This I Believe

Barry - San Antonio, Texas
Entered on June 29, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

Seeing SUKIDAL TENDENCIES printed on the cassette cover could only prompt one carefully crafted question at this delicate time in me and my brother’s relationship:

“What the hell does that mean?”

Slowly, my younger brother Russell turned his head in my direction. As his eyes, angry, narrow slits, met mine, I braced myself for his attack.

“What does what mean?”

“SUKIDAL TENDENCIES,” I added nodding over at the cassette cover sitting on a pile of clothes on the floor.

After a quick glance, a grin slowly grew out of his pursed lips. I recognized the look – he had me. But before I could correct myself, he turned his back to me and said, “It says ‘SU-I-CI-DAL TENDENCIES’, you dumb bastard.”

Embarrassed, I weakly spit out several choice obscenities. Soaking in his victory, he said nothing.

Gathering myself, I knew there was only one thing I could do to save face: find Mom. I knew Mom (a firm believer in the Gospel of “If I don’t whoop you, the police sure will!”) would make his life deliciously miserable.

Russell was the one who Mom tried to beat good grades out of. On the other hand, I was a member of every academic honor society that mistakenly equated turning in your homework on time, staying out of trouble and kissing teachers’ asses as genius. But while I burdened myself with the desperate poverty that managed to keep my mother in prayer, the refrigerator empty and bill collectors employed, he consistently worked free of those bonds.

Heck, even when Mom would take us to buy shoes (once before school started and then again during the weekend the income-tax refund would “miraculously” appear), I would always look at the price tag before making my decision. Russell would look for the shoes he liked. Upon finding them, he would then develop a convincing argument that would almost always allow him to walk out of the store with the beautiful new shoes of his choice. Unlike me, he didn’t wait for the counter-punch of poverty to deny his desires.

Counter-puncher: In physical combat, name given to someone who punches primarily when someone else initiates contact—usually the returned attack (the counter-punch) is directed at the place the initiator started their attack.

I hate that I love to watch boxing. When I was a young man, I watched in tears as a mature Muhammad Ali held the torch over his head to light the ceremonial caldron announcing the start of the Olympic Games. I cried not because I was caught up in the beauty of the moment, but rather because of the ugly reality boxing carved into Ali’s once sculpted body and quick mind. After twenty years of beatings in the boxing ring, Ali now stood in front of millions shuddering violently – barely able to hold the torch upright. The flames of the torch licked his arm and briefly covered one of the fists that were once so quick, he scored a controversial knock down of Sonny Liston with what many angry observers called a “phantom right-hand.” But in the present, he was simply alone and vulnerable—a victim of the brutality of boxing.

Even so, I get a sense of intoxication watching two boxers going to work in the ring—unafraid of return blows. They know that they are going to get hit, but they don’t shy away from the carnage. They stand there bleeding, hurt, and often frustrated doing their job.

However, there are types of boxing matches that make me angry: matches involving two counter-punchers. Now if a counter-puncher is matched with someone who actually initiates contact, the fight will be fine. But two counter-punchers in the ring is no more than two half-naked grown men hiding behind their gloves waiting for the bell to mercifully end each round. As each sheepish fighter retreats to their corners, they are rightfully littered with boos and obscenities from a frustrated crowd.

Counter-puncher: In non-physical combat, the counter-puncher is someone who points out flaws after someone else had first presented their own materials, artwork, and ideas.

I am a counter-puncher. As a life long student, I have found it easy to sit in the safety of classrooms reacting to the work of published authors in the form of critical analysis, countless papers and heated debates. Even as a student-teacher, much of my time was spent in reaction-mode critiquing the methods of my cooperating teacher and her peers. But having moved from my professors’ classrooms and into my own, I am forced to shift from the role of the reactive student into to the persona of the pro-active educator. In making this transition, I have grown painfully aware of the new groups of counter-punchers in my life:

1. Administrators – they swoop into your classroom to make judgements on your teaching-style.

2. Peers – usually well-meaning, but their kind suggestions can easily feel like administrative evaluations.

3. My Students – it’s painful to hear their reactive groans and sighs at the sight of lessons planned to be attentive to their needs.

4. Parents – in the name of righteously loving and protecting their children, meetings and correspondence with them often move into a running critique of my teaching-style.

Have I become so used to sitting and reacting that the thought of criticism from these counter-punchers now has me terrified to start something new? How do I get past this?

I want to be liked and respected by all four of these counter-punchers, but I don’t want to be made to feel like an amateur by regular criticism (constructive and negative). Really, what does it matter what I feel like? Instead, how can I learn to focus on the academic development of all students? Are my objectives clear? Is my planning tight? Are my activities relevant? What are the counter punchers telling me that in my current mindset makes them difficult to hear?

For those boxers who end up fighting a good counter-puncher, the boxing ring is a classroom filled with punishing lessons. As the counter-punch finds an exposed area, the boxer receiving the attack must make a choice: either continue to fight the way he started and get hurt, OR make adjustments to blunt the blow.

My brother blunted the debilitating assault of poverty by focusing instead on nuggets of opportunity and access as they presented themselves. However, I often feel the full impact of the counter-punch; fear of it has birthed a sense of poverty in my professional life. If I continue to stubbornly fight the counter-punchers the way I always have, I will eventually lose my fight. But if I can learn to recognize the lessons that come with each weakness-exposing hit, and adjust my stance accordingly, I believe I will be in a better position to shake off professional poverty and stay in the fight.