Leap of Faith: Keeping Promises Made to Myself and My Students

Remember that scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? You know, the one that still makes my stomach fall through me, the one that has me holding my breath like I’m 11 years old, sitting too close to the TV, unable to look away or even close my eyes? This one:

Leapoffaith

Indy’s big leap of faith, wherein his only chance to retrieve the Holy Grail and save his father demands that he walk across this gaping chasm of certain death, trusting that, despite all visual evidence to the contrary, there is a bridge and he will not fall.

By the time I was 11 and seeing Last Crusade for the first time, I was well-acquainted with Dr. Jones. I’d seen him fight bad guys, dodge bullets, survive Shortround’s driving skills, live through Spielberg’s extremely racist representations of Indian culture (thanks, by the way, for years of being asked if I’d brought monkey brains for lunch), and not have his face melted off by vengeful ghosts. I already thought he was dreamy and daring. But this scene, this terrifying moment, his determination to do what seemed to me impossible at the time – this was the bravest thing I’d ever seen him do.

Faith is, I think, at the center of bravery. Often I have had students examine and define and redefine “brave.” Their beginning definitions focus on physical strength, fighting, and protectiveness. But as we consider the actions and people that count as brave in our eyes, and share those stories and experiences, the definition of “bravery” evolves. Different groups of students regard the word differently, but many students note that the people we consider brave are admired for believing in things that no one else did, carrying on when situations seemed hopeless. That’s having faith, isn’t it? Believing when there is no evidence to support you, holding on when no one is on your side.

Of course, we can go too far. The line between confidence and a closed mind can be finer than we realize. But I can’t deny that it takes courage to have faith, and bravery requires believing when it is least possible, least convenient. It doesn’t mean not being scared, or never having a doubt. It means facing that doubt, that fear, and taking another step forward anyway.

At the beginning of the year, I made some promises to myself, about my classroom, my students, and my teaching. I’ve tried to be true to those resolutions, but I’m finding myself looking down right now, staring straight between my feet into the yawning darkness below. Because there’s no bridge, not really, no tried and true, foolproof way to get x result by y deadline. There is what I believe, what I know has worked in the past, and what I’ve promised to myself. These are the supports I count on carrying me across the chasm of this school year. I tell myself not to look down, like they do in the movies. And then, like they do in the movies, I look down. I look down because maybe I am not reflective enough and what I believe needs to be updated or reexamined. And I look down because, yes, these things worked in the past, but this is a whole new year, a new group of students; this is not the past, it’s now. And I look down because the promises I’ve made don’t focus on state test scores and Common Core Standards and buzzwords that are repeated and rebranded at every PD meeting. Those promises are about what I believe is best for my students, but doubt is starting to creep in.

It’s testing season in New York City – today starts January Regents Week. January is generally a frenzy of test prep – review packets, paragraph templates, acronyms for testing strategies. Meanwhile, my classroom routines proceed as usual: quote of the week, TED Talk or NPR story, slice-of-life writing, peer feedback days. I try to be the calm center of the test prep oasis, redirecting pent-up energy and soothing rising anxiety, but my own panic clamors. As test practice consumes the rest of their day, am I being too lax? Years of experience have led me to believe that, while students should be familiar with the state assessment, practicing by taking old English Regents over and over does not help them pass the upcoming exam. But what if I’m wrong? What if developing reading and writing skills and independence isn’t enough? I can’t help but look down, hoping that the bridge is still there. Not that looking does much good. The tricky thing about faith is that you can’t see what you’re looking for.

If I could make a graph of New Year’s Resolutions and our attitudes towards them, the first two weeks of January would show a steady climb. Enthusiasm is high at the beginning of year, generally. But around the third week, many resolvers start to waver. And some just plummet. The graph would show a mountain’s downward slope around now, and it’s not because we can’t accomplish our resolutions, or that they’re too hard or unrealistic. It’s that we start to doubt ourselves. We lose faith in our ability to stick to the resolutions we set. Around here, the line of my graph would split. One branch would continue sloping down, but the other would start climbing back up. Because many of us give up when we start doubting ourselves. Many of us can’t recover. But some of us face that doubt, and come back. Some can renew their faith, strengthen their resolve.

I have to believe, like Indy, even when the course I’ve set seems impossible, even when I doubt that I will make it to the other side. My faith isn’t blind, my path is not reckless. But it is difficult, and this won’t be the first time I look down and wonder if I’m actually standing on anything. I just have to decide to be brave, and take the next step forward anyway.

How’s your faith holding up? What are you doing to keep your and your students’ faith in the classroom? I’d love to hear your comments!

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