Burning Desire For FIRE

Financial-Independence-Retire-Early(er). Achieved the first two letters of FIRE, now onto the rest!

Reaching FI = resilience. Where do we learn this?

Of course, there’s no generic answer to this question. We all travel through life in our different ways and we learn whatever it is that we choose to learn along the way. But I believe that there’s one quality that people who reach Financial Independence share and that is resilience.

Resilience is the ability to get back up after we’ve been knocked down. It’s the ability to set a goal and go for it, even though the way grows tedious and dull. People show resilience when, if the original plan doesn’t work or if they fall off the wagon, they tweak the plan and keep on going, rather than throw their hands up in surrender.

As a teacher and parent, I want both sets of my kids, (biological and my students), to enter the grown-up world as kind and resilient people. But how do we do this? Unfortunately, despite what many parents appear to believe, simply telling kids, “You can do it!” isn’t enough – in fact, it often has the opposite effect.

I believe that people need opportunities to “grow” their resilience, preferably way before they actually need to face real-life situations where possessing this quality is crucial.

One of the classes I teach is a year 9 English class. This year, my year 9’s are almost robotically good – who would believe that a group of 16-year-olds, awash with hormones, would be this dedicated to their lessons?? However, as the year went along the admin introduced a couple of school refusers into the class. Let’s call them Betty and Chaz.

These kids both have home lives that are problematic. Both are sometimes reluctant to come to class and the school is doing its best to get them to feel comfortable about school again and to get into the groove of following a normal routine. It’s a delicate balancing act – too draconian and you’ll scare the kids off for life; too lax and they’ll walk in and out as if they own the place, which isn’t good either way.

In effect, this basically means that you never know when they’re going to be in front of you on any given day.

In the last 3 weeks of term we do Poetry. I start it off by selecting some poems and songs that I absolutely love, such as Dulce et Decorum Est, Introduction to Poetry, Ozymandias, My Last Duchess, Starry Night, and Eleanor Rigby. I begin by telling the kids about the poet and any background abut the poem they need to know, (they love hearing about things like Robert Browning’s elopement, the background about World War One and about Vincent Van Gogh’s life), then we dive in and look at how the poets use language to get their points across.

The end result is that the kids have to write a poem, then read it out to the class and give a short talk about which poetic techniques they’ve used in their poems and what emotional response they were trying to elicit from their audience by using them.

It’s a bit daunting for most kids, but every year we end up with some fabulous work, sometimes from the most surprising kids. But what do you do with kids like Betty and Chaz who shy away from anything confronting?

Do you force them to do it? Do you let them skate away from it? Neither one gives them the chance to develop resilience…

About two weeks in, someone in the welfare staff sent me an email telling me that Betty was suffering great anxiety over the public speaking aspect and she asked me if I’d let Betty off doing it.

This is a tough one. Over the years, I’ve seen how debilitating anxiety and depression can be and I certainly don’t want a little poetry speech to make the problem worse. I know that she has a lot on her plate in her day to day life.

But then again… it’s only a little poetry speech. How will she learn to push through difficult tasks if we keep taking them away from her? I replied that I’ll have a chat with her after class.

Betty’s a lovely kid. She sits up the back with a couple of friends, hiding under a long fringe that hangs over her eyes, taking every chance to dive into the current novel she’s reading. She seems to enjoy English. After the next class I asked her to stay behind. I told her I received the email, but I wanted her to at least write a poem. I said up front that my goal was to see her do the task in front of the whole class like everyone else, but we’d take it a step at a time.

“Do you think you can write a poem with enough poetic techniques in it to be able to write a speech about it?” I asked.

“Yes Miss, I think I can,” she said.

At 10 PM that night she sent me an email.

“Hi Ms Jones, I’ve finished the poem, however I haven’t started on the explanation and I’m not sure how to explain the writing techniques I used In the poem. 
I’m actually really scared to present in front of everyone. Oral presentations are seriously my nightmares, so im extremely nervous. 
I genuinely don’t think im ready, yet I still want to give you at least something. Thank you for understanding. 
Yours sincerely, Betty. “

My reply?

“Coolio. We’ll have a chat after lunch. I’m glad you wrote the poem… nice work!”

Ok, first step done. She wrote something. I honestly wasn’t sure she’d even do that. Most kids like this *cough cough Chaz* just disappear until the task is finished and they’ll get an N/A mark.

As anyone who’s ever tried to teach somebody a skill knows, you seriously can’t teach anyone anything unless they actively want to learn and make at least some kind of effort. I could talk to Betty and Chaz until I was blue in the face about the importance of learning how to speak in front of others. I could tell them about how in practically any job I can think of there’ll be a meeting to speak at, a task to report on, a lecture to give, etc etc.

But if they don’t produce even the bare bones of what the task requires, I can’t help them. It’s impossible to steer a stationary vehicle.

But Betty isn’t standing still. She’s started to move. I wanted to keep her momentum going.

As luck would have it, we were heading into a double period. We’d be knocking over the rest of the speeches that day. Betty’s friend Zelda had already done her speech and earned an ‘Outstanding’. Maybe, while the rest of the class were performing and watching the speeches, Zelda could help Betty build her confidence and get her speech down? After all, Betty likes and trusts Zelda and they’re both very good writers…

So I grabbed the girls and set them to the side at the back. Betty was hesitant at first, but Zelda was all over it. As the class went on and kid after kid stepped up to the front to perform their poem and the analysis, Betty and Zelda were whispering to each other and typing. Zelda’s a little… shall we say… exuberant at times and when she got excited about something I’d have to ask her to pipe down, but apart from that it all went well.

By the end of the lesson they came up to me, Zelda beaming and Betty shyly smiling.

“How did you go?” I asked. “Do you have the speech written?”

“Most of it,” said Betty. “I just have to finish it off at home tonight.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to knock it off in tomorrow’s lesson?” I asked. “Then we can start watching a movie.”

Betty nodded. Zelda turned to go, then looked back and said, “Wait till you see her poem, Miss. It’s really good!”

As I drove into work the next morning I wondered if Betty would be there. We had two classes left before the school holidays and it would be very easy for her to simply ghost the class for two days and turn up again next term, knowing that we’d be moving on to new work.

Period 2, I walked down the corridor and scanned the class waiting outside the room. I saw Zelda… and Betty. She was standing right beside the door. As I turned the key, I smiled at her and airily said, as if it was all totally routine and there was no drama involved at all, “Are you ready to go?”

She smiled. “Yes Miss. It’s all done.”

“Coolio. I’ll call the roll and put the Dad joke on the board. While I’m doing that, send me your poem so I can throw it up on the interactive whiteboard.”

After calling the roll, I said to the class, ‘Before we start the movie we have one more poem to hear. Betty, you’re up!”

As she walked to the front of the room, I found her poem in my emails and threw it up on the board so we could all see what she wrote. Betty walked past me, outwardly composed but very pale. Her hands were slightly shaking.

She stood and faced the room and read her poem. You could have heard a pin drop. Even my two talkative boys at the back were silent.

Then she stood straight up, glanced at her cue cards and began her analysis.

She spoke about how she was paralysed with fear about this task and that the only thing she could think to write about was how she was feeling, as it was so overwhelming.

She spoke about how the poem explores anxiety, and how she wrote the poem both to explore it in herself and to let anyone reading it who also suffers from anxiety know that they’re not alone… that everyone feels anxious at times and that it’s perfectly normal.

She spoke about how she used repetition to show how waves of anxiety can roll over and over, and how she used a simile of a bird with no wings to explore the feeling of the anxiety denying her the freedom to soar and express herself – how a bird with no wings is no longer able to do what a bird is meant to do. How she used rhyme to hold the poem together and give it a structure, just as someone with anxiety tries to do every day.

She spoke in a clear, confident voice, looking out at the class and rarely referring to her cue cards. I glanced back at Zelda and caught her eye. Her face was glowing with excitement and pride. I’m sure mine was too.

When Betty finished, the class spontaneously broke into applause. I jumped off my table and ran up to her and gave her a hug. “I’m so damned proud of you!” I whispered.

You should have seen her face. She was glowing. She did it!

Yeah, I gave her an “Outstanding.” Not just because she had the backbone to actually do the thing that she was so scared to do. I gave her the ‘Outstanding’ because she stood up there and earned it.

Now, this is only a little poetry speech. It’s not going to change the world. But Betty showed that she has resilience. She was petrified of doing this thing, but with some gentle prodding from me, a willingness FROM HERSELF to at least produce something to work from, some encouragement and support from Zelda to help her see how she had to structure her speech to get her message across, she was able to do it. And do it well.

Resilience doesn’t mean that you feel no fear. It doesn’t mean that when you start you know what to do and have all the answers. Showing resilience means that you have an idea about what you want to achieve and you’re open to finding ways to help you get there. Resilience means doing things step by step, even if they’re difficult or tedious, but sticking to it until the job is done. Exactly the kind of things that people who reach Financial Independence do.

Want to see Betty’s poem? Here it is:

I am Scared. 

“But of what?” they declare. 

As I stood there, I had to accept that I was unaware. 

Thinking about it made my head ache. 

Thinking about it made my voice quake. 

Thinking about it made my heart break. 

Does anyone else have that feeling? 

When your palms are sweaty,

Then you can’t stop shaking. 

And your mind is breaking.

Why are my thoughts forsaking?

Is it just me? 

I can’t escape this feeling.  

I feel like a bird with no wings.

Unable to fly

But ready to try 

and willing to die 

Everyone watches. What have I got?

Please! I beg you! Don’t put me on the spot. 

Why don’t they understand?

as I begin to wonder, I go up and stand. 

“Why can’t you just face your fears?’’

Must I? Oh, dear…

It’s really not my day,

I guess that must be the only way. 

“Just calm down,” they say.

I struggle to talk. I cannot think to ask 

the polite girl next to me to help with my task.

My thoughts help me see

I’m just being a bother, Believe me

I’ll just leave it be;

I am scared.

19 Comments

  1. Damn. I want you to be my son’s English teacher! His is a pompous arse with no idea how to handle kids who are not engaged (in spite of son growing up loving reading, surrounded by hundreds of books, being read to every night till his teen years, etc). Sigh.
    Wonderful story. Your students are very fortunate to have you. Betty’s poem is beautiful.

    • The kids could absolutely tell that this poem came from the heart and they responded beautifully. I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from them if I… well… asked them to do it!
      Thanks for your kind words. If your son has a love of language he’ll always have it. But yeah – teachers do make a difference sometimes.

  2. This is so powerful – I’m now teary! Thank you for sharing Betty’s story – totally understand her fear of public speaking but good on her for pushing through and good on you for not giving up on her. Resilience is a life ‘skill’ that we all need sooner or later

  3. Teaching kids to write poetry is fine as far as it goes, but how will it help them to cope with the ongoing problems of energy decline and climate change? Seems as though schools haven’t really entered the real world yet.

    • I dunno… it might help to keep their spirits up as they write a rollicking show tune about Armageddon!
      I read this comment to Ryan24… he says that young people already know about all of this – it’s the people in power who aren’t listening. He says that you can’t blame the schools – “We already know about it and we can’t do anything…”
      (Plus – to be fair Bev – I’m an English teacher, not a geography teacher.)

  4. Oh, so lovely… and exactly why teachers can be so important in young lives. I had a little cry…

  5. That’s a heart warming post. Way to go you! If you hadn’t helped step by step to build her confidence and skills to do it, she wouldn’t have been able to. I’m a school “administrator” and there’s so much in here that I’d love to share with parents who often want us to back right off as if saying someone has anxiety means they shouldn’t change, grow or develop the skills to overcome their fears. And it’s stories like this that want be to return to being the English teacher I was.

  6. Arts and humanities are so important to personal AND professional development. The ability to empathize, think creatively, use your imagination — these are all critical for negotiation and other career-related skills. Love that you’re teaching poetry!

    • I really enjoy the year 9 poetry unit. I try and switch the kids on to how vivid good poetry can be. Hopefully, some poems I read with them will become like old friends to them as they go through life.

  7. I have two kids w anxiety issues and I *totally* love this post. We talk a lot about how you can’t let the anxiety win (as your world ends up just getting smaller and smaller) and you broke this down for your student in exactly the way our support team recommends we do. Very inspiring!

  8. “This is only a little poetry speech. It’s not going to change the world”

    – I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Sounds like everyone who witnessed it was positively impacted by it, and I dare say that goes for your readers too. Moments like this are exactly what changes the world.

  9. That’s just a lovely story. Very uplifting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *