Just How Golden is Silence?

Silence is golden. It’s so cliché and yet probably, at some point in our lives, we’ve all encountered moments when we have believed with every ounce of our being that indeed, silence is golden. When we’ve been in a noisy elementary school lunchroom, needed quiet time to study, or been surrounded by people who like to hear themselves talk. In these instances silence IS golden. However, in my efforts to be a better critical educator, I have come to the conclusion that silence is not always so ideal.

Now that I have become more mindful of how I respond when students make judgmental comments, I have realized that my silence is often misinterpreted as agreement. I have tried to be more cognizant of how I respond, especially now that I know that my silence betrays what my inner self longs to say. The trouble begins when I am caught in the moment and am unable to craft a sensible, meaningful, compassionate response. I seem to be unable to think on my feet, and I end up flustered, tripping over my words. The Lord blessed me with many gifts, but spontaneity of speech is not one of them. In fact, it usually follows that after I speak, I become worried that perhaps my silence would have been more “golden” than the inadequate words I uttered.

Let me recount a recent experience to give you an idea of how my fear of saying the wrong thing often paralyzes me into saying what amounts to virtually nothing at all. I was taking my second grade students to their computer lab class one Friday, and the class before us wasn’t quite finished yet. As we stood outside waiting to be invited in to the computer lab, my students noticed that they had a substitute teacher for computer lab time.

“Aww, Ms. Morgan isn’t here today,” I heard some students whisper to one another.

A couple of the boys in my class, however, were quite pumped to have a young male substitute teacher, and they made comments about having never had a “boy teacher” before. It seemed as though the suggestion of a male teacher in the classroom was somewhat foreign to them. In a quiet voice, I reminded them that we had plenty of “boy teachers” at our school, and I started to name off our principal, PE coaches, and others when I was rudely interrupted by one of my students who commented that the only boy (adult boy that is) at the school was the janitor.

In an attempt to help him – and his classmates – understand that we can learn from people in all kinds of positions, I asked, “Well, can a janitor be a teacher?  Can you learn something from your janitor?” To which the boy offensively replied, “Yeah, I learn something from my janitor every day. . . that I don’t want to be one!”

Of course, his classmates laughed and snickered at his comment, while I found myself aching to interject something meaningful. But I was at a complete loss for words. Why was I, a seasoned teacher, not able to say something that might cause this young boy and his classmates to re-examine their belief systems? Was I afraid I might say the wrong thing? Was I worried that it would lead to a risky discussion? I’m still mad at myself for not having the perfect “comeback” to the boy’s snide remark. My belief system was screaming at me on the inside because what he said was hurtful and judgmental, but why did I struggle so much with what to say?

In retrospect, I can think of all kinds of things I could have said to inform my students about things we can learn from our janitor: how to fix desks, how to work a walkie-talkie, how to use equipment to safely move large objects, how to keep spaces clean, how to be sanitary, how to schedule jobs, how to earn the respect of others. The list could go on and on. But that’s just it. The lessons aren’t nearly as powerful after the fact. I’ve discovered a need for myself as an educator. I need some training on how to be a more critical educator and what to do when I find myself wading through the murky waters of social justice issues. I want to prove to myself that what is golden is not silence but an ability to speak words that transform the minds of students and allow them to see situations differently. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I couldn’t agree more.

Scattered Thoughts

I saw you for the last time today. I didn’t want to leave you alone yesterday. All by yourself with your loved ones gone. Just like I didn’t want to leave you today laying at the top of a hill. Good news is your daughter is close to you.

Everyone commented on how good you looked. But I didn’t think you looked good. I knew what they meant but I’m positive they agree – I liked you better when you were alive.

Warm skin. Tight embrace. Involuntary and voluntary motions. Warm blood. Beating heart. Comforting accented voice.

I couldn’t bring myself to kiss your forehead. That’s always the part of funerals that I hate. I hate touching the body and feeling how cold and hard it is. You go from soft and fleshy to cold and lifeless. I kept trying to see the rise and fall of your chest. It didn’t happen.

I touched your arm and it felt like my chest was going to rip open. The heaviness was unbearable. The tears wanted to flow with the accompaniment of a painful scream. I think I manage to hold myself together pretty well in public.

I went into the bathroom and cried and asked you to forgive me.

I remember kissing my great grandma on the forehead when I had to pay my respects. The coldness lingered on my lips for hours.

When we were saying farewell to your physical form, I fixed the flower in front of your daughter’s grave. It felt like grieving for two people at once.

You would have been so happy to see everyone in the family there today.

People socializing and eating. Laughing and crying. Kids running around and playing with one another. New life.

Your other daughter played a song you really liked. The lyrics said “don’t cry for me.” I know you wouldn’t want us to be sad because you always said you would be in a better place.

Everyone kept saying how much fun you and your daughter must be having in Heaven right now. I hope that’s true.

The Priest today mentioned a biblical verse that referenced the dead to those asleep. I’d like to think of it that way instead. A deep slumber.

Grief hits you in the oddest of ways. One day you think of the person gone and you feel heavy but you breathe and know you will be alright. Then you’re in Target and are reminded in some way and start to tear up in the middle of Target. Holding some obscure random object. The next you’re out with friends and laughing at something stupid. You’re reminded that it will be alright.

The laughter feels like a release. It feels good. Then you’re walking down 86th street in Brooklyn listening to salsa music and the singer says in Spanish: “This is my grandmother’s music” and you feel a rip of pain. Then to top it off he also mentions Puerto Rico’s dish, Cuchifrito, the nickname you always called me, and you feel like breaking even more. It’s a wonder you don’t stumble over and cry in the middle of the street.

I miss you. The house is not the same without you. No one is the same without you. I miss you.

I wish I could hold you again but those wishes will not come true. I still wrestle with whether there is an afterlife or not. I hope one day you prove to me that there is one. Show me a sign.

Grief reminds you that you also have a life to live. Even though it’s painful. Even though you’re without that person. Weed out the negative and destructive relationships in your life. If you have to question a friendship more times than you can think of reasons to value it, that’s a red flag. It’s a cliché saying but life is too short. It’s cliché for a reason, it resonates with enough people. It holds truth. I still have another grandmother to love. I still have my parents to love. I still have my friends to create memories with. I still have countries to visit and be fascinated by. I still have lives that I haven’t touched. I still have to see the little ones grow up and be wonderful beings. I still haven’t experienced falling in love. I am still someone’s niece, cousin, Titi, daughter and friend. Maybe even someone’s future mother.

Get that drink with your cousin who you haven’t seen in a while. Form new healthy and exciting relationships. Do something you are afraid of. Tell people how you feel about them, when you feel it. Hug and kiss them whenever you have the chance. Live spontaneously. Be nicer to your parents. Even though you think they will never understand you, they’ve had their fair share of pain and struggle too. Stop holding so much inside. Let it out. Even if you have a 9-to-5 job you don’t really like in order to pay bills, do something outside of that job that gives you purpose and makes you happy. Then, slowly but surely leave that job to replace it with one you do like. Take more steps to stop being so angry. Why are you so angry? Leave the past where it is. It will never change and it’s not coming back. And maybe, that’s a good thing. Stop holding other people’s opinions so valuable when you do not even agree with them. You think they’re idiots anyway. Read a new book. You do not have to go to school in order to constantly learn new things. Stop wasting time. Your time is very valuable and every day you are alive is one day closer to your expiration date.

My first semester of college, my favorite professor asked us how often we think about death. I told him I think about it all the time.

Know that you are not immortal. Let that settle in. Now, go from there.

Mr. Thorne

At 9 a.m. sharp, Mr. Thorne would burst into room 306 and make his way to the chalkboard in quick strides. He always carried a heap of handouts and, depending on whether or not he owed us graded papers, a big manila folder. As he placed the pile carefully on his oak desk, I’d notice his body relax slightly.

It was almost like watching a robot transform into a human. The tense, blank facial expression that I usually saw in the hallways became somewhat calmer in the classroom. The rigid posture slowly melted away. And his eyes, usually void of emotion, suddenly looked like they were full of life. After taking a quick look around the classroom, he’d sift through the pile until he found his sheet of notes. Then, he would turn to write our first assignment on the board.

Often times, he would quietly hum, too. He’d gaze back at his sheet after writing each sentence and slightly bob his head as if he were listening to a great song rather than reading through his notes. And when he finished, he would put the chalk down, walk around to the front of his desk and sit there in silence with his arms folded, watching us calmly.

We would chatter on like a choir of angry birds, but within a minute, the noise would dwindle to silence and Mr. Thorne would have our complete attention. You could hear a pen click or a chair squeak. His silence was always loud enough to shut us up fairly quickly.

But one morning in February, I sat among the angry birds in silence. As Mr. Thorne waited for the class to quiet down, my eyes darted to the big manila folder that, I was pretty sure, contained our graded papers on what it means to be human.

Mr. Thorne finally cleared his throat and announced that he finished grading everyone’s papers. My heart skipped a few beats and my body tensed. He had the class take a vote on when he should return our papers, and not surprisingly, all of us voted to have our papers given back right away.

This was it.

I was the third student to receive my essay. I held my breath as he came to me with my paper in his outstretched hand, looping the sheets in half in order to cover my grade from any onlookers. I took a deep breath and peeked at the grade he’d written at the top.

“F.”

For a minute I went numb. Then I read what he wrote underneath that grade: Please see me after class.

I could not think straight. My class had to discuss the first few chapters of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that day, but I didn’t pay the slightest attention. All I could think about was that grade.

I couldn’t fathom how he could possibly think that this paper I spent so much time on was bad. Had I completely missed the point of that assignment? Did I make too many mistakes? Did I write too little? Or too much?

After fifty minutes of spacing out and worrying about this paper, I practically ran straight to my teacher when the class ended. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like my essay. This one grade was already beginning to make me doubt my talent as a writer. In fact, I was heart-broken. I was worried that maybe I wasn’t as good a writer as I always thought. Was I only fooling myself?

We sat down to talk after the class left, and I was relieved to see that his human side was still there. The chalkboard was crammed with notes from that day’s class, and on his desk sat a battered copy of Atlas Shrugged, his sheet of notes and a messy pile of extra handouts. He gestured for me to hand him my paper and I relaxed a little, but I was still worried. He made space on his desk and then browsed through my essay as if to re-familiarize himself with it.

These were his first words: “I could that tell you worked really hard on this. It’s definitely well-written, no punctuation or spelling errors, and that’s great. But, my concern is, when you’re describing humans, you’re not digging deep enough.” I nodded and allowed him to continue, expecting this to be a one-way conversation. But to my surprise, he said: “Forget about this paper for a minute and tell me, in your own words, what you think it means to be a human being. Don’t think in terms of physical attributes, think of human behavior or attitudes. How are they psychologically, or emotionally?” He folded his arms and stared at me, waiting.

“Well,” I mumbled, “Humans are not perfect… They make mistakes. And they feel many emotions…” I paused. “They’re complex… They’re rational people.”

“Okay, great start,” he said. “But let me ask you something. If I didn’t have arms, or hands, or legs, would that mean I’m no longer human?” I answered right away, “Of course not.”

But then he gave me a slight smirk and pointed to my paper. “But your essay seems to argue otherwise. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“Aahhhh… Right.” And in that moment I looked at my paper with new eyes. I was beginning to understand what I needed to do to improve this piece. He went through my paper in more detail and discussed which parts I should consider keeping or eliminating, and by the end of our meeting, my essay was practically splattered with green ink. He had crossed out about half of the writing on my first page, and small notes were scribbled along the margins with no white space left to spare. He must have seen the look on my face as I noticed this, because before I left, he said, “Don’t be discouraged by the grade, I know you’re a good writer. Just take your time with this re-write and think about what I said. The comments are there to help you.”

For the next two days I worked really hard on that re-write, and I ended up with an A-. Below that grade read the comment: This is a big improvement from your first paper. Very well-written. Keep up the good work. I couldn’t help but smile with pride.

It was actually at that point when I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I decided that I wanted to become a writer. I was now confident that I could hone my skills and grow as a writer like I did in that class. And I was no longer afraid to look into a book that had enough difficult phrases to sound like a completely different language. But even more importantly, I couldn’t have made this decision without that teacher’s encouragement. Although he made it clear that a failing grade or negative feedback should not discourage me, I found that this one failure motivated me to make that choice.