My summer didn’t start great, if I’m honest, and I’m going to try my best to be honest.
Less than 24 hours after the last day of the worst ever year of teaching, I was sitting with this guy I’ve known forever. He was telling me that in his building, a building I have never stepped foot in, and with less than a handful of people I’ve ever met, there were rumors being spread about me. He wouldn’t tell me what those rumors were, just that they were bad, and that he had heard them from a few different people.
I don’t know who they are, the people talking about me there. I don’t know what they’re saying, and I haven’t really stopped thinking about it since.
There are probably people who can brush this stuff off, and there are probably times I could have done so. Not this time, though. This time, those voices that tell me I am unliked and unlikable, that people talk about me when I’m not around, discuss my failings and faults, those voices were handed this piece of hard evidence that they were right.
It would be easier if I could convince myself that anyone talking bad about me is lying or misinformed, but that’s not honest, even if I can honestly say it was never my intention. I can only spend hours upon hours going through past interactions, confrontations, connections, asking what could have been interpreted or experienced differently, asking what I missed, what I messed up. I’ve been spinning on this endlessly.
It has not been a great summer.
I’m reminded of a very weird dinner a few years ago. I was out with someone whose wife happened to also work in education. Remembering it later, it seemed like her wife was acting weird towards me, but that may just be the way I remember it. Maybe she was just waiting to ask me this one question, which was about what horrible thing I had done to my friend Tim.
Tim was a teacher in her school. At the beginning of that year, Tim had brought me up regularly in staff meetings, recounting conversations we’d had about teaching and stuff. He obviously thought I was pretty great. As the year went on though, Tim had fewer nice things to say about me, she said, and soon nearly every staff meeting involved at least one rant from Tim about how full of shit I was. It was obvious to all that we were close and that I had done something awful that had broken that friendship, that had harmed Tim.
Oh. Um, except… I had never met Tim. Not once. I did not know this dude.
This is the only time I can remember that someone invented an entire relationship with me, but they are out there, people who don’t know me but are convinced they do. Every so often, I hear about what they say about me, which only makes me wonder how often I don’t hear about it.
There’s a line in there somewhere, a line between talking shit because the internet makes us all worse people sometimes, and valid and valuable criticism, which can suck and hurt and be uncomfortable but also help me be better in ways that I want to be better.
It’s weird. I mean, I kinda get it. As far as teachers go, I’m pretty visible. I joke sometimes that I am a regional sub-culture mini-celebrity because I don’t know what else to say when people know who I am. I’m out there and loud enough that I’m sure plenty of people have opinions about me as a writer or a teacher or a person, and why not share them since I’m just this dude on twitter or who wrote that one thing that one time? I kinda get it, but it’s weird, and it messes me up, if I’m honest.
It’s also been a summer of absent friends, and that hasn’t helped. Spending too much time alone has given my brain time to really sink in and spiral on all the people I’m pretty sure don’t like me and why.
I have a good idea, I think, of what they say about me.
They say I’m not radical enough, or not in the right ways.
They say I’m too radical, too confrontational or controversial to get things done.
They say I’m too egotistical, too cocky.
They say I’m too unprofessional, too unacademic, too showy.
They say I get too much credit as a white man for talking about anti-racism.
They say I’m too abrasive, too offensive, too insensitive.
I don’t always know who they are. Some days, my brain tells me they are just about everyone. On other days I start to name them. On those days, I spend too much time thinking about what they say about me. I carry all these things that no one has actually said to me, except I’m sure that they do.
They are, honestly, ultimately, the voices in my head, the stories I tell myself. They aren’t wrong, really, about any of the things they say about me. In the healthiest moments of this summer though, I’ve been trying to remind myself that those stories are incomplete.
Another school year starts soon, one that I still can’t imagine having the strength for. The start of school will be followed shortly by the release of a book I sewed roughly from pieces cut from my chest, stomach, and neck to be presented to the world for their judgement.
I know that trying to make people like me who don’t is fruitless, doubly so when I’m inventing or exaggerating how they feel. After a defeating and depression-riddled year, I know I was looking for affirmation and approval from others, which was making me a lot more vulnerable to the worst stories in my head. Some of the hardest work I’ve done is staying honest with myself, making sure my actions and intentions line up with my values.
I’ve made a list of things I like about myself. I tried to be honest. I made a list of things I’ve done I’m proud of, another of the work I see ahead of me. I tried hard to be honest.
The more confident I am that the work I’m doing, the way I’m doing it, the way I treat others, the reflection and growth I am engaged in; done in ways I am proud of, that are good and for good, the less and less I am worried about what they say about me.