The Power of Yes

Much of my life I have said yes. This was both because I enjoy others and the opportunities they bring into my life and also because I want them to be happy because seeing them that way makes me feel happy too. I said yes too often, compromising more than my fair share of desires. Over time I learned to set boundaries and in doing so maintained a healthier balance to my answer, yes. What I neglected was the unhealthy balance of when and how I said no.

When it came to activities or favors or deadlines or discipline, the balance between no and yes had been achieved. When it came to the feelings of others, however, I often felt myself tied up in answering no whenever confronted with something that might hurt them. I would again choose to compromise myself, my truth if not my own feelings as well, in an effort to keep everyone else comfortable. In a meeting at school last month I found a new form of empowerment: the power of the truth.

We are in a time of great strife in the field of education. We are hammered from this way and that about most anything having to do with the “declining state of youth” these days. As a society we don’t look at the parents, we don’t look at the system, we don’t look at the foundation (or lack of foundation) the kids have and the mixed messages they receive in almost every area of their lives. We don’t look at the dehumanizing objectification of our girls or the outrageous pressures our boys face to “man” up. No, as a society we look at the schools and say fix it. Or else.

And yet we as educators persevere. We know we can’t change society and the (mis)perceptions of others. We can only hold our heads high and push forward in an effort to do our part. We don’t have the money, the tools, the staffing, or the physical resources we need, yet we move ahead because we love our kids and we love our place in their lives.

At my school our new focus has become equity. More specifically, how can we provide real and meaningful opportunities to all kids in an equitable way? I sit on a committee whose charge is to evaluate all programs on our school site, making sure they are matching our school’s goals and vision which, this year, focuses on equity.

The longer I live the more I’m finding assumptions a powerful and crippling force that often goes unrecognized as it insidiously eats away at any well-intentioned progress trying to be made. Once I applied this concept to my work, It came to me that equity could mean something different to our staff than it does to our principal than it does to our kids than it does to our parents, all who have stakeholders sitting on this committee. In an effort to focus our work and continue our progress, we set out to define equity together.

We readily agreed on two points: one, all kids need have access to information and resources they need to be successful; and two, all kids should graduate ready for either college or career. The third point, however, was a major source of contention. Should resources (i.e.: time, money, staffing, classes, etc) be distributed exactly equally or should more resources be allocated to those with more need?

It is no secret that by and large schools are liberal places. The simple existence of public schools implies liberalism because it’s essentially a concept of socialism: we all contribute (through our tax dollars) so that all kids have access to schooling. However lofty the goal of this socialist premise, the reality is we live in a capitalist country. The rich tend to get richer and the poor, poorer. Schools in high-income areas are able to raise more money, both through property taxes and local fundraisers, and therefore provide their kids more resources. If kids in these schools are struggling academically, their parents have time and money to get them a private tutor. Their teachers make wish lists for classroom needs and those lists are covered, often in abundance. Maybe it’s because our school has none of those privileges that those of us who work there feel very protective of our kids, most especially those with the highest needs. To us, it is a given that those who need more will get more. However liberal the notion, to us it’s not a matter of politics, it’s an assumed matter of what is right.

As it turns out, that nasty thing called “assumptions” was getting us in trouble once again. Not everyone on our committee agreed that “equitable” meant distributing resources unequally. To them (ok, him) that idea was absolutely inequitable.

He had a point, of course. It is often the kids on the higher end that are left to fend for themselves. We assume (there is that damned word again) that those kids have stronger survival skills, at least academically, and can move forward without us more easily. They have efficacy in the system because the system works for them; they know how to ask for help and they know when they ask they will receive it. Other kids, however, don’t have that experience. We have to teach them to identify their issues and how to advocate for themselves when it comes to finding remedies. We have to provide them more because, as simplistic as it sounds, they need more. We want to even the playing field so that when the graduating class leaves us, they leave us equally prepared for whatever their choices may be.

“So what your saying is you want to promote some kind of Marxism?” asks (or, should I say, accuses) the naysayer in the group.

This was the moment. My urge to make others feel comfortable and to smooth over conflict rose into my throat. I wanted to say, “No sir, we’re absolutely not; we just…,” or “No, not at all! I’m so sorry this is upsetting you, how do you think we should proceed with…” We were brainstorming as I took notes on my white board; awash with colors and words representing this thing we called “equity.” It was something to be proud of, this place, this conversation, even this particular debate. Yet, I stood at my board in front of this powerful group of students, staff, and parents completely paralyzed.

My body tensed and my mind raced as I considered which would be the victor, my truth or his feelings? The fact I was even having this internal discussion was a huge improvement because before it would have been his feelings without question. Then, however, came the time of when I know better, I need to do better. I knew better than to compromise myself yet again, I just had to figure out how to allow both of us the dignity we deserved.

“Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “you caught me. I am promoting Marxism.” I joked, but I also made something clear: I would not be taken down by a tone or a word or an intent to slouch my posture and walk away from my truth. I would engage in dialogue and even debate with integrity, not only to protect the feelings of others but also my own.

I saw a smile come across the faces in the room, even on the face of the naysayer who knew how ridiculous the Marxist accusation was. In saying yes I had exposed the real truth: this discussion wasn’t about the how, it was about the whom. We were all there to protect the needs of our kids, even if we believed differently about how we went about doing so.

What that parent and that moment taught me is that conflict is not necessarily something to avoid. If handled properly it can be important and productive and enlightening.

And saying yes to your truth, that is about as powerful as it comes.

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