Last school year, I developed a relationship with a 13 year old student.  She wasn't a problem student, per se, but sometimes she would get really upset and I was the only person she would talk to and calm down with.

I always felt like she was a child who had to take care of so many other people and hadn't really had an adult she could trust to take care of her.  She grew to trust me - though I know that when kids have gone so long not having an adult to trust, they don't always know how.  I gave her space to figure that out.

I grew to care a lot about her.  I just wanted her to have some successes in her life.  I wanted her to start making the types of decisions that would set herself up for success in the long run.

I say all that to set up why I reacted the way I did when one of my assistant principals approached me to tell me she'd been spotted one morning sneaking onto an empty bus with a boy that I knew was her boyfriend.  The admins wanted me to talk to her - hoping that they could avoid having to give her a consequence.

I was angry.  If you don't work with middle schoolers, it's easy to imagine them as cute little almost teenagers.  And some of them are.  But increasingly most of them are involved in behaviors we typically attribute to high school students (certainly behaviors that I and my friends didn't involve ourselves in until high school).  They are doing drugs, selling drugs, drinking, having sex -- all that.

And my mind went to all the things she could've been doing on that bus.  I freaked.  I absolutely freaked.  There was very little that was professional and wasn't personal about the way I freaked out in my mind.  I don't want any of the students I work with to engage in risky behaviors, of course, but a student that I'd been working so closely with?  One who had all the potential in the world?  I couldn't take it.

I sought her out in the hallway and told her, sternly, that we would be speaking later.  I guess she could tell how upset I was because she asked a teacher to escort her to my office the next class period.  The teacher told me, "I brought her because I can tell she's scared that she did something to hurt you."

When I got her into my office, she very quickly admitted to me that she had been on a bus that morning without permission.

"What were you doing?"  I asked, sure I didn't want to know the answer.

"Nothing," she replied calmly.  I've been doing this long enough - kids lie.  It's safer to assume they're lying than that they're not.  But, I knew she was telling me the truth.  I was still scared that there was something to all this sneaking, so I double backed.

"If you weren't doing anything, why did you need to sneak onto a bus?"

"It's cold outside.  We wanted to be alone.  But we didn't do anything.  We just talked."

I felt a bit of relief.  Felt like a crisis was averted and I figured this was as good a time as any to see if she'd given any thought to the things that could happen when you're alone with your boyfriend.

"Ok fine.  Nothing happened today.  But what about the next time?"

She hesitated.  "What do you mean?"  She was stalling.

"I mean you're sneaking on buses.  What else are you going to sneak and do?"

She stared at me.  I couldn't read her face.  "I wouldn't do that, Ms. Smith."  The way she said it was very final.  Very cold.  But you can't trust 13 year olds.  They can't trust themselves.

"Ok, I know you think that right now.  But sometimes things happen faster than we think they will and we're not prepared."  I had no idea where I was going with this, but I needed to know that at some point some adult had talked to her about staying safe.

"Look, I don't want to talk about why, but I won't do that..." she trailed off as if there were more - a word she wanted to say, but couldn't get.

"But why are you so sure?"  It wasn't that I didn't believe her.  I just wanted her to tell me what her motivation was.  I wanted her to be purposeful.  I was so caught up in what I wanted her to know, I didn't realize what she wanted me to know.

"Ms. Smith, I've done it before.  I know I won't do it again."

My stomach dropped.  I needed "it" to refer to something else.

"Done what before?  Had sex?" I asked, trying to sound unfazed, but feeling disoriented.

She looked down at the ground - the first time she'd broken eye contact with me.  "Yes."

I still didn't realize what she was trying to say.

"But - sometimes when we've done something once," I began, "it's easier to do it again.  I'm not telling you not to, though I wish you wouldn't, not right now.  I just want you to be safe.  I don't want you doing things you don't want to do on buses with boys you don't know that well."

"I learned my lesson already," she said, still not making eye contact.  Her whole demeanor, I realized, had changed.  She'd been so sure of herself but now she was such a little girl.  I felt like an attack dog, suddenly.  So I sat back in my chair and lowered my voice just a bit.  A tactic I employ to subtly reassure whoever I'm talking to that everything is ok.

"What lesson?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"You don't have to, but I do want to know how you plan to stay safe."

There was silence.  She searched my face.  Maybe for a sign that I wouldn't let her down.

"Last year, I had this boyfriend.  I snuck out of my mom's house to go see him.  I got there and we had..." she paused, searched my face again, and continued, "sex."

She stopped, waiting on me to react.  I waited for her to continue.

"Anyway, one of his friends was there.  After my boyfriend was done, his friend got on top of me.  I told him to stop, but he didn't.  I kept telling him no.  He wouldn't stop."

It was like glass shattered around me.  Noise and then sudden silence.  I couldn't hear.  I wanted to get up and grab her up and tell her we'd find this guy and I would kill him with my bare hands.  But I knew she wouldn't want me to touch her.  Not right then.

We talked about whether her parents knew or not.  They did.  They didn't press charges, though she said her dad told her if the guy ever showed his face, he would kill him.  She told me that part with a measure of strength and assuredness she'd lost briefly during our talk.

"My mom told me that's what I get for sneaking out."

It is very hard to explain to a 13 year old that one bad decision doesn't deserve a traumatic experience.

I did my best.



Back when I lived in DC I would take regular breaks from life.  I'd turn my phone off, leave it at home and only go to work and come back home.  I would do this for a week or two -- once I did it for almost three, and only "came back" because I checked my voicemail and some folks were pretty worried.

The other thing I did was spend a night in a hotel every couple of months.  I'd usually drive down to Richmond, VA - it was a nice drive and got me far enough away from the beltway that I felt like I could breathe.  It wasn't the cheapest habit, but looking back, I think it was part of what helped me stay sane.

I'm tired.  Physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally... I'm tired.  Over the last couple of months I've started realizing that my 8th graders are really leaving me and it's occurring to me that some of them aren't ready.  Trying to get them there with just over a month left to do so is no easy feat.

You can't work with kids and not develop relationships with them.  Most are seasonal.  Kids come and go -- that's the nature of a school.  As a counselor, my job is to make every child on my caseload feel like there is someone in the school building who can and will help them with their problems.  Of course, being responsible for 400+ kids makes building individual relationships very difficult, but I manage, I like to think anyway, to be a large part of making my school building a safe place emotionally for the students who attend.

Sometimes, though, the relationships are more than seasonal.  This year I've developed some very close and very individual relationships with a handful of kids.  I really do care a lot about them and I worry about them and want them to be successful, much the way I imagine their own parents do (well, some of their parents).  I work with a low-income, high needs population and so that presents its own set of challenges.  One thing I pride myself on is supporting the kids in their athletic events.  I drive them to their games, I watch them play and then I congratulate them after on their hard work, win or lose.  I see their faces light up when they notice me on the side of the field.  They always check in with me on game days to make sure I will be there and I try to make every effort, though there are certainly some times I can't.

For the ones I'm close to, I spend a lot of time with them.  I'm walking them through everything from dealing with teachers they don't like to feeling as if their parents don't like or care about them.  For some of them and on some days I'm the only person who smiles at them, hugs them and makes them feel good enough.

All of that takes a lot out of a person.  I'm constantly pouring into these kids and I love what I do, but it's draining me way more quickly than I can refill.

But the kids aren't the only ones I pour into.  My coworkers need support, my family, my friends -- as always, I sit here realizing that everyone's got me but who do I have?

I had an uncomfortable exchange with someone I care about, recently.  I can't decide exactly how I care about them and what that means for how I want them to function in my life, but they are someone I consider a friend and this exchange has stayed with me.  Partly because I wasn't at my best, and I allowed them to make me react in an out of control way, but also because I realize that just like so many other things in my life, I feel unheard and disrespected, but I don't know how to communicate that.

I know my friends and my family and my kids and my coworkers love and care about me, but sometimes you need evidence of that to remind you.

My BFF was worried about me a couple of weeks ago.  He sent his former roommate and friend to take me to dinner since we don't live in the same city.  He also insisted that I take a break.  "Come down here!" he text me.  But I can't - I'm not free any upcoming weekends to make an 8 hr drive.  I would love to, but I can't.  I've made promises to my kids, I've made promises to my friends and I hate breaking promises.  He did make me promise to find a weekend to do something for myself and decompress.  So here I am.  Away from "life": my phone is off, the BFF is the only one who knows I'm doing this and I intend to keep it that way.  

God.  Please let this brief respite give me the energy I need for the week ahead.


The Four Agreements: Be Impeccable With Your Word

According to the author, the first agreement is the most important.  Be Impeccable With Your Word.
Your word is the power that you have to create.  Your word is the gift that comes directly from God.  Through the word you manifest your intent, regardless of what language you speak.  What you dream, what you feel, and what you really are will all be manifested through the word.  -Don Miguel RuizWisdom From The Four Agreements

Obviously this is about being honest.

But one thing that I always pay attention to is why a person says something the way they say it.  Why didn't the author say "Be honest"?

Because it's more than that.  Being impeccable isn't just telling the truth, it's also about authenticity.  It's about precision of language.  Say what is true, what you feel, what you mean.  Be precise.  Don't beat around the bush, don't use coded language, don't couch what you say in niceties you don't mean so that it will be perceived better.  Use your words to convey meaningful truth.

Further, impeccability is about purpose.  Speak because there's a reason to speak.  One of my favorite quotes by Gandhi is "speak only if it improves upon the silence."  An idea I take to heart.  Use your words to share knowledge, not just to fill a void.

My sophomore year in college I lived with 9 other women (and yes, at times, it was like The Real World: The Estrogen edition).  There was one roommate I came to really care about, but boy could she work my nerves with all her talking.  I would lament to my BFF about her constant talking.  I remember telling him, "she can't let more than 5 seconds of silence go before she has to speak."

He didn't really believe me, so I told him to come over one night when it was just her and I in the house.  He had a hard time keeping a straight face as we purposefully didn't talk so that we could see how long it would take her to begin rambling about anything, just to avoid the quiet.  Trying to avoid quiet says more about you than you might think.

When we are impeccable with our words, when we are precise and poignant, we take care of ourselves and each other.  We help avoid unnecessary misunderstandings; we share our true feelings with those who need to hear them; we impart wisdom and knowledge on others.  We are good citizens when we are impeccable with our word.

Lord knows it's not easy.  Most of us don't want to hurt those around us.  But I've found that being careless with words can hurt, even when that's not our intent.  Sometimes moreso.  I'd rather a person know exactly where I stand on an issue and be hurt for a little while, than go on thinking I feel one way only to be hurt later when they find out I feel another way.

Ultimately, being impeccable with your word is about you.  It's freeing to know that everyone around you knows who you are and what you stand for.  Authenticity is a beautiful thing.  It's consistent, trustworthy, and always timely.  There is no way you can be who you truly are without being impeccable with what you say.

The Second Agreement: Don't Take Anything Personally


The Four Agreements: Intro

On my most recent trip home, my mother decided it was time for me to finally go through the remainder of my belongings that had been living down in the basement.

I'm an emotional packrat and I've kept so many things to remind me of lives lived, experiences had and sweet memories.  Notes, letters, stories, books... you name it, I've probably kept it as an artifact to remind me of the past.

I didn't enjoy thinking about all the junk I would have to go through, but I found quite a few gems, including a pocket-sized book titled Wisdom From The Four Agreements.  I vaguely remember my mom giving me this in college and I vaguely remember flipping through the book.  It's a condensed version of the NY Times Bestseller The Four Agreements.  I'm very aware of the four agreements and bring them up whenever they're relevant.

After re-reading this little book, I decided the four agreements deserve my own special spin to them...

Not to mention, the blog deserves some new content from me, no?

The First Agreement: Be Impeccable With Your Word



Generally speaking, as I move about in my every day regular life, I don't think or worry much about people who don't like me or don't wish me well.  Generally, as I move about in my every day regular life, I don't consider that I might have haters.  I've never subscribed to the "haters are my motivators" line of thinking; I've never, personally, seen the logic in it.

But over the last couple of months, I'm starting to feel... hated on.

It started back when I found out I'd be teaching another class at my alma mater.  The first class I co-taught with 2 other professors in the fall and this class I'm teaching solo.  It's a big deal, but then to me it's not.  I appreciate the opportunity, it's certainly a resume builder and I'm always happy to mentor and provide support for folks looking to enter my field of work.  But when all is said and done, I don't do this to look good to anybody.  I do it because I'm genuinely interested in being a help to the students and the faculty who invested so much in me and the start of my career.

Last semester, one of my colleagues, and a person I consider a friend, who also teaches this same course, called me up and asked if I'd be willing to speak to his class on short notice about a certain topic.  He pitched it as an opportunity for me to meet some of the students I'd have the following semester -- I didn't need the opportunity as I had all of them in the class I was teaching at the time -- but it did provide an opportunity for me to talk to them more about myself as a professional, since the class I had them in was a bit more about the theory.

He met me at the door to the building (I was running a bit late) and walked me back to the class.  On the way he re-emphasized the opportunity to meet the students and he added a note - "some of them asked me how it is you're able to teach this class when you've only been out of school for a year."

He went on to discuss how he assured them that I had a lot to offer and they could learn from me, but none of that did much to assuage the feeling I had that everything wasn't on the up and up.  It felt like maybe HE was the one who'd wondered how I got this opportunity when he'd been in the field for 7 years before he was approached.  I was confused.  Did he see me as competition?  He wasn't going to teach any fewer classes or make any less money because I was helping out, so why the comment?  And even if he didn't wonder that, why did he offer it up to me?  How was it a helpful comment?  I tried to shake the feeling that he was throwing shade, but I couldn't.

Earlier this month I was at a staff meeting, and sat next to a teacher I feel I have a pretty good working relationship with.  We've hung out, in a group, outside of school and, generally, get along while at work.  She and I are both native Tennesseans, but we hail from different cities.  She asked me what high school I went to and when I told her the name of my private high school she replied, "oh!  No wonder!"  Intrigued, I asked her to explain what she meant.  She said, "I mean, it explains a lot about you.  You're not really black."

I'm not new to this whole line of thinking, so I knew exactly what she meant when she said it, but for some reason I was particularly offended.  Maybe because she tries to present herself as someone with a background other than the one she has.  Which is fine -- "started from the bottom" and all that.  Maybe that made me think she wouldn't be the type to think of someone as "less black" because of (enter stupid stereotype here).  When I told her "what do you mean, 'not really black.'?" she responded, "I mean of course you're black, but you're not ghetto, hood, from the projects black."

The more I thought about that exchange, the more I couldn't let it go.  Aside from the stereotyping, which is par for the course, there was something about her "no wonder!" that didn't sit right with me.  No wonder what?  It was as if she'd always thought something was wrong with me and knowing I attended a private school explained it -- but what could "it" be?  I think more than feeling stereotyped, I was wondering how long she'd been pondering how I got to be the way I am and further, for what reason?

And then last Saturday I had drinks with a couple of friends where it came up that I'll be going back to school this fall to get a degree with an emphasis in administration and instructional leadership so that I can be an administrator.  One of my friends laughed at me and seemed shocked that I wanted to be an administrator.  Last night, she, myself, and several different friends had dinner where she brought this tidbit up in conversation (though it wasn't relevant).  She said it in a "wait till y'all hear this shit..." kind of way and it set me on edge immediately.

Everyone was very supportive of me, one of them even said she'd love to work for me.  It seemed that their support wasn't what she was going for and so the friend who brought it up added, "well, you really should spend some time teaching.  I mean, summer school or something.  As a counselor, but even when I was a teacher, I listened to and respected admins more if they had a teaching background."

I'd been so caught off guard by the whole thing, I just said something about taking it all one thing at a time -- but I couldn't shake the feeling that she does not wish me well on this journey.  And why not?

If we're honest, we've all been jealous of another person's accomplishments.  Whatever they may be.  Marriage, kids, family, jobs, cars, houses, degrees, acclaim -- somewhere in there falls something each of us want out of life and when someone else has it before we do, sometimes we feel jealous, EVEN when that person is a friend of ours or someone we care a lot about.  Sometimes, those are the very people.

So I get how it can be hard to feel happy for someone and I don't judge anyone for feeling that way, but do you have to tear someone down?  Do you have to be negative?

My mom always tells me to be careful who I let in my circle, and I feel I have been.  It seems to always be the people I don't expect.  The folks I find so far away from me in terms of what they have or what they want that I just can't fathom myself as any sort of competition for any of them.  And if I'm not competition, then what is there to be jealous or petty over?  Or so goes my line of thinking.

Turns out, I need a new line of thinking.


I Can't Make It Be What It Ain't

One of my friends has THE most country sayings and I love all of them.  "I can't make it be what it ain't" is one.  It's another way to say "it is what it is" which is to say, in a sense, no use in being upset about a thing being a thing.

But what about when a thing isn't a thing?  Or it is a thing, just not the thing you want?

There are a lot of posts floating on the interwebs today concerning comments Chuck Smith made on last night's Real Housewives of Atlanta episode.  After inviting Nene Leakes and Phaedra Parks back to their hometown of Athens, GA to speak with some of the kids at the Boys' and Girls' Club of Athens, Chuck decided to confront Phaedra about comments she made on a trip that his wife was apart of.

Chuck's dating history came up during the trip and it was revealed to his wife that not only had Kandi dated Chuck, but so had Phaedra.  Phaedra dismissed it, mostly, citing it as something that happened when they were kids (read: not a big deal) and then again in college (again, seemingly, not that big of a deal).  Chuck, however, wanted to clear the air and clarify with Phaedra that they never dated.  When provided with examples of how Phaedra came to the conclusion that they dated, Chuck asserted that she, like Kandi, was just "part of the team."  In other words, he was lying to and manipulating several women into thinking he was dating them exclusively, when really he was doing everything but being exclusive.

I think Chuck's an asshole for several reasons.  Primarily, this whole conversation was unnecessary unless he was trying to stunt for the cameras and for his wife.  Of course, I don't understand why he and his wife just couldn't have that conversation privately where he explained that and added that regardless of previous relationships, she's the one he married and so forth and so on.

But what about what it means when you say one thing and do another?  Chuck tried to make Phaedra seem desperate for claiming him as an ex, all the while wholly admitting that he set things up so that she would think that.  I'm always baffled when people do that. They go out of their way to make a thing a thing, and then get upset when you call it a thing.

Let's take this outside of a romantic relationship.  I was just pondering the other day a personal situation where I feel compelled to keep a secret for some friends.  The secret itself isn't exactly a bad secret -- meaning it's not something that would or presently is hurting anyone.  In fact, it's really not anyone's business but that of those involved -- however, because of my proximity to the situation and people's tendency to want all the juicy gossip and all the tea on all the people all of the time, I'm frequently approached for information.  I don't mind keeping the secret, but I'm frustrated that it seems while my friends don't want anyone to know, they're not exactly doing their part in terms of discretion.

I've broached this topic, vaguely, with them before and I was basically told - "no one asked you to keep it a secret..."

Sure.  Fine.  Neither of them said, "Ashley, here's this information and now that you know it, please don't tell anyone."  But they didn't have to because their actions said it for them.  But I'm stuck holding the bag because they made a thing a thing and now don't want me to call it a thing.

Ultimately this is about having your cake and eating it too.  Wanting to have something, but not wanting to pay for it.  Wanting to have a girlfriend, but not wanting to spend the time necessary -- so you remind her frequently that "you're not my girlfriend" even though you take her everywhere with you, you've introduced her to friends and family and you spend a lot of your free time with her.  In fact, it would seem that she is your girlfriend -- except when you don't want to be held responsible for how your actions affect her.

Alls I'm saying is, folks gotsta be mo' careful.  We know when we're manipulating a situation in our favor.  So don't get mad when you get called out on that.  Own it.  Step into it.  Or just quit trying to get people to do things without their explicit permission.

You can't make it be what it ain't, even if you never said what it is.


Mississippi Damned

I'm not sure how I stumbled on this film, but I know it was over a year ago that I did so.  Maybe even 2.  I finally bought the DVD and watched it.  This movie is a film everyone should see.  The writer/director Tina Mabry does an excellent job, as do the actors.

This movie follows the story of a family in rural Mississippi beginning in 1986 and then continuing in 1998.  At the center of the film is the Peterson family.  Junior, Delores, Leigh and Kari are all members of a larger extended family who all live within a few miles of each other.  Junior has a gambling problem while his wife Delores is a hard woman from years of dealing with her husband's lying about where their money is going.  Their oldest daughter Leigh is gay and struggles with what that means to her family, but also to her own identity and the youngest child Kari has a talent for music that might be her ticket out of hell.

We also closely follow the stories of Delores's two sisters, Anna and Charlie.  Anna has an emotionally abusive husband, Tyrone.  Anna struggles with potential sterility in the early part of the film.  In combination with her husband being unable to find work, their marriage suffers exponentially.  Meanwhile, Charlie is an alcoholic who lives with a cheating boyfriend.  Her only son Sammy is an excellent ball player, but his mother's alcoholism and tendency to focus more on her boyfriends than her son, puts him in some unfortunate situations.  Eventually Charlie finds herself in her own life or death situation.

I've always been interested in family dynamics and this movie gives me all the functional dysfunction I can handle.  I see my own family in this family and I see some of the societal ills that I wonder how we'll ever get around, play out in this film.

For example, there's a theme of power through sex that runs through this film and in some very uncomfortable ways.  We see one character who feels powerless attempt to exert power on another character, using sex.  Their relationship, unsurprisingly, never recovers -- and the ways they relate to one another after the fact provides insight into just how much sex is often not at all about sex.

There's also the theme of sacrifice.  What do we give up for our family -- even though we may not like them very much.  One character sacrifices her way out of the misfortune and dysfunction, only to have another character sacrifice absolutely everything to give it back to her.

One thing is certain: this movie is HEAVY.  I took several breaks during the almost 2 hour film.  There were moments where I thought "Jesus Christ -- is there any light at the end of this tunnel?"  And there is -- but it is most certainly at the very very end.  Even with all that, though, I would watch this movie again and again -- it's that good.

The only place I've found this film is at the film's website -- but it is 2014 and this is the internet.  If you can find it somewhere, anywhere, please watch it.  Even if you don't purchase the film, I bet after seeing it, you'll want to.

One more clip.  In this scene, the women's mother (who lives with Anna) is confronted by Charlie over things that happened when she was a child.  It is very well acted and so true to the experience many survivors of abuse experience when they try to bring up what happened to them.  But you don't really experience Charlie's pain as much as you experience the mother's.  She's denying any responsibility, but you can sense that her words and her true feelings don't really match up.  It doesn't hurt that their mother is portrayed by one of my favorite "little-known actresses" Dr. Tonea Stewart.