Very early in our lives, we look to the people around us to tell us who we are. We smile at Mom and Dad, and if they smile back we feel good, and if they are distracted or angry or sad we think that means we did something wrong. Because, we believe, if Mommy isn’t smiling at me, I am not loveable. This is normal. This is how humans create their sense of self.
Gradually we start to look at other mirrors nearby. We notice how our siblings and peers and teachers, and even strangers, respond to us. If our siblings are jealous or angry, or indifferent, we believe we’ve done something to cause that reaction. If our teachers tell us that we’re smart or kind, we can, maybe, believe that we are smart and kind, but if they tell us we’re stupid, or selfish, or bad, we might believe that too.
Ideally, our early mirrors will be accurate, and compassionate, giving us the chance to see our strengths and to reassure us that we can work through our weaknesses as we build our self-esteem. Often, though, our mirrors are distorted in one way or another, and we learn to believe things about ourselves that may not be true.
As we get older, we are expected to have the inner strength to choose the right mirrors for ourselves and to decide what to believe and what to discard. But, in reality, we’re still not sure who is an accurate mirror and who is a distorted one. Even when we start to understand that all humans are distorted mirrors of one kind or another, because everyone has their own stuff going, we still can’t be sure what’s about us and what isn’t. And, really, where are those tools going to come from if they weren’t given to us in childhood?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my role as a synagogue school teacher, even though I only see the kids for two hours a week, because I know how validating even one compliment or smile from a teacher can be for a child. I do my best to reflect the children back to themselves accurately, and with kindness. They won’t believe me if I say they are well-behaved when they are not, or work hard when they don’t, but if I can recognize their behavior as it is, and still find something in it worth praising, that they can believe.
The problem is, I still tend to see myself as if I’m looking through a kaleidoscope, with all of these broken pieces of glass reflecting me back to myself in a million different, usually negative, ways.
When I’m teaching the kids, I’m excited and happy, and overwhelmed, and cataloguing all of the moments and interactions for later. And then I go home and the distorted mirrors of my childhood start yelling at me. They tell me that I made this mistake, and that one, and that I’m seconds away from being fired, or I should be, because I’m a terrible teacher, and I missed this hint or that nudge and failed utterly to teach anything useful. The process of unraveling the facts from the distorted reflections in my head is exhausting and painful, but the only other option would be to accept the mountain of guilt as true, and I can’t do that. Often it takes more than twenty-four or forty-eight hours to get to level ground and accept that, while there are some things I’d like to do differently next time, overall I did okay. This process involves a lot of reality checking, and replaying the tapes in my mind to make sure I heard what people actually said to me instead of what I imagined they must have been thinking.
One of the problems, for me, is that I’m still searching for accurate mirrors, wherever I go. And sometimes I look to my students to tell me who I am. If they are bored, I must be boring. If they are frustrated, I must be failing to teach them. And if every child is reflecting something different back at me, then oy vey, I must be all kinds of terrible at once.
There are times when I think Cricket would prefer it if I didn’t reflect her mood or behavior back to her quite so accurately. She’d like me to pretend that she’s a happy go lucky dog, and never bites the hand that feeds her, and never gets lost in the barking of her own mind. But then there are times when she’s relieved that I can read her so well, and be with her in her misery, and not try to cajole her into a better mood, but just accept her as she is in that moment and let her know it’s okay. And that’s what I want to do for my students, if I can. I don’t just want to teach them a little bit of Hebrew, I want to help them breathe more deeply, and see themselves, as they are, with more compassion, and maybe see others with more compassion too.
Jacquelyn Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books are favorites of mine for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love most is the way Maisie (a psychologist/investigator) mimics people’s body language so that she can feel how they are feeling. When I read about that the first time, I realized that that’s what I do, too, unintentionally. I find myself twisting my body into different shapes in response to the person across from me, feeling their confidence, or fear, or shame, or anger. After a few hours with the kids I feel something like a pretzel, with a lot of emotion to wring out of my body. My goal is to learn how to identify what’s theirs, what’s mine, and what can help me reach them more effectively, without pretzeling myself into complete knots. I expect this to take a while.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?