Wednesday, February 10, 2021

What's Your Identity?

Some days, you feel super well-adjusted. And other days, everything seems to weigh so heavily that the tiny hairline cracks in your mended porcelain gape and split into shards. 

I am exhausted. The cumulative impact of pandemic stress and feelings of living in a neverending cycle combined with the joys of IEP writing, early meeting dates, and being the owner of the schedule as lead special education teacher this year, it all has me so tired and thin-skinned. Add on to that that yesterday afternoon my district announced that we are going back to in-person on Wednesdays (alternating cohorts, but now I will be in the building all 5 days), and they are pushing for a return to 5 days a week for every student school with 3 ft distancing, and I am just overwhelmed and frustrated. 

So when we had a faculty meeting that was small group facilitation around cultural competency, I was a little nervous about how that was going to go. Today's topic was identity -- what is your cultural identity, how do we see others' cultural identity, what is above the waterline and what is below (enter iceberg visual here), and 20 minutes before the meeting I realized there was a reflection activity we were supposed to do ahead of time. So I read it. 


Part I was to think about different categories of cultural identity and reflect on your own experiences:

LANGUAGE - what language do you speak, what language do you work in, language of family

MIGRATION - where is your home? where were you born? when did you come to the U.S. or to our county? If you're not from here, what made you relocate? What did it feel like to relocate? 

CULTURAL BACKGROUND - How do you describe yourself ethnically/identify yourself culturally/describe your cultural background? 

FAMILY'S ROLE - How do you define family? Who are family members? Where are your family members? How involved do you wish your family to be? Who raised you? Who parented you? Are you/did you parent your children? Who did if not? ETC ETC INSERT INCREASED HEART RATE HERE. 

SOCIAL NETWORKS - Who are your sources of support? Who do you rely on? Activities/hobbies you enjoy? Community connections/resources? Groups? 

RELIGIOUS/SPIRITUAL BELIEFS & PRACTICES - is religion important to you or your family? Do you feel comfortable sharing your beliefs? Is it important that your beliefs are represented in school culture?Are you connected to a spiritual leader? Have you experienced a school system, as a student or staff, that overtly or subconsciously reinforces certain religious beliefs or traditions at the exclusion of others? 

EXPERIENCES OF TRAUMA - has your cultural background had some effect on how people have treated you at school/relationships/social settings? Did you experience any form of intolerance at any time in your life? Have you experienced discrimination, prejudice, and/or marginalization due to any aspect of your identity? Have you experienced or witnessed any loss due to natural disasters or human-made disasters? What are your experiences of toxic stress, childhood adversity or acute trauma that impact your life? Have you experienced the loss of someone who was important to you? 

There's two more categories but that was the point where I got a little panicky. Was this just for us to think about, or would we need to share?

It was definitely interactive. At first pretty benign, but then the question became, "Did you find any of those questions difficult? Was it difficult to answer any of them?" And there was silence. 

So I volunteered to speak. 

I said that answering the questions wasn't difficult, it was thinking on the answers themselves. It was realizing how multi-faceted cultural identity can be. It was realizing that while I am decidedly dripping in white privilege, I also belong to some groups outside "the norm." 

The facilitator asked me to elaborate, so I chose "childless" as opposed to "atheist," because I work in a fairly religious community and that one can be tough to swallow for some. 

"I am not a parent, and I will not ever be a parent, and that can be very difficult working in a school environment. Everything is based off the presumption that you are also a parent, that 'as parents' or 'for our own kids' or a million other statements that assume that everyone in the room is a parent. And that being a parent is the holy grail, that it's the most important aspect of your identity. Which then takes people who don't have children and minimizes their contributions and/or worth, like I'll never understand or have the MOST IMPORTANT JOB EVER, which is the unfortunate inverse of those statements. And I'm not alone -- there are many people in our school who do not have children, either yet or who won't ever have children, but we are forgotten and invisible in the culture." 

Then the facilitator said, "It's interesting that you said, 'invisible,' like you feel that due to this aspect of your identity you aren't there?" 

"No," I said. "it's more that I'm there but not seen. It's actually quite painful." 

Then the facilitator skillfully noticed someone else nodding while I was talking, someone who interestingly HAS KIDS. He called on her and asked if she was agreeing through her body language. And this person, who I could have hugged, said, 

"Yes, I totally agree. The parent role is put up on a pedestal. I will never forget a time I was in a parent meeting and this parent said, 'You can't possibly understand, you're not a parent.' All I could think was, 'What if I never have children? Will I never be seen as good enough because I am not myself a parent?' It was painful." 

That was amazing, because I didn't realize that she had that experience. It was lovely to have that feeling reverberated by someone else, differently, who actually is a parent now but remembered how that felt. It was a demonstration of empathy I don't often get to see at school for non-parents. 


The last activity we did was to take four small pieces of paper and write four sections for the book, "The Story of My Life." I thought, I'M GOING TO NEED A LOT MORE PAPER, but I followed the rules. We were to pick four categories of our experiences/identity. After we picked, he said, "you need to eliminate one, sorry, shorter book." That choice was pretty easy. Then he said, "Yeah, more people are contributing so you need it to be down to two." 

That left me with LOVE and LOSS. Seems appropriate. 

But then, he said, "as your editor, I am going to choose the next one to eliminate. You only get one. Take away the one on your left." 

And so I was left with LOVE. Which really is the ultimate triumph in my life. It was somewhat of a nice feeling to have LOSS taken away (if only it was that easy!), and then I thought about all the LOVE I have. 

Bryce. My friends. My family. My students. My coworkers. My job. All of you. 

Loss is all through everything too, but I'm glad, even though it was completely random and not intentional, that love won out. 


The entire exercise was exhausting, emotionally. The end takeaway was that we often only see what's above the iceberg, and some of our students' and families' identities are taken out of sight and we don't get to see them, but they are there. The more that we can understand all the parts of everyone's identities, the better we can reach and teach them especially in times of trauma. 

I signed off after a collective deep breathing exercise, where my eyes filled up and I worried they'd spill over, and then I just sobbed at my desk (at home, at least for a few weeks more). I just felt exhausted. Wrung out. Emotionally spent. In a (mostly) good way. 

It was scary to share my thoughts, but worth it.


  1. Jess, you always make me laugh at least once a post. "I'M GOING TO NEED A LOT MORE PAPER" did it for me this time.

    Good grief, I can't imagine going through all this on top of all the exhaustion you're feeling for all the other reasons. But I'm very glad a teacher spoke up and explained - in a way that I suspect many others could also relate - that she understood. Or was trying to.

    I also feel sad that the culture in your school/area is so strong that you couldn't even mention that you feel outside the norm as an atheist. I've never experienced cultural pressure like that.

    But I'm glad it was worthwhile. And LOVE. How beautiful to be left with that. Love you, Jess!

  2. Wow, that's one crazy intense PD session. I find it interesting that although culture was discussed through the lens of vulnerability, you found a way to show/experience your strength. Big kudos for that, especially considering the exhausting and enervating school year so far.

    I'm not sure I see the point of the last part of the exercise, where the facilitator told you to edit out aspects of your identity and then literally took one away. Was she implying that we usually deny aspects of our identity? I would have been like "screw you, you don't get to take away parts of who I am. To hell with your stupid book, I'll write it my own way." lol. I'm pretty sensitive to anything high-handed or authoritarian like that.

    It is interesting that "love" was your last piece of identity standing, though. It reminds me of my dad's stories, actually. He grew up with world war, civil war, occupation, poverty, corruption and the illness/political imprisonment of his father. Part of the meta-narrative he constructed for himself as a result involved family as the bedrock: when there was nothing else to do, family stuck together. For example his grandmother begged on the streets at one point so that the children wouldn't go hungry. Still, being an atomized family/individual in a crumbling society is pretty traumatic and not something to aspire to. Life is better when people work together for mutual good.

    Anyway, best of luck with the changing school schedules etc. It's very difficult feeling a lack of control in a situation, but you are making a difference whatever happens....hang in there.

  3. I was with you in that meeting, feeling your feels (or my versions of them). I really appreciate your leading us through this.

    I'm hoping you are able to refresh this weekend. And bask in LOVE.

  4. Those are some heavy reflective questions for a professional development. A lot of those questions are more appropriate for a therapeutic setting, not a faculty meeting.

    And... Maybe now isn't the best time for this energy-demanding activity? Geez, school districts are being so clueless through this pandemic.

    I commend you for what you said! And I love what your co-worker shared! Not being a parent is a perfect example of being outside the norm, one that is very relevant to working in the school setting.

    Your writing, as usual, is awesome. Thank you for sharing this. Cheers to Love!

  5. Oh wow, that WOULD be exhausting. But I am SO glad you spoke your truth (or part of it, at least!), and so glad that someone backed you up (and a parent, too!!). These kinds of sessions can definitely be eye openers for some people... I went to a diversity & inclusion seminar 10-ish years ago, when I was still working, that got me looking & thinking about childlessness in a whole new light.