Lately I have been thinking about knickknacks—the mementoes we keep to remember specific times in our lives, important people, visited places. Like Tim O’Brien’s powerful novel, The Things They Carried, we all have items we carry with us on our journey.
Many of us keep these mementoes on our smartphones—notes, pictures, songs, or screenshots that we need to have with us day to day. Some of us carry other things—a worn photo, a poker chip, a small wooden cross. I’m betting that most of us have a place where we keep even more knickknacks—at home, in our classrooms, in our journals. I constantly joke to my students about how I am a hoarder for a number of reasons, but my reasons don’t make sense to anyone else. They don’t need to. These items appear to serve no purpose to other people, but their value to me is immeasurable. They make me smile and serve as reminders, protectors, trinkets, and tangible pieces of moments of my life.
Some knickknacks can’t be seen, yet they are felt and carried by us as surely as the tangible items in our pockets and purses. The power of the veiled baggage we carry pulls, weighs, and influences us in the decisions we make and the directions we take each day. Some of this baggage we don’t realize we are even carrying until something triggers an emotional reaction from us.
Which brings me to my point and away from my amateur philosophical lesson…
As most other teachers, my email inbox becomes inundated and overpowering if I don’t constantly check it and delete the garbage. Since I was away from my classroom for a few days this week, I made a point to check my email at least daily to make sure things were running relatively smoothly. One email caught my eye… and then another.
BAM! Then my emotional response hit, and I had to pause—step back—think about why I immediately became so pissed. I found myself questioning this person’s intentions and my expectations and own needs for validation. It became pretty clear that I was carrying some baggage that needed to be addressed.
The first four years of my teaching career were hard for a multitude of reasons. One reoccurring problem was the fact that I worked with a couple of people—one a supervisor and the other a colleague—who constantly took credit for other people’s work. I never noticed this to be the case until I was the one robbed of intellectual property.
I can remember the moment with exact clarity: I was sitting across the desk from my evaluator in his office, and we were having a talk about instruction and student achievement. He was trying to make a point with me about something I already agreed with, but he wasn’t satisfied with the level of admiration I was giving to his idea, so he said, Hang on. Let me show you what I’m talking about. He pulled a file up on his computer, turned the screen so I could see the content, and I was greeted with a presentation I had created.
I said nothing. Just finished the conversation and went about with my day. I’m sure I later mentioned it to my instructional coach who admitted she’d had the same experience multiple times.
I don’t know the details about how he received my work, but I have my suspicions. None of it matters, though. I hadn’t wanted accolades for the work I had produced; the only reason I had created the presentation in the first place was to help teachers to help students. For this reason, I never mentioned it to him and never made it an issue.
But it continued. Not just with me, but I saw many of my colleagues creating amazing tools for the classroom and our school community, and I saw the same people take credit for their ideas time after time. No one ever addressed it.
Let’s state the obvious: Most teachers are not in the business of education for accolades and awards. The best credit they get comes from the successes they witness from their students. The best awards are when students come back and visit well after graduation and tell their teachers how they made an impact on their lives. Those moments explain many of the knickknacks teachers carry on their hearts.
But some of those knickknacks look more like scars—baggage that forces us to hesitate, avoid taking risks, makes us consider taking the easy route to avoid making waves—these are debilitating and binding.
I can’t do anything about what’s happened in the past, but I can learn from my experiences. Flash forward to checking my email and my immediate irritation: someone has shared information which originated from me without my permission. Whether the intentions behind it were pure or malicious don’t matter. What matters is making my thinking visible and my intentions transparent.
The lesson? The first time you let a person get away with something, you have given them permission to do it again. And again. And again. Each time they get away with it, the conversation to rectify the issue seems more and more difficult. Just jump in. Get it over with. Make your intentions and expectations known, so there can be no questioning who you are.
Don’t let that baggage weigh you down. Learn from it… let it go… Don’t let the scars people have left on you define your actions in the future.
However, hang onto those knickknacks that make you smile. Even if they only make sense to you.