Put Together

“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”

I had to smile and it’s a good thing I was wearing a mask. I have been asked this question over and over since I started teaching at the tender age of 21. At that time I felt as though I knew nothing about anything, and some days that was true. Now, I like occupying the space between young enough to be relatable and old enough to be wise.

My answer has always been the same internally – What? Me? Put together? – but I’ve gotten better at articulating a message. It’s important to appreciate the intent behind such a question, which is not to find out about my life. Rather, these students want to know how to manage their own lives. They are uncertain and want to know that there is hope for a time when they will not feel uncertain.

I’ve been given the honour of speaking at graduation and I think the speech will include a part about the uncertainty of one’s life path. But when I was talking to this student yesterday, I answered her question in way that actually got me thinking and perhaps there’s something to that.

Context is important here. The student who asked me this question has been in my Advisory for the past two years, and while I haven’t taught her in a class, I am privy to her difficulties managing time, getting along with teachers, and living away from parents. I know that she has had a hard time; she was the happiest I’ve seen her when she spent our online learning period in her home country. The other two students in the room were also not students I have taught, but who I know a little bit about. They were listening as I answered, especially the quiet young man in the back of the room who even raised his face from his laptop for a moment. I looked over at him and he knew I knew.

“Miss, at what age did you feel that you had your life together?”

“Well, I guess the question is what it means to be together. We only see what people show us externally, right? We don’t know what’s going on inside. And I think a lot of the time we put on an external face but inside, we’re in pieces.”

“But how are you able to do that?”

“To appear like everything’s fine?”

“Mhm.”

“I think that’s something we learn to do. We all have coping mechanisms, right? You know when you’re having a bad day but I might not. And sometimes you just put that bad day in your pocket and go about your business until you get home and then you can fall apart. But I think we forget that other people are doing the same thing because we don’t see them like that. We only see what they show us, so that’s all we know of them.”

“Hm.”

Perhaps not the answer the student was hoping for, but the most honest one that I have. This is a student who is obviously struggling and doesn’t see, when she looks at everyone around her, that she’s not the only one. And so she feels alone. I know this because we have talked about it.

For me, this raises a few questions about cultural context and about social media. My school is highly westernized, a pervasive problem among international schools. (Danau Tanu’s book Growing Up in Transit is a stunning exploration of this and it led several colleagues and me to a crisis of being earlier this year.) The way a student might have been enculturated to respond to problems, then, quite possibly does not match the dominate narrative of our school, which leads to further confusion. Additionally, social media is highly westernized, and social media in American English presents a dominant narrative of what “okay” and “not okay” look like. (I am indebted to Lisa Feldmen Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, which I’ve mentioned before. I cannot recommend this book enough.)

Putting this together, it is no wonder that this student is struggling to cope. She belongs to a culture that has a different mental health narrative than the educational climate and social media context in which she spends her time. This might seem a bit abstract, but I think this problem is clear in a very concrete way in social media narratives. Overwhelmingly, social media does not portray people who are not okay. We’re supposed to be happy. And we’re supposed to post photos demonstrating that we are happy. And we’re supposed to “like” or “love” or “react” to other people, whether we know them or not, to reinforce how happy we are that they are happy.

This is clearly not healthy. And so I have more questions. What was the world like before social media took over? Were people more open with each other? More honest? Did young people have a more realistic sense of what real life was like? Were young people actually in the world instead of hidden and sheltered from it?

I suspect that in some ways, questions like these have always been asked across generations. And young people have always grown into functioning adults. I just hope that the conversations we have with them, and the way we treat their concerns, help them grow in ways that are adaptive rather than giving them a false sense about what it really means to put our lives together. (Hint: There is no celebratory medal announcing that we’ve got it right.)

So when I did I have my life together? I’m not sure what “together” looks like. But I know I am living my life and that, in and of itself, is enough.

For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. . . . So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. – Alfred D’Souza

Maribor, Slovenia – January 2020

5 thoughts on “Put Together”

  1. We Love your blog.

    hugs and kisses xoxoxoxoxo

    On Tue, May 4, 2021 at 9:28 AM By Rebecca Michelle wrote:

    > Rebecca Michelle posted: ” “Miss, at what age did you feel that you had > your life together?” I had to smile and it’s a good thing I was wearing a > mask. I have been asked this question over and over since I started > teaching at the tender age of 21. At that time I felt as thought” >

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing enjoyed you post and this part resonates with me “I’m not sure what “together” looks like. But I know I am living my life and that, in and of itself, is enough.” absolutely agree…sending love and light..

    Like

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