My 18-month-old niece Ellie knows me well. Her Mom tells me that she even talks about me when I’m not around. Yet, when I saw her yesterday she gleefully announced, “Nice to meet you, Bee.”(Bee is my nieces’ and nephews’ nickname for me.) Today, I understood the sentiment.
The last week or so I’ve been feeling blue – a long-term project, in which I had put in a lot of time and effort came to an unceremonious end. An attempt to get financing for a new car filled me with familiar anxiety when I was forced to acknowledge once again how close to a starving artist I really am. And, the more I did the math, the more assured I was that I was going to stay this way. I saw my life and subsequently myself through a lens of doom and gloom. It wasn’t just that I was down, it was that this person I was seeing, I knew well. She was my nothing’s ever gonna happen, nothing’s ever gonna change, this is as good as it gets self. Head down, feet shuffling, she is the epitome of hopelessness. She knows statistics -- the chance of getting married at her age is less than the chance of getting struck by lightening; the paycheck for her 750 word article on Obamacare will no way represent the 750 hours of work she put into it; she will be 90 in less years than she has lived, and what will she have to show for it? It was she who entered the activity room at the assisted living facility where I began teaching today, writhing her hands, sweating in nervousness and counting the 60 minutes until the new class she was starting would end. She sat at the head of the table, straightening the papers in front of her, making chatter with the English woman who had shown her to the room. Listening to her precise, clipped accent, she felt like a lowly peasant in the presence of the Queen. She hated those moments before the beginning of a class, when it felt like she might step out into an abyss and fall…and fail…when all those eyes would suddenly be upon her and she would fear she’d find her bag of tricks empty, when she risked exposing herself as utterly inadequate.
And, thus, it was with surprise that I found myself 20 minutes later assuring a student that claimed she couldn’t write that she had a story in her. When I asked her the defining sound of her childhood, she could tell me, but she just couldn’t write it. “If you can tell it you can write it,” I say. “There’s nothing magical here. We all know how to tell stories. We do everyday, when we pick up the phone, chat over coffee, click send on the keyboard.” I read back the notes I had taken as she had related her story and I see the hope begin to appear in her eyes, like a wake-up lamp on a timer getting brighter. “Maybe,” she thinks, “just maybe, she is right.”
That’s when it happens. That’s when I feel the light myself. It’s when the fear and helplessness melts away, warmed by an inner confidence and a realization – when I help others find their voice, I find my own. I stop doing the math and trust…I inhale the hope in the room, the courage and the strength as my students’ voices rise. Doom and gloom flee and for a time, so does that false sense of self. In the classroom, amidst my nervousness, in the teaching and the sharing, she slips in and I recognize her. She’s me, “Hello, Bee, nice to meet you!”