Aliya* has had a difficult term. Her study habits are an area of extreme weakness; she is often unorganized and struggles to stay focused. There are times when instead of attending to class discussions, she engages in side conversations. Other times, she will miss key information and not copy notes into her notebook. Aliya has also been struggling with comprehending information. I am unclear as to what she fully understands and what she finds confusing, because she rarely completes work in class and the homework she submits often does not reflect her own, original thinking. Aliya’s grade this quarter indicates that she has not met the standards of Humanities 7, and I welcome an opportunity to meet as a team to explore interventions that may offer Aliya valuable support.
When I wrote this comment I had been teaching for 13 years. At the time, I was covering a class outside of my certified content area because the school couldn’t find anyone qualified or experienced enough to teach the curriculum. Intent on creating the best classroom experience possible, my students and I covered the material from the textbook with curiosity and enthusiasm. Even so, I couldn’t figure out how to keep Aliya from falling through the cracks. After receiving the report card, her parents called to schedule an appointment. Our meeting, and the subsequent weeks, still serve as one of the most humbling and enlightening experiences of my life.
Her mother spoke first. “Don’t you have anything good to say about my daughter? You give me this long list of everything she’s doing wrong, but you didn’t write one thing positive. Not one thing that she is doing right.”
That caught me off guard, and of course, she was right. I always began comments with an affirming observation. I still marvel at that oversight. “Aliya comes to class every day and is always seated and ready when the bell rings.”
“Every day. And she is never late?”
“She has never been late.”
“Do you know how hard it is for her to come to your class? When she knows she is failing, she still comes to class on time and is ready to work.”
This was the first in a series of revelations that challenged my perceptions and forced me to question what I was teaching. It’s not about content. The targets transcend topic sentences and historical timelines. It reflects an openness to learn, change, and reconcile newly formed impressions. At this Aliya excelled, though the odds were not in her favor. English was not Aliya’s first language. She had a newly diagnosed learning disorder. She was a Middle Schooler, with all the hormones and hardships that that brings. And yet she was defiantly determined. Showing up every day, on time, in her seat with notebook out and pencil ready, this was Aliya’s first layer of competence. Consistent practice of a basic skill that she COULD DO.
As the meeting progressed, Aliya spoke of her personal concerns and struggles. I expressed mine. We understood each other.
Her next report card read:
Aliya has demonstrated that she is a conscientious student, concerned about the quality of her work. She has been consistently submitting assignments, meeting deadlines, contributing to class conversations, and asking important clarifying questions. This quarter she has taken responsibility for her learning and has been tremendously successful.
Aliya transformed herself. She had plenty of excuses that could have justified her initial failure. But rather than submit to them, resigned to her circumstances, she confronted the issue, embraced the challenge, stuck to her plan, and became a model of independence and success. Aliya was not a victim, she was a victor. She reminded me what it means to embody strength and what is necessary for growth, two values that I had overlooked. Now, I explicitly instruct my students in these essential behaviors: What is not working? What would you prefer to happen? What actions are required to achieve that? Regularly posing these questions can break the habit of learned helplessness and empower students.
Aliya’s story is remarkable for several reasons, firstly, because in our world of life hacks, instant gratification, TL;DR, and “multitasking”, this 12 year old harnessed a sense of foresight and discipline that most adults fail to muster. Beyond this, Aliya was able to overcome the fear of change. How many of us would endure an uncomfortable or even detrimental situation simply because it was familiar? She executed change where others would not. That fact is what leads to what I consider the most striking feature of Aliya’s story. She took action. Deliberate, intentional, timely action that significantly impacted her life and the way she viewed herself. She was not a victim. She was not a failure. She was competent. She was independent. She was in control of her actions, and thus, had choices and power.
I would argue that the victim label is a state of mind, one of learned helplessness which traps an individual into limiting beliefs. Even in extreme cases, a child being sexually abused, there is still the option of refusing to be a victim. Yes, the molestor’s sickening betrayal and breach of trust is an unequivocal form of victimization. However, insisting the child is a victim is to deny her the chance to perceive herself as a fighter, to seek ingenious ways of escape, to affirm her inner strength, and to instill in her the truth that she will be able to self actualize one day. Thrusting a child into victimhood is a sure way to impose a sense of trauma and prevent (thwart) healing.
From what we now know about epigenetics, stress and trauma can manifest in the expression of genes, which has ramifications for countless generations, as parents carry their trauma, their genes, and the potential expression long into the future. It is a dismal genetic forecast. Fortunately, neuroplasticity provides an antidote. The brain can literally rewrite pathways and forge new patterns, but it requires ongoing practice to establish and maintain this constant growth. Esteemed physicians and researchers Gabor Mate, Bessel Vander Kolk, and Peter Levine have continued to explore the powerful hold that trauma has on the body, and highlight the life changing effects that occur once the trauma is released, whereas, a prisoner of victim mentality will be hard pressed to consider the possibility that he is in control and that he can create another way.
Balancing these two neurophysiological miracles is both formidable and inspiring. Yet, for some reason, people today search for reasons to claim victim status. The range of grievances, offenses, and affronts is not necessarily shocking; humans have been behaving badly for thousands of years. The desire that people have to relinquish their control and self determination is puzzling though. Someone who was victimized might not have been responsible for his current state. However, achieving his desired future is his responsibility.
But why is it so hard to embrace our power and pursue a new path? Beyond the initial effort of organizing and executing, there exists the challenge of maintaining, holding on to the new life that we worked to achieve. Often, this change is at odds with other aspects of our life. And here is where we venture into uncharted territory, because in order to maintain a change, we must shed the unhelpful beliefs, incompatible values, and unsupportive people hindering our efforts. We must look at our naked selves and take stock. In order to reinvent ourselves and redefine our identity, we must be willing to release all that ties us to the pain – including the constructed version of our former self, lest we remain victims.
There are myriad theories, therapies, practices and postulates that can facilitate the reflection and strengthen resolve to act. It’s essential to approach all of them with an open mind and willingness to discover how each can serve us. The common denominator for success is consistent practice. As Sheryl Sandberg poignantly notes, “Done is better than perfect.”
Indeed. Aliya came to class. On time. Every day. Was her participation perfect? Absolutely not. But she got it done and established her baseline for success. From there, she tackled her next habit, and the next, and the next until all her student behaviors were automatic. This is the first step. Identify what needs to be done and do it.
The second step flows seamlessly into the third. Find your network of support and use it in the face of challenges. Obviously easier said than done. For some, confronting an issue is a frightful and anxiety provoking ordeal and emphasizes the necessity of having appropriate resources to help handle inevitable obstacles. Family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and students can all provide valuable insight, encouragement, and advice. It is up to each individual to take advantage of the richness they offer. Again, not an easy task. The strength to reflect and introspect, to challenge long held beliefs, to expose oneself to criticism, to be vulnerable…gathering that strength is a choice and a responsibility we must assume if we want to shed our victimhood. I dare to dream that if a 12 year old girl can access her power in this way, then there is hope for us too.
But this is only the beginning of the journey. The final step is to continue learning and growing. To engage and embrace. To repeat these steps over and over as we pass through life. And to serve and share with others who may benefit from having us as part of their network.
This last rung of the ladder is especially important since many of us struggle with guilt when we enter a new dimension of understanding and shifting dynamics. Guilt is a limiting belief that can threaten self-actualization and trap us in victim mindset. Dr. Gabor Mate frames the core of guilt as “thinking you don’t have the right to something”. Don’t have the right…To grow? To experience joy? To build meaningful relationships? To be loved? Those are rights that we all have, not because we are entitled, but because we make a conscious choice to deserve them, every day, by refusing to be a victim.
**Names have been changed to respect privacy.