I was a slave to conformity and the fear of failure. It trapped me in a safe and predictable bubble. In the summer of 2014, I betrayed the best people I know so I might expand my limits and find freedom. The collateral guilt and shame made me hurt myself. I often didn’t eat or sleep and occasionally threw up bile for 12 hours from a panic attack. I sometimes imagined throwing myself down a staircase or crashing my car into a guardrail. A year later, I mustered enough nerve to counter self-destruction. I planned mini adventures to become brave (more), but any good eventually meant nothing next to my past betrayal. Also, following a recovery plan seemed like a rehash of the lifestyle that caused my feelings of entrapment. I stopped planning opportunities to heal. I stopped imagining who I might become. I stopped trying to feel anything other than what I felt. I narrowed my attention to living minute to minute, hour to hour, so I might get through the day under the weight of my pain.
Toward the end of that second summer, I began working with toddlers at a child development center. It was only meant to be a summer job, so nothing felt permanent — we were here to eat, sleep, poop, and go home. Since I felt unable to positively contribute to others, I didn’t feel capable of teaching, so I solely spent time with the children. Let me tell you, it’s a joy and a privilege to be a novice — my environment was entirely new to me, as it was for my kids. We spent eight hours a day, five days a week together for two months. Learning without authority or a preconceived agenda opened our classroom for exploration, trial and error, and discovery. We developed security first, then trust. We felt safe to think, combine, and deconstruct our little, big world. At the end of the summer, I stayed to continue our time together. Being with these little people was where I wanted to be.
I became serious about working with children and read “The Creativity Crisis” and “Stop Trying to be Creative,” both offering terminology for my new mindset. As a class, we actively explored a situation rather than experiencing it through the lens of expectations and desires (more). I also read Unconditional Love by Alfie Kohn, who presented strategies for loving people regardless of their volatile behaviors. He convinced me that shaming others (and myself) is absolutely wrong; he inspired me to believe I deserve to be loved undeterred by my pain (more).
When a student named Jordan started in our classroom in September, he sat in the window waiting for his dad to pick him up for eight hours every day. He crossed his fingers like a nervous tick and stuck them in his mouth. He never stopped crying. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He hated being touched and hated having his clothes off. Any time I encouraged him to feel better, he recoiled.
I decided to give up on manipulating him (I use this word to mean constructing situations with intention such as conditioning him to engage with our class). Instead, I served him. When something seemed to offer him security or comfort, I let him explore it. He felt safe sitting next to the window so he could watch the cars drive up, so I brought books and toys to him. If he wanted to eat in the window, I brought a small table and chair to him. If he wanted to sleep in the window, I set up pillows and blankets for him. Whatever made him feel better, it was his.
Some people might think this is favoritism. Before I became a preschool teacher, I would have agreed with that mindset. However, it’s wrong. What actually helped Jordan gain trust in me was the ability to have control over himself.
Allowing him self-control in a vulnerable situation is something I have rarely done for others. I’ve always taken the role of adviser (which has proven to be detrimental more than once, especially when my friends felt similarly to this little boy). As the adviser, I expected something in return: their gratitude, praise, acts proving they listened to my advice. I helped people because I cared about their well-being, yes, but I also helped in order to be thanked.
Well, when your self-esteem influences your investment in someone else’s progress, they know they are essentially a tool.
When it comes to guiding my kids, I know my advice won’t make a damn bit of difference when they need me. They will never be able to thank me for my help because they won’t remember me. I’ve never seen them as a means to gaining self-confidence; thus, I never took this little boy’s behavior personally, as if I’m a terrible teacher if I can’t get him to be happy. I wasn’t seeking that security from him; instead, I truly wanted to help him because he was upset.
This unconditional love set Jordan free.
Over three months of feeling in control, he chose to slowly bare himself because he felt safe doing so. Jordan stopped crying all day. Without any coaxing, he sat at the table with his classmates and ate lunch. He eventually moved from falling asleep from violent exhaustion to falling asleep on a cot. He let us take off his shoes and jacket and put them in his cubby. When he progressed, I met him there, and when he digressed, I met him there. I was always with him instead of where I wished him to be. Six months into his time with us, he hugged all of his classmates. He played with them and acted goofy. He became so happy and comfortable that he took off all of his clothes, ran around the classroom in only a diaper, laughing, tumbling, and doing headstands. He led his classmates safely through the hallway by saying, “C’mon, buddies,” and, “Don’t worry, she’ll be back” when someone missed their parent.
And, through being with him, he offered me time to bare myself. He showed me that my fancy sayings and grandeur acts of sacrifice rung empty when compared to my presence. All I needed to do was be myself and allow him to be himself.
Our center had a contract with the Department of Human Services that offered free childcare to parents recovering from drug addiction. In April, my supervisor sent out an email saying our contract with DHS was placed on hold. Within four days, all contracted DHS students would be withdrawn from our program. Jordan came to us through DHS, and my heart ached with his coming absence. The thing about Jordan: although he gained security, friendship, and leadership with us, he gained them so recently that I couldn’t know if they would stick with him. I offered to pay Jordan’s tuition. I felt we needed 2-3 more months with him before he would deeply embrace who he was and how he was with us. My supervisor seemed to take me half-seriously, so I confessed my past betrayal and hating myself, finding love and a new space for existing through serving my kids, and that she could depend on me to follow through with my word.
Jordan would be taken care of.
Due to in-house politics and potential gossip, my offer was denied. I held Jordan as often as he would let me on our last day together. We played and painted (a new joy for him because he hates being messy). I told him that I love him, and I said goodbye.
It was an awful week and continued to be difficult.
I met my former supervisor for coffee to talk about Jordan. She used to direct the Arts Program at a children’s hospital and worked with little ones who wouldn’t be with us much longer. She knows better than anyone I’ve met what it feels like to lose a child. She knew my love, fight, and heartache. And she told me that I needed to let Jordan go. I couldn’t do that, I told her. She became very sad and said, “Jennifer, you cannot know what will happen to Jordan or to yourself, but you can trust that the time you shared is profound.” I began crying. She cried too. “Jordan may not remember what he achieved in your care, and he may still face serious issues, but he witnessed his feelings validated. He saw he can grow.”
She said, “Trust him.”
It was not easy to trust him. I worried about him from the first day he came to us, and I couldn’t stop now. It took several days to truly accept I couldn’t help him anymore. I visited memories and watched him change. I allowed him to own the successes we fostered. I trusted him regardless of my pain.
I let Jordan go.
I still carry aspects of that woman driven by conformity and the fear of failure. A part of me still craves control of the unknown. My heart screams for it, especially because I want to serve and protect my kids. But when my former supervisor asked me to trust Jordan, she was also asking me to trust who I am and how I am with my kids. She reminded me of the space we discovered and nurtured. We practice patience, constancy, and perseverance. We stay centered. I found freedom in a “true present” and continual mindfulness. I found happiness from loving myself and withdrawing from shaming myself. So did Jordan. I trust that.
This is the most honest and alive I’ve ever felt. And for the first time in my entire life, I am the human being I have always wanted to be. I trust that too.
I think about accepting that which I cannot change and focusing my strength on that which I can. If Jordan was unable to receive further support because of a system, perhaps my passion and ambition might help restructure the system to better serve children. Perhaps there is a pathway that includes working with children, writing grant proposals, and finding sponsors for lower income families and children with special needs of some type or another. Heck, maybe even innovation in education, such as writing literature and leading trainings for professional development.
I do have personal regrets. I do have personal desires. I am also hurt by the atrocities I witness in early childhood education (and education as a whole, as I know it), and I am filled with love and hope by the presence of my kids. I still want to make a positive difference in the world. Now, I know how.