This post originally appeared on the blog Suburban Snow White.

The whole reason I keep a blog and create resources for my store is to provide an inspiring and safe hub for teachers who want to make the world supremely better. Better for teachers, better for students, better for animals, better for everyone. Occasionally, I’ll talk about happenings in my own life, but I shy away from sharing the parts of myself I feel like others will reject. There’s a natural impulse I think we all feel toward putting a shell around our most vulnerable parts.

I’ve long wanted to write about something that changed in my life in the past few years, but I’ve never had the guts to do so before because 1) ouch, 2) there are some icky comment trolls out there who thrive on this stuff and 3) ouch. But it seems time, especially with all the frightening changes on the national scene and how it’s suddenly okay to make fun of others for any perceived differences.

A quick glance back

Long story short, I had an accident with a knife when I was nine. It was my first week of fourth grade and I had traipsed into the woods with my new jackknife in hand. I cut my initials into a tree (against all orders to do such a thing), the knife slipped, and it went into my right eye essentially slicing it in half.

I had many surgeries, several in that first year. They were able to technically save the eye (incredible, right?) and I retained extremely limited vision. But after that day, I never looked the same.

This is, by far, the hardest thing I've ever written. But I hope this discussion of body differences and the power of vulnerability goes out into the world and helps others who have the same battles to face every day.
My and my mom’s cat. Being apparently visited by a ghost or something.

In high school, I had a cornea transplant and later, in college, my eye rejected the cornea, resulting in secondary glaucoma and further loss of sight. (Basically, it creates blisters on your eyeball, which is as painful as it sounds.) A few more surgeries in the next ten or so years got the glaucoma under control so that I was finally pain-free, though by this point, I could only detect light and dark with that eye.

As a child and later as a teenager I was, unsurprisingly, the brunt of taunts and bullying. But I told myself that this would end once I left high school. And for the most part, it did.

Years passed, and the sight in that eye steadily grew worse and my injury more noticeable. The eye wandered off to the side from disuse and calcium deposits developed on it, giving it a milky, spotted appearance.

On occasion, I’d run into a creep. During college summer break, I worked at a sandwich shop on the Cape. A middle-aged man came up to the counter where I was ready to take his order. He pulled his head back, scowled and said, “What the hell happened to your face?” I gave him my best death stare, turned around on my heel and called to someone in the back room. “Your customer!” As I left, he muttered, “What the hell’s her problem?”

On the whole, though, it didn’t affect my life negatively. I dated. Joined the Peace Corps. Had two amazing careers and traveled the world for work. I went to grad school to be a teacher and married a great guy. It seemed I’d beaten the stigma.

it's hard to move forward without the power of vulnerability.
My and my husband last year celebrating at home. It’s not the highest quality of pictures, but it totally captures how happy we were!

Becoming a teacher

Upon becoming an educator in my mid-thirties, I addressed my appearance on day one of each year to my new kiddos. The speech usually goes as follows:

Good morning! I’m so glad you are all here! We’re going to talk about two things first and then we’ll get our day started: First we’ll talk about bathrooms and the procedure for asking to leave the room {these are, after all, kids with small bladders and first-day jitters}. Then I’ll briefly tell you about my eye and why it looks a little different, because I know a lot of you are curious about that.

{blah blah, bathroom, blah blah, sign out, blah blah}

Back when I was just your age, I accidentally cut my eye with a knife. Two questions I get are 1) Did it hurt? and 2) Can you see out of it? Yes, it did hurt, but my doctors took excellent care of me. I can’t see much from that eye, though, so if you stand to my right and try getting my attention, I’m probably not going to notice you because I can’t see you. So you’ll need to move into my line of sight. {We then do a funny trial of this where one student comes up and shows how ineffectual it is to try to get my attention by standing to my right. They laugh. They get it. We move on to their more important questions, like “When do we get recess?” and “Will we get to go on field trips this year?”}

Kids are curious. But when the mystery’s addressed pronto, it becomes as boring as folding laundry. Without exception, my students are riveted during the discussion and then, once the mystery is gone, they don’t give it a second thought.

For me, posing for any picture exposes the power of vulnerability.
When they took our school photos this year, I couldn’t resist including my coffee. Our school should be sponsored by Starbucks.

So why am I talking about this?

In the past few years, my appearance has become an issue. Not for me, so much. Like every teacher, I’m moving from day to day, trying to keep on top of everything. Lesson plans, saving animals, flossing, etc. I get my hair colored and throw on some blush when I’m looking pale, but aside from that, I don’t obsess over my looks.

And it’s never been an issue for my current or past students. To them, I’m just their teacher who loves books and who constantly accuses them of stealing my coffee. (They love that joke.) I think for most of us, people become more or less beautiful based on how we feel when we’re around them.

Rather, it became an issue for the younger students in our school who didn’t know me yet. About four year ago, random children in the hallway began calling out that I was a “zombie teacher.” Students would stop me in the hallway to ask me why I was so ugly. (Honest to god. You can’t make this stuff up.) But zombie teacher was by far the most popular label they stamped me with.

I told one or two colleagues about what was happening, and they were shocked. But it didn’t change anything, so I stopped telling anyone. I felt such a deep shame that this kept happening and that I couldn’t get it to stop.

Not that I didn’t try. Several times a day, in fact, I’d have to pull kids aside in the hallway and explain that you did not speak to other people that way. I’d be as kind or as no-nonsense as possible, depending on the child, age, and situation. But still, it didn’t stop.

The power of vulnerability will win on some level every time.
Picture by Daniel Weiss

In the year of 2016, the comments increased ten-fold. Each time I had to walk down the hall to do some mundane chore, I’d tense up, waiting for the inevitable comments. I just wanted to make copies of next week’s homework, not serve as a diplomat for people with differences.

Even if nobody called out, whole lines of children would stop at stare at me, often tripping into each other, mouths agape, and would whisper to one another. I often felt like turning around and saying, “Oh honestly! Get a grip!” (No, I don’t talk to children that way. But that doesn’t stop one from getting inwardly frustrated.)

One day, I overheard a second grade girl say to her friend as they passed me in the hallway, “I wish that teacher wasn’t around. She freaks me out.” The other one laughed and responded, “Me too.” I did a 180, followed them into their classroom, and pulled their teacher out to tell her what I’d overheard. While I didn’t want to come across as a tattling child, I knew I’d want to know if my students had said something cruel about anyone. So the teacher talked to the kids.

But still, it didn’t stop.

I began going into a deep depression. I could still do my job fine, of course. My classroom/grade level was my safe haven where I could just be my silly teacher-self and get kids excited about the world around them. But then I’d get home and just be emotionally spent and feel completely rejected by the world at large.

Because it’s one thing to get older and have your looks change. We all go through that. It’s quite another to be told, day after day, that you are ugly and that people don’t want you there. Most people will be lucky enough to never experience that. Those of you who have had similar experiences know exactly how hard it is. And you’d think one would get used to it, like a callous forming over soft skin. But the callous never forms. It’s always fresh. It’s always painful.

And I began to wonder, “Are the kids just saying what all the adults are thinking? Do they just wish I’d go away?” And my logical adult part reasoned, “Well. That’s silly. Lots of people love you.” But still. The constant barrage of negative comments can wear down the strongest heart.

Election Day 2016

In 2016, we got a new principal and he kindly asked me about my eye during our first meeting. I told him the basics and shared the recent changes that had been taking place. He was genuinely upset by this and my first thought was a cynical, “Yea. Well, welcome to my life.” Then he asked if I would feel comfortable talking to the rest of the staff about it. My first thought was, “Yah…no.” Given how my prior attempts at sharing with people had resulted in no difference, I was not excited about standing up in front of my colleagues and baring my soul, only to feel more rejected when the problem didn’t improve.

But I kept the idea of the backburner for a few months. One day, upon dissolving in tears in my husband’s arms after a particularly harrowing day, I said, “This has just become unbearable.” And I decided to bite the bullet and speak to my colleagues.

The big moment of vulnerability

It was election day, and we were having a potluck-ish meeting/celebration at work for, I believe it was, early Thanksgiving? My principal had checked in with me a couple of times that day to see how I was doing, which at the time I thought was sweet but unnecessary. The hardest part, I reasoned, was actually making the decision to do it. Thanks to my past careers, I’d long been comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, so I wasn’t worried. I’d just get up, tell them what was up, ask for their assistance in talking to their kids, and that would be that. Easy peasy.

But when I walked into the art room where our meeting would be held, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt like I was going to throw up.

My heart pounded and I got unnaturally quiet. I was so dizzy, I briefly wondered if I might pass out. And I thought, “Oh no. What have I agreed to?” Because the idea of talking about this … this bomb of a subject that was wrapped up in so much shame? Shame over being the subject of kids’ disgust, fear, and, in some cases, hate? The idea of opening myself up to a whole room of people after over thirty-five years of almost-silence? It suddenly seemed too much and I felt wild panic. And yet.

The power of vulnerability can bring unexpected peace.
One of the hardest things is to be vulnerable. (Photo by Greg Rakorzy)

And yet, I knew I had to go through with it. That inner voice tut-tutted my panicky child and murmuring, “Quiet now. This is something you must do.”

The moment arrived. My principal finished the first part of the meeting and announced I wanted to talk to the staff about something that had been going on at school, and the floor was mine.

That was probably THE most terrifying moment of my life. You hear those words flung around a lot — “the most terrifying moment” — but this was fight-or-flight panic. But I stood up and began. “As some of you know and some of you don’t, I had an injury to my eye when I was nine. And I’ve paid very very dearly for it since.”

And then, my words deserted me and I fell apart. I’m not talking little tears and a constricted throat. I’m talking messy sobs. In front of the entire faculty. (Ugh.) But I couldn’t stop. And within seconds, a dear friend came up crying, hugging me tight, and saying, “You can do this. You can do this.” (She totally saved me. I was so grateful.)

And I did. I was covered in snot, but I did it. I told them everything I’d gone through and how humiliating it had been once to defend myself against one child who said I was a monster. (Someone had interfered that time and said, “No. This is Ms. ____ She’s a person! This is a human being.’ and the child had screamed, “No she’s not! She’s a monster!” ) I said I was exhausted at having to defend my existence every day. And I admitted that all my attempts to fix it had failed. I didn’t know what to do anymore.

The aftermath

When I finally felt brave enough to look out, I saw some colleagues silently crying and many open mouths. And people spoke up, saying they’d had no idea this had been going on. They were feeling the collective shock I had felt every day when kids matter-of-factly told me exactly what they thought.

And the staff talked about how to solve this together. And for the first time in, perhaps, forever, I didn’t feel alone in this. I was shocked to realize that I didn’t have to try to solve it anymore. And the relief from that was exhausting. Like putting down a backpack filled with rocksI hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying since I was nine.

Each teacher resolved to talk to his or her class. My coteacher at the time even made a small little book on the school-wide Google Drive about me so that teachers could share it with their kids. (It was super adorable.) It was one of the most open, vulnerable discussions I’ve ever been a part of. Everyone was vulnerable, not just me. The conversation was raw, it was circular, and it was honest.

The surprising result

As soon as the next day, I had teachers come stop me in the hallway to say how alive their classroom conversations had been about this. One noted that one child with differences shyly raised her hand and told her class. “That’s how I feel all the time.” And her classmates came to her and said they’d had no idea. They talked as a class about how to help her so she wouldn’t feel so alone and what to do when other kids made comment at her or stared. They came up with strategies to help and support her.

There was still staring in the hallway from the younger crowd, but the yelling of insults had stopped.

Later in the year, I spoke to the whole school at an assembly about body differences. (And I’m happy to say, I was much recovered by then, with nary a tear shed.) We repeated the exercise this year and I again talked to the whole student body. What I told them, of course, was radically different than what I told my peers. I didn’t mention anything that had ever been said to me. Instead, I talked about how we all have scars. Scars on our knees from falling down, scars from surgery. And that scars healed and were a sign that your body knew how to repair itself. And that some scars are more noticeable and some you can barely see. And how, really, our scars are probably the least interesting thing about us.

You don't need to worry about the power of vulnerability with dogs. They love you regardless of your looks.
Me and one of my two pups, Sadie Nugget.

Sometimes we can’t see the scars at all because they are inside us. Maybe we act differently than other kids because our brains have scars or were formed differently than other kids’ brains. But that the important thing is that everybody wants to be treated well regardless of whether they have scars or not.

 

Going to buy my first pair of glasses made me feel very vulnerable.
My first ever pair of glasses! I hadn’t realized that my good eye had been working so hard. It was so exciting to see again and not have to squint to read what I’d written on the board! I took this as soon as I left the store! What an incredible moment.

If this stuff bothers you so much, fix it. Get a glass eye.

Throughout my life, I have heard this comment, in varying tones, ranging from genuine concern for my happiness to frustration, as in “get over yourself.”

One reason I’ve not considered this is that health insurance would never cover it, given that it would be merely a cosmetic procedure at this point.

But more important, even if health insurance weren’t a concern, there’s something about the idea of getting surgery to look like everyone else that seems so fundamentally wrong. Having gone through many many surgeries, I can state that every one of them hurt afterwards. One left me in horrible pain from any bright lights for about 3 months. I lived like a vampire for a while, only coming out after the sun went down.

So the idea of having to go through a painful and expensive procedure? So that people will see me as worthy of kind treatment? That is messed up.

In short, the appearance of my eye doesn’t bother me at all. It’s part of me, like any scar. What is so demoralizing is some people’s reaction to it.

Messy

My thoughts are not linear here but are messy and meandering. I still haven’t figured this all out. And I get angry when films show a character is flawed and/or evil by giving him/her scars or other physical differences. Just do a Google image search for “villain” to see first-hand what I’m talking about. In Hollywood, as much as terms like “inner beauty” are bandied about, when it comes down to the wire perceived physical flaws = evil. Like people with physical differences don’t have enough on their plates. We then have to convince the world we are not, in fact, the Devil’s little helpers. (And yes, I know Wonder came out recently. But that is one film against thousands.)

The shame is still there. I wish I could say I’ve moved past it. But when I go to Target and some child grabs their mother’s leg when I approach and alternatively hides their face from me and stares? That hurts every single time. Because I love kids. And to know that I inspire fear in them? It really sucks.

But work, at least, is much easier. The younger students wave and smile now. The whispering’s finally stopped.

The conversation has started and the power of vulnerability won. And I’ll take that any day.

The conversation has started. The power of vulnerability won.
Photo by Mike Cannon

If you found this information valuable or if you know someone who would benefit by reading it, please share it. Talk to you soon, loves.

xoxo,
Katrina

 

Suburban Snow White is a Teacher-Author on TpT.   

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Suburban Snow White is a Teacher-Author on TpTKatrina Donovan Fleming has taught third and fourth grade for over twelve years. She caught the teaching bug by accident, when as a Peace Corps volunteer she was assigned to teach 800 students (K-12) in a small city in Bolivia. As a co-taught classroom teacher, she creates differentiated products that help all her kids succeed. Plus? She just loves saving fellow teachers time and energy so they can enjoy a fulfilling life outside of school. (If you are new to teaching, you’ll want to grab her free Back to School Teacher To-Do List pronto.) When not teaching or creating products, Katrina loves to take her two rescue pups for long walks, chip away at her reading challenge (mostly classics books she never got to in high school,) and rescue animals.  

Each Sunday, she posts unique ideas to her blog and website that will inspire you to make your classroom (and the world) a place you and your students adore. You can also see her teaching ideas on PinterestFacebookInstagram, and Twitter. You can find her time-saving products at her TpT store

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