Students, Vanity Fair, and #MeToo

Last December, my daughter, Lucy True, was born into a world that included a man who had openly bragged about sexually assaulting  women being voted into our highest office. Thank God she was also born into a time when women finally got tired of taking it. I love that we are now in a #MeToo era because that is what my daughters will inherit. They, too get to matter. They, too get to own what happens to their bodies.

I wish I had spoken up when I was in my first teaching position and the special education teacher came into my classroom. He put his foot up on my desk and announced that though his wife wasn’t interested in sex anymore, he was. This from a colleague I had said hello to once at the copy machine. I spoke to the union rep who told me that I had to make it clear to him that he was being inappropriate before anyone from the union could speak to him. This was when I was 23. I was too shy to tell a waitress that I would like creamer for my coffee, let alone tell a colleague at my new job that he was being inappropriate. That, and I thought it was just me. I thought there was something was wrong with me and that was why I was targeted.

A former model, Paulina Porizkova, recently described sexual harassment as a “compliment.” She, too, took it personally. She took it to mean that she was found pretty and therefore “worthy” of harassment. But sexual harassment and sexual assault are not personal.

Now, after each new wave of #MeToos, it concretizes for me how un-personal sexual harassment and assault is. In fact, it is the depersonalization aspect that makes this a predatory behavior, and that affects everyone. If it was never about me, then others were at risk too. I know now that me not speaking up meant he could have gone on to harass other female faculty members, or, even more appalling as I think about it now, female students.

Which brings me to JLo’s booty. Now, I need to make it clear that I’m not anti-booty. My favorite booty shots include Beyonce’s covered-though fabulous performance in “Single Ladies” seen here and Pink’s booty shot during an ethereal “Glitter in the Air” performance at the Grammys, seen here.

This photo, though, the one of JLo’s booty?
IMG_3688This was in the December 2017 issue of Vanity Fair. The photo of the booty is in a spread about JLo’s and A-Rod’s relationship. My first thought? She does have a nice booty. My second thought? Something about this bugs.

Again, to be clear, I’m not putting down JLo’s booty. I think the reason why this photo bugs, though, is that it is HIS hand that is pulling up her skirt to reveal her butt. And their faces are turned as if someone is watching a scene that is private. Kind of like a photo that gets passed around social media without the person in the photo giving consent. And those two aspects together create a different narrative than JLo simply hiking up her skirt to show off her assets–or Beyonce strutting her stuff with her dancers. No one watching Bey could say that she doesn’t own every bit of her performance and her body. But this photo? It feels off.

I know, I know: It’s a lot of fuss over a photo. On one hand, I could say the photo is about about JLo, her butt, and if we only had perfect butts too, we would be wearing the diamond studded undies. But this picture isn’t about a perfect butt. It’s about a man taking control over a woman’s butt, and that ain’t personal: It’s the very kind of depersonalization–dehumanization–that the #MeToo movement is calling out.

If my older daughter is going to show her booty to an audience, then believe me, at three years old and a raging threenager, that girl is going to show off those buns. But I don’t ever want her to think that letting someone else show her butt to the world, in a magazine or social media, is okay. And I have to teach her that. Because if Vanity Fair didn’t get the memo, at least my threenager will.

This is a critical moment in time when women are speaking up about our rights to our bodies, and our students and children are paying attention. How we talk about what is happening will determine whether children and teenagers will feel they have a right to speak up too. Kids don’t have much life experience and even less life context, but adults do. We can let them know that we have their backs if they speak up. They aren’t to blame, they aren’t alone, and they matter as people who own their own bodies. But empowering our children starts with talking about what is happening in the news, what is wrong with this photo, and saying out loud to my threenager and to my students why I wish I had spoken up seventeen years ago.

And, looking at JLo’s expression here, I do wonder if a more appropriate caption for this photo might read: Me Too. 

 

Identifiers for sexual abuse in teenagers CAN include:

  1. Tattoos
  2. Excessive piercings
  3. Hair color that is unnatural (pink, blue, green, etc.)
  4. Cutting
  5. Wearing emo or goth clothing.
  6. Not bathing
  7. Overtly sexual behavior
  8. Drug or alcohol abuse

These are all ways that teenagers take back ownership of their bodies.

To bring this information to your school in the form of a workshop, go to JessieDorin.com or email JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

The Gifts of Imperfection in the Classroom

My teaching isn’t perfect, my family was not perfect, and, as far a personal development, I have a long way to go. So why am I supposed to pretend otherwise when I step in front of impressionable teenagers who are looking at me to model what it is to be a human in the world?

I don’t know about you, but on the one day my principal steps into my classroom to evaluate me during during fall semester, it is easy enough to trot out a tried-and-true, dog-and-pony-show. Observation days never reflect the real shit-shows that can go down at any moment when a lesson goes south due to…anything: A sleepy, surly class, a projector not working, the copier not working, the internet down, my brain dulled from a baby up all night and not enough sleep…Anything.

Whomever made up the model for evaluating teachers clearly wasn’t anyone familiar with teaching. A students’ progress cannot be measured by a single test, and a teachers’ efficacy in the classroom cannot be measured by two observations a year. Principals are looking for perfection, and perfectionism doesn’t belong in the classroom. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as: “… the 20 lb. shield. It doesn’t protect us from being hurt, it protects us from being seen.” It also prevents us from being human with one another. It prevents us from connecting.

Perfectionism in the classroom prevents students from being able to connect to each other and to their teacher. Not only are teachers trying to keep up an image, but students are desperately trying to fit into a mold that only exists as a social construct. They want to appear cool, attractive, intelligent, and all of the other status markers that are so important when your identity is being formed in the midst of being judged by your peers. Teenagers don’t know that having all of those characteristics is not only unrealistic, it’s not even human.

We are born into imperfect bodies, imperfect families, and imperfect communities…by design. When teachers can’t be safely vulnerable with their students, they give off the impression that to err in any way (in class, in your past, with friends, etc.) is so shameful that we don’t even talk about it. How then can teens make sense of families that have human dysfunction: Alcoholism, neglect, verbal and physical abuse, mental illness? The list goes on and on. We’ll have to hide those too.

I wrote in my last blog about students who hide their trauma in plain sight. How close can those students feel to a teacher who keeps up a front of perfection or cannot reveal any vulnerable event from the teacher’s own past?

I wish I had learned about the power of vulnerability in the classroom at the continuation schools, but it was at a high-achieving high school when I tried out vulnerability and was shocked at the results. Here was a school with parents who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Students at this school lacked for nothing and had every privilege afforded to the ultra wealthy….and these kids were falling apart. 

Because my teaching assignment included culture and identity in literature, for the first time in my teaching career, I decided to share my identity and culture with the class. I told them early on about my bipolar dad, my fear of him, and the fact that I wish I had told an adult about it when I was in high school. All of this without details that might trigger students and without a poor-me-look-at-me attitude: Much like I might summarize something for a much younger audience. Combined with specialized ice breakers and prompts designed to bring the class together, I had more students reveal crises and traumas to me than in the last 12 years working with high-trauma populations.

Everyone is looking for connection, Brene Brown tells us. It is as vital as food, water, and shelter. We can’t be connected if we are putting up false images of ourselves. Besides, it’s way more interesting to see how we are similar in our humanity and reach out to each other for help than it is to pretend we are islands of perfection. I referred so many more students for counseling when I gave up the idea that the teacher should be perfect and started modeling for students, in a guided, safe way, that to err is human: Every family, every community, and every person is flawed and we are all working on our humanity–why not do it together?

Contact me at JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school to speak about vulnerability and hidden student trauma in the classroom.

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In Plain Sight: What We Miss When Talking About Student Trauma

8E2AAA1D-6FE2-4F1D-8677-B0C048ACC812If a tree falls in the woods…no, wait. If a student experiences a traumatic event but no adult authority figure acknowledges it, does that event have devastating long-term affects? Always, the research says.

And that has been my experience too.

Way back in 1997, the now-renown ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences), documented that traumas in childhood predictably alters the quality of a person’s life FOR the duration of their lifetime (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, divorce, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). 70% of all US citizens have at least a score of 1 ACE. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases by 20 years.

Rut -roh

Unless…

ONE caring adult finds out about the trauma, acknowledges it, and provides a stable, caring sounding board for the student. It is the first proven mitigating factor in the long-term devastating effects of trauma.

It starts with knowing what constitutes trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences. A parent who is emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or sexually abusive easily comes to mind. But what about the parent who threw the pan at my best friend’s head, hitting the wall instead? “She missed,” my friend said. “That’s not physical abuse.” Which is why we have to be taught what is abuse in childhood. Yes, a pan at the head, whether it hits you or not, is physical abuse. Divorce is trauma to a child. So is homelessness, homophobia to a student who is gay, or a father berating a mother.

It turns out, when the list of traumas that affect students’ developing brains and bodies is spelled out in its entirety, very few of us have been exempt.

Which brings me to the one place that is teeming with kids from trauma backgrounds and could use an adult stepping in….schools.

For 12 years, I worked in a last-chance high school full of students who wore trauma around their necks in the form of placards of friends and family killed. Some students even tattooed RIPs onto their bodies as reminders of loved ones gone. These were clues in plain sight. No detective work required. Still, for too many of those years, I lumped traumas together (family member out of the picture, a friend killed, a major illness in the family) and avoided asking about personal specifics.

But unhappiness is always personal.

I didn’t ask about the student hurts in plain sight because I didn’t want to make students sad or embarrassed. I thought it was better if I didn’t remind students of people gone, sadness in their pasts. Only, RIP tattoos are there because someone wanted to etch a heartache into their DNA to make visible a person who is absent.

Trauma is personal and no two traumas are alike. Addressing trauma is the least a teacher can do, and I should have known that. What I needed to say was, “Tell me about the person whose picture is around your neck. What were they like?” or “Your mom died. That’s so sad. Tell me about her.” 

The reason I should have known that is because I was that kid. I lived in fear of my bipolar dad. In high school, my dad was arrested at my brother’s ballgame for harassing my stepdad. Handcuffs and flashing lights in front of what felt like half my school.

In response to chaos at home, I started leaving school early several times a week. My grades dropped. On the softball field, I went from team MVP to a player who couldn’t catch any ball hit to right field. Trauma in plain sight. But no one wanted to embarrass me by saying something.

I saw my school counselor when she called me in for my once-a-year check-in. I could tell she didn’t know me at all–we’d only met once before. I got decent grades and wasn’t a behavior issue. She didn’t ask about my home life. She did ask what I wanted to be. I said a fireman or astronaut because they were sarcastic cliches. She wrote them down and didn’t ask questions.

After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut-roh.

Unless…The one factor that can mitigate the devastating effects of childhood trauma includes one caring adult. On a Friday during my sophomore year of high school, I was in Dr. Wendell’s science class, crying behind my hair. He saw me and handed me a tissue. On Monday, he said, “I was thinking about you. I was worried.” And I rejoined humanity.

That was everything, and that is least a teacher or a counselor can can do. Because school staff are the people students see most often. School staff are the people students look to as the authority figures when their parents are not there.

That’s why school staff are the detectives AND first responders in hidden student trauma. When clues are there, we have to ask about them. Someone could have asked me, “Jessie, I saw your dad getting arrested at the ball game. That’s awful. How are you?” It’s not nosey. It’s caring. I was thinking about it anyway. When you talk about it, you take shame’s stinger out. It is 

I didn’t recognize my trauma overwhelm until a female student, a girl who’d had wild mood swings in class, stayed with me one afternoon finishing an assignment. I’d asked her to describe an important moment in her past. She wrote about when her mom died from cancer, how her dad didn’t know what to do, and how her teachers didn’t talk to her about it. It was then that she started acting out. The next year, her brother was shot and killed. She changed schools and started getting in trouble, and still, no one asked her what was wrong. No one at her new school knew her past. No one was playing detective. No one allowed her to share that her mom had died, giving her a chance to have a caring adult acknowledge that it was so, so sad. And her brother had died. And that was a whole different kind of sad. We talked about it as she wrote out her story, and her behavior in school improved dramatically.

Signs of Trauma: Trauma is there in plain sight in students who act out, students who drastically alter their appearance, students who come to class on mind-altering substances, those who cut, those who cut class, and those who suddenly change demeanor.

Hidden trauma can only be revealed through the right kind of prompts and through the vulnerability school staff are willing to exhibit. Once I figured out that what I did as a teacher created opportunities for students to reveal hidden student trauma, my world changed, as did the lives of my students.

I never push students to tell me information. I think of classroom prompts as dropping a line without a hook: I’m just seeing if the fish has been waiting there, wanting to bite, and has never been given a chance. I use non-invasive, content appropriate prompts for students to share about themselves. I structure the shares so that students can reveal a safe amount to their classmates and more to me if they want to. My workshop on Hidden Student Trauma has worksheets and guidelines for safe prompts and teacher-led student sharing.

I used to think I’d have to BE a counselor in order to have an empathetic response. Then I took a 9 month life coaching course and learned that everyone can respond to hurt with a compassionate, “That sounds hard. Tell me more.” Some students elaborate, others just relate that is IS hard, it WAS hard, and it continues to BE hard. That, as it turns out, is enough.

I always refer students to the school’s counselor, citing my concerns. I also tell the student that I have referred them for counseling, generally with the fear-calming, “Have you met the counselor? Let me walk you down to their office. Counselors are great people to talk to.”

We model care, compassion, and ask the uncomfortable questions that bring the hurt into the light where it can start to heal. Teachers, counselors, and school staff rock like that.

To have me speak at your school about combating visible and hidden student trauma, email me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

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