Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Who are you? How do you know?

Tomorrow, I'll post this question on the board and ask my AP Seniors to answer it. If history serves, and I have been asking this questions for years, 8 out of 10 of them will give me their names and say something like "I know because it's on my birth certificate" or "that's what everyone calls me." I will then ask them how many of them chose their names and a room full of people will look at me like I've lost my mind. So why ask this obviously ridiculous question? To highlight the fact that so much of how we see ourselves is established through the eyes and minds of others. We are about to embark on a unit that focuses on establishing identity and I want them to ask themselves who and what they truly are. Inevitably, I end up asking myself the same question. Who am I? How do I know? The truth is in the six years I've been asking that question of others, my own answer has evolved. Six years ago I had a newly-minted MFA degree, I was a first year teacher, I had no teenage children. Nearly everything about me was changing. I felt a sort of kinship with the students in the room, all was potential, the future lay before me. In the six years since I first asked that question many things have changed. Some for the better, others for the worse.
So what is it in us that leads us to identify ourselves through the lens of other people? I'm a teacher, I know this, at least in part, because I show up every day at a school and introduce or reinforce material to students. I am a mother, I know this because much of my day revolves around meeting the needs of my teenage kids. Wife? Sister? Friend? All of these are relational definitions of myself. I am these things because of other people. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily but I cannot help but wonder who I would be if suddenly all this were removed. Who would you be?
I urge my students to define themselves, to push past what others have established as their identity and to find and hold onto whatever it is that they actually value. The book we center all this around? The Color Purple by Alice Walker. The novel is, in many ways, a harrowing look at a voiceless, abused woman who struggles to determine who she is in relation to a world that devalues both her gender and her race. Most of my students cannot relate to the life Celie (the narrator) lives, they are mostly white, upper-middle class, and well-educated. They have not lived under the boot of oppression or poverty but each and every one of them is, like Celie, in the process of discovering their own voice. What a thrilling thing it is for me to get a chance to observe this process, what a terrible inspiration it often is to try to redefine my own identity.
There's an old adage about living many lives in the course of your one life and the older I get the more truth this seems to hold. I have been many things over the course of only forty two (okay almost forty three) years and some of them are so different that it often seems their coexistence in a single person must be impossible. I struggled for ten years with an eating disorder that nearly cost me everything. I remember clearly rationing out 200 calories a day in meat and consuming nothing else but tea and broth for the rest of the day. I remember hip bones and ribs that protruded so far as to be my most prominent feature. I did not feel hunger for nearly 15 years though I know this sounds impossible. I was that person once, though I'd barely recognize her now.
I am a mother, both biological and adoptive. I remember clearly my daughter's birth and the separate arrivals of my two sons. I remember time out chairs, making homemade baby food, taking my sons to speech therapists, kindergarten, high school. I stayed home with them for years. I was stay-at-home-mom, maker of dinner, cleaner of toilets, babysitter. All of this was a world away from in-patient hospitals for eating disorders.
I am a college graduate, a woman who finished college while caring for three kids. I'm a success but I am also a failure. I have often failed to keep my temper, to keep the house clean, to attend to the ego of my husband. I failed to anticipate the needs of one child because I was so focused on the other. I have failed to keep confidences, appointments, promises. My failures are as much a part of me as my successes, maybe more.
Tomorrow when my students leave my room some of them will wonder if they really even know who they are. Hopefully they'll question why so much of their identity is defined by their roles in relation to others. Maybe one or two will begin to re-envision themselves, the really bright ones will know that the question I've asked is one they'll spend a lifetime answering, that in their lifetimes they will be many things, not all of them good but all of them things from which they can divine great wisdom. They must, however, be willing to ask the question many times and accept the fluctuations in their answers if they hope to establish any meaningful identity.
As for me I'll keep asking that same question year after year and getting slightly different answers ever time. There's freedom in that. So who am I? Am I the nurturing friend or the lonely isolationist? Am I the conservative mother or the liberal, free-spirited artist? Am I the teacher or the student? The truth is I am all these things. I am a paradox, a contradiction, a fluke, aren't we all?