I remember it clearly, and it still makes me a little queasy. It was the end of my first year of teaching. The parents of one of my quieter students wanted a meeting. Their daughter had started off the year as an A+ student, but as the second semester ended, she had added in some Bs. I knew that she was struggling at home, so I encouraged her but didn't push her. After all, grades may be the last thing on a student's mind when the home life is tumultuous. She was quiet, but she did most of the work. It was June now as these parents sat across from me, and their accusations were the worst I had experienced at the time, all amounting to something the father said: "Frankly, you have not done a good job this year. You are lazy."
I'm surprised by how hard it was to type that without feeling as crushed and defeated as I did in the moment. It had been a hard first year, and I had worked most nights and most weekends. I cried and cried after that meeting and carried those words with me--words from parents who had not been involved or engaged, words from parents who didn't listen who just accused. I quickly dismissed the encouraging notes or the students who improved. Those negative words cut deep and hit my insecurities hard. They repeated what the voices in my own head were saying.
I read something recently that helped me realize how to process through events that seem hard--those events where we feel powerful and hopeless. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown talks about a mistake she made that was embarrassing. She shares her self-talk:
Own the story! Don't bury it and let it fester or define me. I often say this aloud: "If you own this story you get to write the ending. If you own this story you get to write the ending." When we bury the story we forever stay the subject of the story.
This advice shocked me mainly because it is true. I own the story of that June day in the principal's office. It is mine to tell, and I tell the ending. To be honest, the ending feels like it may have been, "So I let their words define me and lived insecurely ever after through my second year of teaching, too." But I see that even now, there's a chance to change how I tell this story. Instead I can realize, "And those words stung for a while, but I changed what I needed to and kept on working hard. Most of the people I care about were supportive, and I went on to keep teaching until we decided I should take a break after our son was born. I am happy."
That was my first bout with real, groundless criticism. There are many things harder than that, but at the time of those words, I was struggling in so many aspects of life.
I think about how I tell painful stories to my friends and family. So often I end in defeat with the phrase, "It was hard." But as I've gained distance, I can see that even those harsh words are a part of my story--a hard part, but just a part.
Even better, we ultimately believe God is good, that He is always in control, that He knows the ending already and that it is for our good and for His glory.
We may not know the ending. We may feel powerless in the moment. But ultimately, it's our story to tell.
Next time I am faced with a stressful situation or merely a bad mood, I hope to remember that I can decide how I tell the story's ending--maybe not every aspect of the ending but at least what I did and how I felt. It's a bit of power and distance when I face situations that don't seem to have glimmers of sunshine ahead.