I was born one day shy of spring in a small, southwest Missouri, industrial town. I am my parents’ second daughter. My grandmother could barely read and stopped going to school regularly before she finished eighth grade. She delivered newspapers with my PaPa for forty years. My mom married my dad the summer she graduated from high school. He’d just returned from four years in Vietnam. Dad was unable to sustain employment, and his behavior was erratic, so our mom often worked seventy+ hours each week to support us.
We usually didn’t have enough money to make ends meet. My mom’s income was too much to receive government assistance but too little to afford food or toilet paper after she’d paid the house payment and electric company. The neighbors would give us their old clothes, passed across the chain link fence, in black garbage bags every six months or so and my mom reached out to nearby organizations for commodities (basic food rations). When my mom became the manager of the local grocery store, vendors would give her the expired food from the shelves to bring home.
I remember sitting on our front steps, watching my dad work on his old cars, listening to him as he explained each turn of his wrench. I would follow him around our basement, the floor cold beneath my bare feet, the smell of grease and metal filings heavy in the air. When I was young, I idolized him. I didn’t know something was wrong with him. I thought everyone’s dad slept with a machete in their hand.
I understand what it’s like for the kid sleeping through class who can’t focus; to worry about what might happen when you go home. I remember what it’s like to be worried and scared all the time - imperceptible to everyone around you. I know because she used to be me.
In his book Teaching With Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen asks, “If life experiences can change poor kids for the worse, can’t life experiences also change them for the better” (2009, Introduction, para. 3)? Culture is manifested in everything we experience. It is an invisible force that shapes our behavior and controls the way we interact with one another. Most current studies describe poverty as a systemic problem. They fail to acknowledge the success stories - the individuals and families who beat the odds and transitioned out of poverty nor the reasons so many stay in poverty (Payne, 2013, p.165).
Individuals who make it out of poverty usually cite an individual who made a significant difference for them. Dr. James Comer, leader of the Yale University Child Study Center and author of Waiting for a Miracle: Why Schools Can’t Solve Our Problems and How We Can has said no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship (1995). Dianne McInturff had thirty-two students in her fourth-grade class the year she changed my life. It began with a mailbox and a pile of Mead spiral notebooks she called our journals. She told us we could write anything we wanted in them and she would always write us back - I wrote to her nearly every day. Mrs. McInturff looked beyond my disheveled appearance and went to great lengths to include me in activities my mom could not afford, and my dad was unable to attend. She bought me clothes for the winter concert and introduced me to Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona Quimby.
I never had [school] friends or a connection to my mom, and by fourth grade, my father’s struggle with PTSD had gotten to the point we were hiding from him, or he was institutionalized. Mrs. McInturff showed genuine interest in who I was as a person and my well-being. She had total belief in my ability to be and do more, and this belief was exhibited on a daily basis. She made me feel valuable, respected, accepted and empowered me to dream of a future. Her letters provided me with a support system that taught me the skills necessary to choose a different life.
We don’t all choose a different life. My younger sister had the opportunity and the choice, and she decided to stay in the culture she was raised. I understand why she stayed. Leaving poverty means letting go of everyone and everything you ever knew. In poverty, “people are possessions” (Payne, 2013, p. 67) and transitioning to a different neighborhood, income class, or job culture creates tension that is rarely overcome.
Last month, I picked up a special issue of “The New York Times Magazine” while I was flying. It was there; in the pages of a story about salmiakki (Binelli, 2018) that I found the best, most reasonable explanation as to whether an individual who is presented with a support system, role models, and opportunities to learn would choose poverty or move on. James Heckman refers to this phenomenon as a whole range of things: non-cognitive skills, soft skills, social skills, personality traits, and character (2012). The Finnish word is sisu. Sisu is the ability to act rationally in the face of adversity. It is an inherent characteristic of people that allows them to pick up, move on, and learn from previous failures. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It stands for the philosophy that what must be done will be done. It is a measure of integrity that surpasses hardship and sees things through to the end (Binelli, 2018).
Author Joanna Nylund writes, “We all have sisu - it is within reach of everyone. It lies within you” (2018, p.14).
I have the stamina to withstand difficult and uncomfortable emotional situations and feelings. I have courage, willpower, resilience, persistence, and perseverance. When I walk into school each morning, I bring all of these with me. I connect with students quickly and easily because I identify with them and their circumstances. The bonds I build with families are built on trust and respect. Our partnership does not begin and end in the classroom or with the school day.
I have sisu. Sisu isn’t something you talk about - sisu is in your actions. Sisu is what you do.
My most dominant strength is the ability to sense the emotions of those around me. My intuitive ability to understand is incisive. I am considerate, caring, and accepting - a bridge builder for people of different cultures and beliefs. My distinct way of thinking allows me to see patterns where others see complexity. I am genuinely intrigued by the unique qualities of each person. I am a keen observer of people’s strengths and differences and intuitively bring out the best in people (CliftonStrengths, 2018).
"I close my eyes, turn inward, and breathe until I can sense the still, small space inside me that is the same as the stillness in you and in the trees, and in all things. I breathe until I can feel this space expand and fill me. Then I smile at the wonder of it all."
I am both a collector of words and a writer. I collect words, quotations, and precepts that speak to me. I write because it is how I survive. In 2012 I read something that struck me with the energy of a lightning bolt. Terry Tempest Williams wrote an essay about discovering her mother's journals [diaries] after she'd passed away only to realize they were blank (Williams, 2012). I don't want my legacy to be empty pages. I want my students to [be able to] recognize the significance of seeing and trusting a vision of their future so much that they will persevere through difficult times.
Alchemy is one of my favorite words. I am fascinated with the notion of taking common, regular things and turning them into something extraordinary.
I want my students to know they are valuable, they are incredible, they are powerful, and they can succeed. Jim Knight published a book in 2016 titled Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to be more Credible, Caring, and Connected. He said, “I didn’t write this book because this is the kind of person I am. I wrote this book because this is the kind of person I want to be” (2016, p. ix). I am in a unique position to influence change. If I better understood how to use my conversations to promote change, it would be a significant asset to my strength set and ensuring student success.