“Be true!”

Last week, I asked my AP English III students to take some advice from The Scarlet Letter, which they had just finished reading in class. Near the end of the novel, Hawthorne writes “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” Our challenge to the kids was to do just that. I asked them write about traits or issues which they have that they want to work on. Bravely expose their shortcomings to the world. It would be hypocritical of me to ask that of my students if I’m not willing to do the same, so here goes nothing….
This is not easy or comfortable for me, and that is due largely to my one huge, overriding flaw. I have very low self-esteem, and it is this, which I dislike most about myself, that causes and affects all of my other flaws. My short temper, my laziness, my over-competitiveness, my jealousy of others. I can trace all of these to my low self-esteem.
Without getting into too much psycho-analysis here, this probably goes back to my relationship with my father, though not in the way people usually use that statement. Usually, when an adult male talks about character flaws being connected to “my relationship with my father,” he’s talking about the negative things… fights, unreasonable expectations, absence, emotional distance, abuse, etc. My issues, however, are the exact opposite and stem from one basic image I’ve had of my father since I was a child. He’s too perfect.
My dad was a high school All-American football player who dated the head cheerleader and valedictorian. He literally married the prettiest and smartest girl in school at 18, and they’re still in love 45 years later. He was a successful high school football coach who inspired his athletes and was adored by them. He opened his own successful business, sold it for good money, and opened another one. He was the church deacon whom everyone looked up to. He was a part-time pulpit preacher at the country church where his grandfather had preached. He ran dozens of marathons under a 7-minute mile pace. He rode his bike across Texas. He opened his home to 42 foster kids. He hosted 15 foreign exchange students. He beat cancer. At 65, he can hop on a bike and out-ride most men half his age. My mom always said that if we were in an Indian tribe, my dad would be the chief. He’s the guy other men look to when things go bad. He never laid a hand on me in anger. He never missed an important swim meet, wrestling match, football game, or baseball game. He told me he loved me every day. My adult friends always told me how much they admired him. My female friends always told me how handsome he was. My male friends always admired how strong he was.
How do I live up to that? In my mind, I can’t. As much as I look up to that man, when I look in the mirror all I see is the opposite. I see all the ways in which I don’t feel like I measure up. And this low-self image affects everything. I have a short temper that comes out when I feel like I can’t do something (usually mechanical), which makes me feel stupid. I do endurance sports because my natural inclination is to be lazy, sit on the couch, and eat junk food, but signing up for huge challenges that scare the heck out of me forces me to get out and be active. I hate losing because it makes me feel inadequate. (“Why could that guy do it better than me?”) From board games, to races, to arguments with the people I love the most, I HAVE to win, even if it sometimes means being a jerk to do so. When I see people who make a lot of money and are good with money, I get jealous because I feel like a poor, broke, teacher, afraid to take any real financial risks in life.
Everything I dislike the most about myself, the things I try to hide from the world, are the things that come out when I’m at home, tired, frustrated, sad, stressed from work, worried about bills, etc. And who is the person who sees those sides of me the most? My son. The one person whose opinion I value the most (because I want someone to see me the way I see my dad) is the person who has seen me at my absolute worst. This, of course, leads to me feeling even LESS like the man/father I wish I could be, and that’s the cycle of my life. Compare myself to Dad. Come up short. React in a negative way. Feel like a failure. Compare myself to Dad, again. Come up short, again. React in a negative way, again… etc.
I love my dad. I admire him more than I can say. Having him as a father was the greatest thing a kid could ask for. It’s also the hardest.
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Greetings

If you’ve stumbled onto this blog site, welcome. This is my first blog. Ever. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this. I feel like I’m standing up at an AA meeting and saying the words out loud for the first time.

“Hi, I’m ______, and I’m not a chronic writer.”

There. I said it.

For many people, this is not an earth-shattering revelation. So I don’t write a lot? So what? But I’m a teacher. More specifically, I’m a high school English teacher. So admitting to not being a chronic writer is, in a sense, admitting to being a giant hypocrite.

One thing I say often as a teacher and a coach is that if you want to get better at anything, do it often. You want to be a better runner? Get out the door and run. You want to be a better artist? Pick up your pen and draw. You want to read faster? Read more. You want to be a better guitarist? Pick up your guitar every damn day.

You want to be a better writer? Write.

When I teach writing to my students, I often use music as a parallel. I try to get them to see the process that a musician goes through to produce that final polished song that they illegally download. I ask them to picture a guy sitting around his home alone one night, bored, a guitar in hand, making up new chord combinations, trying different rhythms, probably in a dimly lit room, and something hits him. He hears a phrase or repeats a riff that sounds instantly catchy and repeatable. He even plays it a few times trying to decide where he’s heard it before. “Who did I steal that from?” But soon he’s convinced it’s original. And it’s good. Now he feels inspired. New ideas start to grow off that newly-sprouted branch. He finds a direction, figures out the hook, writes and re-writes lyrics, figures out the structure, and eventually he has a song. A few days later he takes it to his bandmates. He teaches them the song, showing them the chord changes, explaining the structure of the song. If he’s lucky, he gets feedback. They suggest ways to improve the song. The bass player offers a new chord for the bridge that gives it a less-predictable twist. The drummer suggest a better word for part of the chorus. This back and forth, this pooling of the collective creativity, leads to an even better song. Eventually, they have something that they like, and now they have to record it. I try to get my students to imagine the hours spent in the recording studio, getting just the right mic placement on all the drums so the snare doesn’t overpower the mix. Deciding what effects sound best on the lead guitar. Recording and re-recording every instrument. Mixing the various tracks. It’s endless. All of this happens to create that one three minute song they love to crank in their car stereo. I ask them to estimate how many hours might go into that three minute song, and the answer they come up with is usually pretty high.

Then I tell my students, “That’s the writing process.” Rarely does a person put out anything of value and artistic merit without a lot of hard work and effort being put into the final product. In the example of the song being recorded, we can see the brainstorming, pre-writing, self editing, rewriting, peer editing, rewriting again, editing for content, editing for mechanics, questioning stylistic choices, and so on that lead to a final product. And it all started with that guy in the living room picking up his guitar and playing every damn day. Most days, nothing inspiring comes out, and it’s just a matter of keeping those fingers limber, maintaining muscle memory. But some days it hits you, and you feel like it’s all you can do to save the ideas while they’re flowing before they disappear into the ether and vanish forever. I try to explain to my students that if they want to be better writers, then their pen is like that guitar. They have to pick it up and use it. Every damn day.

This year, to encourage (force?) that idea, we have required our students to create their own blog. We give them a weekly article, topic, statement, whatever, and we ask them to write about it. However, they’re writing in an environment where it’s public. They know their friends will see it, their teachers will see it, and quite possibly (if they’re lucky) some complete strangers will stumble upon it and see it. I’ve already noticed that this forces them to take it seriously, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the creativity, insight, and voice that I see coming out more than I see in “dry” academic writing.

Which brings me back to this blog. As a coach and teacher, I really do try to practice what I preach. When I travel with my athletes for out-of-town competitions, I make sure that I get up very early and do a 5-6 mile run before I go around to each room, dripping with sweat, and do my wake-up knocks. I want them to see that before I ask them to push themselves, I have already gotten up and pushed myself first. In between competitions, I get very few complaints about the difficulty of my workouts because my athletes know that I’m not asking them to do anything I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. That’s why, when I asked my students to maintain a blog, it dawned on me that I should be doing the same. How can I push my students to become better writers if I’m not trying to continually become a better writer myself? If I want to get better at teaching writing, I need to get better at writing. And there’s only one way to get better at writing. Write. Every damn day. So that’s my pledge to myself. I’m going to pick up a pen and write something every day. And when I find something that inspires me, that’s worthy of developing into a bigger, more fleshed out version, I hope to put it here.

The sad thing is, I used to write all the time. I have the years of 1990-2003 documented in journals that got written in multiple times a week. They’re dated. They’re chronological. It’s a roadmap of every major life change and emotional high or low I encountered from high school up to the age of 30. They’re probably the first thing I’d grab if my house was on fire. (Don’t judge. My kid is almost 17 and has a door to the outside in his bedroom. He’ll be fine. My wife is a tough girl. I’m grabbing the journals… and my guitar.) But then something happened. Suddenly, one journal lasted me from 2003-2008. I’m still in a journal now that’s almost 6 years old, and it’s still only half full. Did I run out of things to say? Did I stop feeling things passionately? Did I find love, a good job, a great kid, friends, and a comfortable life, so I just ran out of things to bitch about? Or did I just get too easily distracted by smart phones, Words With Friends, and ESPN? Why am I able to be the most dedicated person in the world in some aspects of my life and so neglectful of others? I’m not really sure. But in this area I intend to change. I miss the guy who would grab a pen when he was bored and not his phone.

So, thanks for stopping by. And since this is my first blog ever, I feel like it’s an appropriate place to include a little “about me” section. This is from June 26, 1995. I found it in one of those old journals, and I’m not sure how I should feel about how accurate it still is. As much I’d like to think I’ve grown since I was 22, this is still uncomfortably spot-on.

ME.

I am a contradiction. I’m a stark duality.
I live here in my fantasy world in the middle of reality
I’m logical and reasonable. I’m crazy and insane.
I am meek and I humble. I am cocky. I am vain.
I’m the Yin and I’m the Yang. I love the day. I stay up all night.
I’m the good. I’m the bad. I do what’s wrong. I do what’s right.
I’m every mother’s nightmare. I was the perfect, model child.
I’m shy when I’m with strangers. I am spontaneous and wild.
I’m a focused, driven athlete. I feel lazy. I feel fat.
I am a selfless giver. I’m a spoiled, selfish brat.
I can make people smile and laugh. I make loved ones weep and cry.
I love the very thought of life, yet I can’t wait to die.
I need to be with people. I should spend more time alone.
I sometimes feel like I’ve regressed, and sometimes like I’ve grown.
I’m everything I dreamed I’d be. I’m everything I hate.
I put my trust in my own free will, but I still feel guided by fate.
I am brave. I am frightened. I am happy. I am blue.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot of answers, but I never know what to do.
On matters of the spirit, sometimes I believe, but often I don’t.
I am a human see-saw. Sometimes I will, sometimes I won’t.
I love myself. I hate myself. I never can decide
I am a contradiction with too many me’s inside.