Identity: Capable

In the fall semester of 2015, I started a Master’s program in school counseling. Three months later, I hated it. I felt I was pursuing this path because it seemed like the logical next step in my career. My life has never followed a “logical next step” trajectory, and it felt dishonest to who I am as a person. I don’t say that to discount the wonderful work of counselors, just that it isn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself as a counselor ten years out, and that’s not a good start to a two-year program.

Three months is not long to decide to quit graduate school. You can imagine my embarrassment when family and friends asked how my first semester went, and only months after telling them I was going back to school, I was telling them I wouldn’t be returning for a second semester. When I cited that “my heart wasn’t in it,” I could see older adults give me that generational side-eye reserved for millennials perpetually “figuring it out.”

But my mind was made up, and I withdrew with only 6 hours to my transcript.

In the midst of this change of heart, something else was pulling at me. As an undergraduate receiving my Bachelor’s in Religion from TCU, I wrote my senior thesis on the intersections of hip-hop and religion, specifically Black Liberation Theologies made manifest in Kanye West’s and Jay Z’s 2011 Watch The Throne album. I am deeply passionate about these intersections, as anyone who talks me for five minutes can assess.

Every semester since graduating, my professor invites me back to his class to share my research with his students. For months I look forward to this day, spending hours tweaking and updating the presentation. When I step into his room, I get this certain feeling I struggle to put into words. For one hour every six months, I am given the space to talk about my passion in front of a group of students who might have their perspective shifted by my ideas. It is the fastest hour of my life each time, and I long for more. I believe this is what people talk about when they cite the cliché (that may hold some truth) that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

It is this feeling that I have chosen to pursue. In the spring, I applied for Master’s programs in Theological Studies, and I accepted admission at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth. I am thrilled to attend this institution because they stand for the things I stand for, and stand for the things I want to stand for. My goal is to eventually become a college professor who spends his life geeking out over hip-hop with college students who need to see what passion for your work looks like.

Although I am beyond joyful about this decision, it has come with another choice that leaves my heart heavy. After three years teaching at my school in Oak Cliff, I made the difficult decision to leave the classroom. I had hoped to continue working there in the years it will take to receive my degree, but the cards did not fall this way.

I often see people criticize young teachers, particularly those who go through Teach For America (as I did), that we use teaching as a “stepping-stone” to the next thing. This is a valid critique in many ways. It was never my intention, nor was it my intention to leave the classroom this soon. My heart is breaking over the 100+ kids I have come to love in room P11. I’ve cried, I wrote and rewrote letters to my students, and for weeks I denied that leaving was the only possible solution. I even asked to become a part-time teacher at my school, but was turned down.

I am experiencing a bit of an identity crisis, as I am not sure whether I can comfortably put “teacher” next to my name anymore. I maybe won’t be called Mr. Taylor (or Mr. T or Mr. Benjamin) for some time. I thought I would have at least two more years with students I have taught every day since 2013, and now I don’t have one more day with them. I have been a teacher and a mentor and a brother and a friend. Now what?

A person who tells me hard and important things recently heard this spiel from me, and set me straight. They told me I have been a teacher longer than three years. They told me I was a teacher when I was 19 and interning at my first church. When peers look up to me, I’m a teacher. When my kids continue to reach out to me over the next few years (as I hope they will), I will be their teacher. As I attend graduate school for many years to come, I will learn how to be a better teacher and will use it. A classroom with my name on it doesn’t make me a teacher. Who am I makes me that.

These words roll around my head, working against my insecurities and sense of loss, some days taking the upper hand, some days disappearing out of sight. It is a terrifying thing to believe you are someone. The oft-quoted poem from Marianne Williamson holds up: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate./Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

I am afraid to follow my dream of becoming a college professor, hurt that it has already cost me a job I so deeply care about, worried that I will fail and face more than embarrassment amongst my peers.

But I cannot deny I am capable. I cannot pretend I don’t want this more than anything. I cannot ignore daydreams of writing books about rap and speaking before students with a hunger for knowledge. I want it. And I will fight for it.

Yesterday, as I was turning in my resignation to my school, I received an email from a student who recently graduated. The student needed help with submitting documents to the college they’ll be attending this fall. They were starting to worry. On Monday, I am turning in my computer and packing up my room. “Can you meet me at school Monday?” I asked. “You don’t know how much I appreciate you,” the student replied. And for once, I believe it: I’m a teacher, and I always will be. Where that takes me is anyone’s guess, but I don’t have to worry about who I am.

I am capable, and that is the most frightening and wonderful thing we can choose to be.

This blog has been dedicated to teaching for the better part of three years, and I know that most of my readers are here for my stories in the classroom. I will be shifting the tone of this blog to a broader perspective on my life going forward. It will include stories from more aspects of my life, but it will take on a particular focus that I will roll out in the next few days. Whether or not you choose to keep up with me, I want to thank you for reading this blog. I cannot tell you how often I read encouraging comments from old blogs. They kept me going these three years. I know they will continue to.

4 replies on “Identity: Capable”

So very Ben. You have always been a teacher if for nothing else, just by the example you have set for countless numbers of kids, including mine. I wish you all the very best in this new journey you are about to embark on.

I am so very proud of you for following your heart. You will continue to be an excellent teacher to all those whose lives you touch.

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