In horror and ghost stories, facing our monsters and calling them by name is the key to neutralizing them. We root for the heroines and heroes who stop running or hiding and summon the courage to face their fears. And becoming a hero is a two-step process.
The fearful would-be heroine decides at some point to look her monster in the eye and then she speaks its name out loud. She is transformed in this moment: no longer full of dread, running or hiding, her potential threat is vanquished by her willingness to see it and call it by its true name. She is unburdened of her fear and is elevated to someone we can look to when we need to find our own courage.
Of course when she — and we — do this the ghost always evaporates. The fire-breathing dragon writhes in pain and crumples down into itself, disappearing into smoke (or even better, turning into a manageable baby lizard). The silent, staring demon coolly turns and glides away, less demonic, more detailed and in focus…and if we look carefully, sometimes even wearing Birkenstocks or checking its phone.
And so it goes for us as staff members and as parents in our kids’ schools. Or rather, so it goes in our own heads, as we interact with each other on behalf of them and often inadvertently, to their detriment.
But the catch is this: we can’t identify the name of what we fear, and sometimes feel angry about, until we take in its details and look it in the face. We know this. This is the heroic leap of faith that we admire in each other. Our transformation to heroine does not occur when we vanquish our fears, it’s in this breathtaking moment of vulnerability when we turn around and face the Other. This leap of faith, of risking everything and being small, allows us to become bigger, badder and calmer than whatever we hide or run from. And with the calm we find in ourselves real power.
In our public schools there are alliances and successes among stakeholders but there is also anger, fear, hiding, accusations, blame, suspicion. Adults live with dragons and demons that aren’t actually what they appear to be: a parent who fires off an angry email to a teacher without asking questions first; a teacher who doesn’t phrase her student feedback with much kindness; or the principal with favorites and penchants for staff meetings and new demands.
The real monsters in schools live inside the adults and haunt us from the inside. They chase us with awful possibilities. That we are not respected. That we will be judged harshly as teachers or leaders. That our child, career, income, or dignity are at great risk. Schools are not filled with bad adults, they are filled with decent adults with un-faced fears.
Before we turn to each other in partnership or can move through conflict consciously for the sake of our students, we have our demons to face. Fear of conflict. Fear of the complexity of challenging relationships instead of summarily dismissing each other. Fear of being found lacking.
If our students knew how afraid their circle of adults in schools often are of each other, they would root for us to turn around to face and recognize each other for who we actually are: well-intentioned, caring educators, parents, teachers, leaders…all with differing obligations to our students yet nearly each one wanting to do right by students. They’d root for us to de-monster each other in our own heads, to be brave and calm, and to become heroes for them so that they might learn to do the same when they need to be heroes, together, for someone else more vulnerable than themselves.