's just the way the brain is wired to "grow up." The deep, raw feelings she experiences now are at a level that her brain will grow out of over time. If she's in love, she's IN LOVE. If she is hurt and disappointed, she is HURT and DISAPPOINTED. If she is pissed at Mom, believe me, she is PISSED AT MOM.
How will I handle these extreme ups and downs of joy, pain, happy, sad? For starters, I won’t take these moments with my daughter for granted. If I’ve done my job well, she will be ready to navigate the world without me in a few short years. Next, I will do my absolute best to be the person that I needed when I went through all of that: quiet, open-armed, without judgement, and un-angry. “Un-angry” is such a rough, unpolished word, but I just remember a lot of anger during my high school years—both from me and towards me, and it was difficult to navigate. I am 50% of our relationship equation, and I have learned that not engaging with the anger typically will result in the quiet comforting mother/daughter hug that I had always wanted from my own mother.
There are certainly things I miss in my life, and sometimes I think it isn’t the “thing” but the “intensity of the thing" I miss the most. Yes, I took people, places, things, and feelings for granted and was certain they would “always be available.” My goal is to enjoy things again. I will enjoy what I have while I have it, and if I can, I want to help my daughter do the same now while the intensity exists to create a habit of appreciation and understanding.
by Conlee Ricketts
One year during college—a long, long time ago—I remember buying myself a humorous and mildly inappropriate coffee mug for Valentine’s Day. I was so desperate to have a loving relationship in my life, the kind that would make me feel whole, complete, and loved, a relationship with a person who would have walked by this same window—spot the coffee mug—and immediately know that it was perfect for me.
I didn’t have that person. In fact I had recently been humiliated by the relationship I had just been through. You know the kind of thing, walking in on your boyfriend in bed with his old girlfriend. Actually, I hope you don’t know this kind of thing. It hurts like hell. A punch in the stomach so hard replaying itself over and over for weeks every time your mind quiets or your close your eyes.
I’ve had two boyfriends and two husbands since I bought that mug, and for each relationship there’s always been that moment of explanation, “No I’m not saving a gift from an old boyfriend. I bought it for myself. Really—I did—Promise.” Typically my explanation is met with that raised eyebrow, cocked head, and a stare that implies I had some strangely erotic encounter with someone other than them. I can assure you I did not.
Having this conversation does makes me laugh though. I think that is part of the reason why I keep the mug. There are other reasons why it's still here, but those have taken me awhile to uncover. I realize that my mug is a reminder of my old insecurities, my old loneliness, and my old sad self. In an instant I’m standing outside that store window in my mind like it was yesterday—I feel twenty again. I barely had enough money to eat and buying that five dollar mug seemed like a crazy extravagance, but I did it anyway, and the mug has remained with me for thirty years. There are times when I wonder why I’ve hung on to it for so long. It seems contrary to my life journey, letting go of my past, and my goal to accept all moments as they are. I wonder if I keep it because it’s the only Valentine’s Day gift I still have—or even remember. I’m not sure how to feel about that.
I think its tireless existence in my life says something about the one relationship that matters most, before we sprinkle in the other people—in fact it’s the only relationship that can make me feel whole, complete, and loved—the relationship I have with my Self. I am challenged often to nurture it, love it, and tend to it, because whether I like it or not, it’s the only one I have that will actually last forever.
My mug? Oh yeah, it says: “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles. And even farther for that thing you do with your tongue” -Dale
by Conlee Ricketts
It’s difficult to start writing something that I know many of you will disagree with or dismiss without finishing or giving me a chance. It’s difficult, but I can’t stop having the conversation in my head until I try. I’m thankful for my freedom to do so.
Try not to assume you understand my feelings without taking the time to hear me. My frustration this week, next week, last week, has not been about politics. My concerns are not about being a member of one party or the other, the economy, policy—foreign or domestic. For me it is about turning away from the ugliness. Or pretending not to see it. Or choosing not to see it, and by doing so subtly condoning it.
The concepts of “President” and “Role Model” and “Respect” have always been fairly synonymous for me even when I didn’t particularly care for the individual in the role.
This is my struggle.
I am unable to point to our newly elected president and say “there’s someone to look up to.”
Before you leave, or you angrily ask me about all the criminal things that didn’t make the other candidate a role model either, I need you to stop. As I said this is not about politics for me, never has been. It is about hate. It is about words and behavior that are aggressively hateful. It is about abuse. It is about words and behavior that are aggressively abusive. And finally, it is about a sliver, of a portion, of a handful, of the smallest amount of our population—on all sides—who just needed permission to be openly hateful or violent. I am terrified that permission was just granted. When aggressively abusive, violent, or hateful words and actions are ignored and even championed—permission was granted.
One hate crime is one too many. One act of violence upon another human being is one too many.
I can remain friends will all who know me; I can agree to disagree with you without it “becoming a thing.” My life proceeds even when I can’t quite understand why you think the way you do. I don’t force feed you my beliefs hoping you will change your mind and I don’t call you names. I do me. You do you. But I need my friends to know, especially if you are a parent—when the topic of rape, abuse, or violence comes up in connection with our new president, and you respond with a quasi-agreement/rebuttal like, “Yeah, but he…..” then my conversation with you is likely going to draw to a close. As a survivor of sexual assault, growing up with the training that “good girls stay quiet and don’t tell” it is my wish that you will never “Yeah, but he…” to your child, or worse “Yeah, but you…” somehow implying you’re your child was at fault for being a victim of violence and/or hate. There is absolutely no way to finish that sentence that can absolve or erase that violence for your child.
When you try to console me, or compare this situation to any other situation, or talk to me like I’m a child, or talk down to me like I “don’t understand politics,” or tell me this is ridiculous, or that I’m a whiner and you can’t wait for me to get over it and move on, without first considering that a double standard came into play here, and a dangerous precedent of permission was just granted here, you hurt my feelings. I don’t need consoling. I don’t need “I understand what you’re saying, but…” because clearly you do not understand what I am saying. I need much more than “Yeah, but he…”
by Conlee Ricketts
photo by Rachel Phillips
These days my “students” are college students. What is special about them is that they want to be middle school teachers like I was for 23 years. It is part of my job to help these college students figure out what it really means to “Be a Middle School Teacher.” It’s a difficult job. I see my students through three very emotional and rigorous semesters that increase in intensity from 1 day a week to five days a week of “being a middle school teacher.”
Things I tell my students that I wish they would trust:
1. There is no one right answer
I know this drives you crazy, but when you ask me, “What do you do when as student won’t…” I can ask you back, “What time of day is it?” “Was it at the start of class, middle of class, end of class?” “What just happened in the hall?” “Was it before lunch?” “Was it after lunch?” “What do you know about this student?” “What is the daily expectation?” “When did you make that known?” “How did you make it known?” “Is this the first time it has happened or the twentieth?” This list of clarifying questions I can pose to you is endless. The reason why an adolescent does what he or she does is not consistent. You may feel at times there is no rhyme or reason to their actions, and you would be correct—you have to be okay with that. If I could import my 23 years of experience teaching math, managing students, and creating lessons, into your brain it might still be useless in your classroom. My personality and way of working with students won’t work for you. You need to develop your own way. I will continue to pose these questions and offer example after example of ways you can try to solve your problems, but it’s really all up to you to find your voice and make it work. AND what worked yesterday may NOT work today. Welcome to working with humans during puberty.
2. Worry less about making mistakes and worry more about building relationships
You stare at me like I am full of B.S. every time I say this. You are nervous the students won’t respect you, listen to you, follow your directions, etc. I have news for you—they won’t (in fact some of you don’t with me either). You need to earn the right to be in their world and the only way to do that is to ask them, listen to their answers, learn about them—their lives, likes, dislikes, be consistent, trustworthy, and care. Each and every one of us makes mistakes. That is the built in device to help you learn, assuming you choose to learn from the mistakes. My advice: use mistakes as a moment to be a role model of vulnerability for your students of how to handle screwing up or how to handle disappointment in a productive and healthy way. Be thankful you can do that for your students. Please, focus on knowing something special about each and every one of your students and talk to them about it, especially when you see on their face that need some extra attention and care.
3. You think you're working hard now? You have no idea
You are the guest in your mentor teacher’s classroom, and while you are wanting to spread your wings and fly, remember that while they may not do things the way you would do it in the future, they are still protecting you from so many layers of the job you can’t even fathom. Say thank you. There is always an invisible layer of “work” that goes on that you will never see or understand until you are alone in your very own classroom. It is difficult to describe these intangibles but being alone in a classroom with 35 students requires much more energy, concentration, decision making, and observation than when the two of you are in a room with 35 students together. Your mentor teacher is probably fielding hundreds of student, parent, and administration interactions that you aren’t even aware of, and they do it so seamlessly you can’t even see it happen or realize that you are reaping the benefits of their intervention. Say thank you.
4. Your students will treat you the way you tell them to…and it isn’t through your words
Actions speak louder than words—cliché? Yes. True? Yes. Adolescents have the strongest Sincerity Sensor you will ever experience. They know when you are being sincere, when you are nervous, when you are pretending to be in charge, when you know you are in charge, when you waffle before deciding, when you mean it, when you don’t, when you are being honest, when you are coming from a place of caring, or not…the list is amazing really. Because your middle schoolers are hyper aware of how the world might be perceiving them, they are keenly perceptive of you, and they will tell you. "You smell like coffee," "I don't like your new hair cut," "You have no sense of style," "You're confusing," "You aren't fair," on and on. Do you want to avoid being under this microscope? You can’t. But you can minimize the chances of negative moments: See #2.
5. When you complain about me, other instructors, or professors, I wonder if you fully understand what you signed up for
You may not know it, but a teacher is always listening. In the halls, before class begins, as students leave, it should never stop if you want to know what your students are experiencing in order to help them succeed. Just because you are in college doesn’t mean I stopped being a teacher. I see you roll your eyes, use your phones, read your timelines, and I know you just missed my instructions to that assignment. I hear you complain about your instructors, professors, and me. I wonder: if you are complaining near me, are you complaining near your mentor teacher, or near your students? Is that the example you want to be? If you are struggling you need to learn to talk about it with the person you are in conflict with. Part of my job is to help you learn this skill. Come see me and we can work together to deal with disappointment and frustration. Ultimately I know that what will happen to you is this: the way you are treating me or others, the heavy sighs and eye rolls I see and receive, is the exact same way your students are going to treat you some day—and it might hurt your feelings.
6. There is never a time when you are a finished product, nor should there be
Good teachers are always learning. I want you to be a good teacher—a great teacher even—not a mediocre teacher. I can’t package up this career in an easy “how to” manual and send you on your way. It doesn’t work that way. Every year is different, every group of students have different needs, each class has its own personality, and each child is an individual. You have to learn to live with change, ambiguity, and take comfort in the unknown. You need to find your own answers, and you do this by reading research, looking at what others have done successfully and tweaking it for this year’s students, observing others, attending workshops, and never giving up the desire to “be even better next year.” At least that’s what I keep doing.
7. I don’t judge you when you cry
When you are in my office, face flushed, voice trembling, trying to hold back tears and appear strong, I will likely ask you to just cry if you need to. I say this because I understand what it means to “be strong” for my students for an extended period of time. Being strong for so long can wear away at our stamina, which leads to exhaustion, poor concentration, and weaker decision making skills. Sometimes a good old fashioned “cry” relieves the precise amount of stress needed in order to be able to pull on our teacher pants and go into the job another day tough as nails—strong, supportive, and caring for our students. Teaching is hard. I say it a thousand times, but learning to handle the personalities of our students, other teachers, the tragedies of losing a student to violence or suicide, and knowing what to “do” in any of these situations does not come without experience, pain, and sorrow. I can be as strong as I need to be for a twelve year old in the face of losing a parent because I can go somewhere private and cry.
8. You will survive if you want to
Teaching middle school isn’t for everyone and that’s okay. You enter my class with an “ideal image” of the way “teaching” is supposed to be in your minds. For some of you it resembles your own fondest memory of a teacher or a school year. For others of you it resembles the opposite of your own experience or worst teacher, because you are certain you can do better. Beware of these expectations; they are dangerous; I can say that falling short of your expectations is inevitable when you are just starting out. Teaching is hard; anyone who walks in saying “I want to make a difference in my students’ lives” quickly finds out that what they expected teaching to be and what it actually is are two very different things. In order to be the person who “makes a difference” you need to work hard—very hard—and that work occurs outside of the classroom time frame you are spending with students. Middle schoolers are a lot of fun, but they take a special kind of teacher who can be ready for what they serve up. They are emotional, hilarious, insecure, blunt, unpredictable and above all fragile. They need your guidance and patience to learn. In order to be ready for all that and make your 50-80 daily minutes with them successful and safe, takes about triple that time preparing, planning, and creating. If you aren’t ready for your time in class with them, they are. And they will know exactly how to use that time for their own self-interests. If you find yourself driving into your placement all white-knuckled and nauseous then perhaps you need to re-think this career, or start working harder to be ready for those class periods; your students deserve the best.
9. You may never know how much you meant to a single child or classroom of students, and that’s okay—just know that you did
You’ve chosen middle school. The quintessential years of flux, poor decision making skills, puberty, egocentric behavior, and you want a thank you? What are you thinking? Your students are in the middle of stress=emotional decision making=what’s in it for me=silliness or outburst, or who knows what. Your consistency, stability, sense of humor, and calm is the anchor that they hold on to in the midst of their storm of predictable unpredictability. Whether or not they can understand that you do this on purpose for them, and that saying how much it means to them that you are always there, is something that you just can’t worry about. You just need to keep showing up. There are rare moments when lightning strikes during the hormone driven tornado and someone says thank you, or a student returns years later to let you know you mattered, but you can’t pin your self-worth on those moments. You do matter, so wake up, grab the coffee, and get going!
Why is this list only 9 and not 10? That’s the point; teaching is messy. It is either 9 or infinity—there are far too many things to learn about working with middle schoolers to fit into the 42 weeks I spend with you. You have to roll up your sleeves and learn some things the hard way it like I did. I share what I share because if you could learn from my experiences or my mistakes, it would ultimately save you time and heartbreak.
Author’s note: What I share here is solely my own opinion and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinion of any other individual or institution. I share through the lens of my own experience with students and student teachers, and considering it to be 100% accurate and true for everyone would be foolish. If you happen to agree with my thoughts—wonderful! Please share. If you don’t agree with my thoughts—feel free to enter into a respectful discourse with me. -Conlee
by Conlee Ricketts
The quality of my life on any given day is really what I consider to be “good.” I have my basic survival needs met on a daily basis. I smile often. I love my child and my child loves me. Every once in a while though I will have a day that creeps in while I’m not looking and I feel sad. It will follow me around for a day and I let it. I don’t put a happy face on it and try to push it away; I let it teach me something.
Why am I sad today? Because I want things. Things that I may or may not ever have. Sometimes when it’s quiet I can feel myself physically aging, and I see a future minus some things that—for the moment—I “want.” If I were able to be content and not imagine my life in its previous forms over the past 50 years I don’t think I would be as sad. Is amnesia a gift?
The future I see for me today has me alone. I am neither frightened nor sad about that, but the word “alone” makes me ponder moments long ago when I wasn’t “alone.” Then I mourn the loss of the energy, fun, and love I felt thirty years ago. I want love to feel like it did when I was nineteen, a boyfriend who could pick me up his arms as if I weighed nothing, someone to look at me and smile, time together talking and laughing until I almost pee. So here I am –not dissatisfied with myself or my future—just wanting. Today I want a cowboy again, a gentleman, a lover and a friend. This will pass, but for today…I want. I want for this to happen, and I want for that to never have happened.
I shake my head in disgust at my last failed relationship, and I box up my trust and dignity so as to not suffer again the pain, hurt, and shame of not trusting my gut sooner, of not saying what should have been said earlier, for accepting anything less than the level of honesty I had offered.
I push those memories aside and I think of other things I’ve wanted and never got. That may seem pointless but I let myself do it anyway. It may also be a waste of time to be sad about things I never got, or lost, or left behind, or let go, but feeling sad for a day doesn’t waste my time, and it isn’t as pointless as I tell myself it is.
It’s the want that creates the sadness—not the person, place, or thing that may be attached to it. It’s the want that makes me feel regret. It’s the want that sets me up for disappointment. Wanting things to be different then they are or were. Wanting things I can’t have right now, or wanting things just beyond my reality or reach. The truth is that I’m sad because I’m wanting.
When I take the time to understand the “wants” it makes it easier to set them aside after a sad day. It’s just a want—not a reality. It will be okay. It’s a single day.
I still have time to find a cowboy. I still have time to laugh until I pee—and because it’s funny, not because I’m over 50. I still have time to find a room with a view and breathe fresh air.
Tomorrow I will wake up after having played with all my wants today, and I will be able to get back to the business of living my life as it is, not as I want it to be and the sadness will have gone away.
by Conlee Ricketts
The day before the final day of 7th grade my daughter hops in the car with two of the three girls I regularly take home.
“Where’s (Insert Girl’s Name Here)?” I say. It doesn’t matter who it was, because what happened next is really all too familiar in middle school. It happened to me, it happened to students every year I taught middle school, and it will continue to happen.
“I’m not riding with (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter says sharply. Notice the lack of information I have at this point. I can see the girl running toward the truck.
“That’s not nice,” I say, “I’m not going to just leave her.” This friendship has been dissolving all year but the carpool situation was established, and I only have one more day to get through.
“Well, we aren’t taking her tomorrow!”
“There's only one more day, c’mon. We are taking her to school tomorrow.” I still have no information at this point but I’m trying to de-escalate whatever has happened using my calm voice because there are two other girls in the truck.
“(Girl’s Name) said I was ugly!” and now the other girls in the truck are into the conversation, “How did you hear that?” “OMG I can’t believe she said that!” etc.
“Okay,” now I have something to work with, “did you tell her that was hurtful, or ask her why she would say something hurtful like that?”
“No! Someone else told me she said it!”
“Well I think you should address it with her but not now in the truck in front of everyone.” I say. (Girl’s Name) is now standing outside the truck door while friends in the back seat keep the door closed in solidarity. I have to say “let her in.” (Girl’s Name) gets in.
“I don’t appreciate you telling people you think I’m ugly, (Girl’s Name)!” my daughter blurts.
“I never said that! Who told you that?!” she says.
I look at my daughter and say, “We’re not doing this now in front of everyone.”
I drop everyone off in a mixture of awkward silence and the other girls conversing about random things that essentially exclude (Girl’s Name). After (Girl’s Name) leaves the truck, my daughter’s best friend is able to guess exactly who the boy was that told her what had been said. Then more silence. After the last girl leaves the truck my daughter bursts into sobs. As I reach home and shut off the truck, I sit with my daughter quietly while she cries.
Before I get much deeper into this story I need to explain that yes, Mother Bear does kick in wanting to save my child from all the hurt and evil in the world, but trained professional middle school teacher also kicks in wanting my daughter to learn how to handle these situations on her own. The mother/teacher in me wants her to understand that it isn’t about who said what to whom, it’s about whether or not my daughter is going to believe every bullshit comment someone else says about her and then absorb it as her “truth.”
We cannot control what others say or think about us; we can only control how we choose to react to it, and we control whether or not we are going to add it to the baggage we carry for far too long. I made the mistake of adding every “you’re ugly, you’re too quiet, you’re a crybaby, you’re too tall, you’re stupid” to my own baggage beginning in 6th grade, and I have had trouble putting it down for years. I don’t want this for my child.
When the crying slows I observe, “Wow, you’ve been holding that in well.”
“Since 5th period!” she sobs. Three hours.
“What happened? How did you hear this?”
The story is a familiar one unfortunately. I think an identical scenario happened to me at her age. In between classes while my daughter was at her locker, a boy walks by (typically this is the cute boy or the popular boy) and says “Guess what? So-and-so told me she thinks you’re ugly,” and then he keeps on walking. Now anyone standing around has also heard this, and since he has kept on walking my daughter is left standing there feeling the heat of the imaginary spotlight with no recourse.
“Wow, that’s hurtful. How did you handle that?” I asked.
“I just said ‘OK’ and acted like I didn’t care.” The tears are still dropping off her cheeks into her lap because her head is hanging so low.
“That’s the worst. I’m angry he felt the need to share that with you. What do you think he had to gain by saying that sort of thing to you?” At this point I’m hoping that I can help her to realize that people do and say mean things because of stuff that is going on with them, not her.
“I don’t know," pause, "(Girl’s Name) has been mean to him all year long. He knows that she rides home with me, so maybe he was trying to make me mad at her to stop giving her rides.” She finally lifts her head to look at me.
“Well, if you decide to talk to her about it, these things almost always go just like they did when she got in the car: ‘No I didn’t’ and ‘Who told you?’ So be prepared for the denial. You can think about just letting her know you don’t care if she said it or not, but that it was hurtful, and when she asks again for who told you I would just say ‘the person you said it to. It doesn’t matter anyway, it’s just mean.’ And then walk away. You don’t need to argue about it because now she knows you know. Even if you don’t talk to her about it, you've learned something about both her and the boy who felt the need to share it with you.”
My daughter nods.
“I’m so sorry you held that in all day and that you were hurt like that. It’s not fun at all, but it sounds like you handled it really well.” We leave the truck.
A quality my daughter has that I admire (except when it's directed at me because it's typically accurate) is her fearless approach to calling others out on their bullshit. If you upset her she will tell you; if you do something she doesn’t like she will tell you; if you hurt her she will tell you. She uses this to protect both herself and others. If she sees someone else being picked on or treated unfairly she will speak up for them; she can be direct and sometimes her tone brutal. What she hides a little too well is that she is also easily wounded. The last thing I want is for what happened in the hallway to stick with my daughter for years to come like it stuck to me. Her ability it speak up for herself is really part of what I was missing at her age, so I don’t think it will stick with her, but I can’t really be sure.
We each have choices about how we will react to things. I could have gone all 51 year-old-psycho yelling at 13 year-old-meanie who talked behind my daughter’s back, OR I could choose to help my daughter process the experience of finding out that yes, people talk about us behind our backs.
My daughter was hurt, publicly humiliated, and felt betrayed by someone she saw nearly every day of 7th grade. No amount of me telling her that she isn’t ugly was going to help her navigate what happened to her. It also doesn't really matter whether or not the other girl actually said this or not; my daughter believes that she has. What might have helped was having her think about what motivated someone else’s behavior, having her take time to think about how she might want to address it, and my silence while she cried.
She has heard me say it often: wounded people are sometimes better equipped to inflict more pain on others. I want to help her navigate being hurt by others in a way that sets her free from the pain instead of trapping her into believing that the pain is somehow deserved or part of who she needs to be.
I can’t say with confidence that the pain hasn’t stuck with her. I also can’t say I handled it the best possible way. A month later I can see that the remnants of the sting of the comment have shaken her confidence, and I know that the close of 7th grade has wounded my child. My heart is broken. What I do at this point is the only thing I can do—I simply need to stay available and listen more than I talk.