One of the sentiments I see very often when people write about establishing relationships with students is that teachers need to show that they make mistakes and are vulnerable, and a lot of times that comes through sharing personal stories. While I understand the ideas behind that, I am not sure that I completely agree because sentiments like that sound like they’re coming from a pretty, popular girl who is telling a less-popular, self-conscious girl that she shouldn’t be so self-conscious about her looks. “Be vulnerable and tell stories” is the sentiment of someone who never had his vulnerabilities used against him or thrown back in his face.
One of my favorite essays of all time and hence, one of my favorite essays to use in my advanced English class is Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dancer is the Self.” I’ve mentioned it more than once and written about it more than once and that’s because it’s so well-written and generates some great discussions about how people judge one another based on physical traits or characteristics as well as the cruelty of children toward one another. We discuss this essay in my classes via student-run seminars, so I don’t do very much talking except to either clear up factual questions the group can’t answer (although I have been known to jump in when things go completely off the rails). But when it comes to this essay, it’s very hard for me to not say anything because of how the subject matter affects me on a personal level.
You can’t notice it unless you look very closely or meet me in person, but I have a scar under my right nostril. It’s the result of a bicycle accident I had a few days after my thirteenth birthday–my face hit the handlebars of my ten-speed and one of my front teeth went through my lip. For the first three years after the accident, the scar was very noticeable because the tissue had keloided, meaning that it had puffed up and instead of looking like most scars, it looked like an extremely large pimple. Combine this with the fact that I had two false teeth, which I was wearing until my orthodontist completed the task of moving my other teeth over so my dentist could cap them with veneers, the school year following the accident (eighth grade) was a nightmare. I wasn’t really popular to begin with and the comments I heard ranged from “Can you take your teeth out?” to “Why don’t you pop that thing?” I even had one person offer to perform home surgery with an ice cube and an Exact-o knife.
I am hesitant to compare my experience to Alice Walker’s because that would be an exercise in ego and I would surely be taken to task for my ignorance as well (and rightfully so), but whenever I read and discuss the essay, I can’t help but make that text-to-self connection and notice at least some similarities. We both had noticeable scars (hers was in the eye, the result of a BB gun), and both had corrective surgery sometime later (I went to a plastic surgeon and had a skin graft done between my sophomore and junior years of high school) that on some level fixed the problem. Walker writes about how her grades improved and she excelled beyond that; I heard, “Oh, you popped it!” a few times before not having to hear much of anything else about my facial irregularities.
Still, the damage was done and it took being around people who didn’t know about the scar on my face (read: people not from my high school) to realize that everything would be fine. As a result, I came to terms with my scar and the insecurities that came with it, and the scar on my face stopped being the first thing about me that people saw, thought about, or commented on.
I should tell this story when we discuss the essay in class specifically because it dovetails so well with it and as I mentioned, it’s a good text-to-self connection moment. And yet my experience with being pushed around and both aggressively and passive-aggressively ridiculed during my formative years makes me very hesitant to do so. I still reflexively act as if anything I say can and will be used against me. Plus, even though my students are intelligent, they are also teenagers and not all of them have the maturity to absorb or handle that amount of honesty, especially from a teacher. Sometimes they do, and I have told a version of my scar story and related it to the essay and that seems to be a positive contribution to the discussion. Other times, I’ve started to talk but held back when side conversations and chatter that weren’t going on began the moment I opened my mouth. After all, why should I open up like that to people who can’t give me the respect of a single word?
I have no problem making and owning mistakes as a teacher (I think I’ve said “I’m an idiot” out loud more times than anything in class), but the vulnerability and soul bearing that I read about doesn’t come as easy. There is a line between humility and humiliation, and controlling who you are as well as how much people see of you is just a demonstration of your own humanity as baring your own soul. Scars are what they are for a reason–they remind us of damage and of pain. And yes, they can remind them of resilience and strength, but it takes a while for some of us with the scars to discover that, and until we own those scars we shouldn’t be told that we have to reveal them to and share them with everyone else.