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Popcorn Walls and Thin Ledges

STORY TIME: I was twelve when we moved to France the summer between my seventh and eighth grade year.  We got a two-bedroom apartment in Lingolsheim, a small town outside Strasbourg.  The walls were that popcorn texture – and there were so many steps – I remember often accidentally scraping my arm against it. 

I don’t know what made my parents decide to move to France that summer.  We enrolled in school, learned about how French people had long lunches, and how shops were closed on Wednesdays.  I remember playing my game boy in the hospital parking lot while we waited for my dad to do his interview.  My little sister was six, and she picked up French so quickly.

I was excited to finally be with family.  I would sit in my grandmother’s living room, looking at photo albums, longing to somehow be in the pictures of my cousins hanging out and growing up together.  Now, finally, we would have that chance.  

Despite all this, my other sister pitched a fit, complained about missing friends and McDonalds, and before I knew it, we were flying back home. 

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These days, it’s not often that teachers get to choose what they teach, and in some cases, even how they teach.  

With the pandemic, we finally were able, at least, to choose our “what”, however, our hands were somewhat tied with the “how” due to the remote aspect of “remote” learning – but anyway…

When asked to recommend a short story, I jumped at the chance to share Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket by Jack Finney with our students. 

I laid in bed Saturday night – thinking about the story – and I desperately wished I could remember when the first time I taught this story was, but I couldn’t.  On the other hand, I can tell you exactly why I love sharing this story with my story – see below.

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For this week’s check-in, students were asked to agree or disagree with the following statements:

  • Work should be the most important part of a person’s life.
  • You should trust your instincts (gut) when making decisions.
  • People should take risks in their lives. 
  • You should do whatever it takes to get ahead in your career.
  • People will do anything to survive in their careers.
  • People will do anything to survive in their relationships.
  • Survival depends more on courage than common sense.

I guess part of me likes this story, because, in light of the “new normal” brought on by this pandemic, we all have a lot of time to observe and to think about our priorities. 

Work should be the most important part of a person’s life.Disagree: 66%Agree: 34%
In the story, Tom decides to work on something for his job, instead of joining his wife at the movies.  A turn of events has him risking his life, and he realizes that no job is worth risking your life. 

I remember early in my career, a mentor teacher asked me “Do you want to live to work, or work to live?”  At the time, and still to be honest, my work was my life.  I’ve said it before, but a huge part of my identity is wrapped up in my role as a teacher. 

Two summers ago, after one of the hardest years of my teaching career, my dad told me to “Stop complaining.”  Granted, he never supported my decision to become a teacher – but he was done listening to me talk about a job he cautioned me against in the first place. 

I felt like I had been thrown in the ocean without a life jacket.  If I couldn’t talk to my parents, who could I talk to? Slowly, I began to realize that something had to change – and in that moment, I felt a shift. 

You should trust your instincts (gut) 
when making decisions.
Agree: 94%Disagree: 6%
In the story, if Tom had listened to his gut, he would have joined his wife from the start, and not risked his life on the ledge.  However, without having gone through that ordeal, Tom may never have realized what truly was important. 

I will tell you the ONLY thing you need to know here –  ALWAYS trust your gut. Period. 

People should take risks in their lives. Agree: 94%Disagree: 6%
In the story, Tom takes a BIG risk trying to rescue an important document.  In fact, he risks the most important thing a person can risk… his life.  There is this moment, in the story, when Tom is on the ledge, and he realizes, “he had made a mistake” (Finney 4) and is frozen in terror.

One of my favorite French adages is, “Qui ne risque rien, n’a rien.” which, loosely translates to He risks nothing, has nothing

You should do whatever it takes to get
ahead in your career.
Agree: 72%Disagree: 28%
In the story, Tom chooses to work from home, instead of accompanying his wife.  

Whether it’s fair or not, I feel like this is a harder reality for women, than for men.  When I hear this statement, a statement which 72% of students agreed with – the majority being female students, I can’t help but think about all the compromises women have to make in order to “get ahead” in our careers.   Here’s an article from The Atlantic outlining “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” which speaks on this reality.

People will do anything to survive in their careers.Agree: 65%Disagree: 35%
In the story, the fact that Tom was willing to risk his life going on that ledge in order to grab an important paper – is a testament to how being so single-minded in prioritizing work over everything else – can truly be dangerous.
People will do anything to survive 
in their relationships.
Agree: 57%Disagree: 43%
No evidence in the story to support this statement – which, ironically, supports the point I am trying to make about how we prioritize work over relationships.
Survival depends more on courage 
than common sense.
Disagree: 54%Agree: 46%
In the story, SURVIVAL takes on several faces. In the beginning, survival is all about Tom staying at home and doing work so that he can get ahead. In the middle, survival is all about Tom making it back inside after risking his life to grab an important paper for work. In the end, survival is all about Tom prioritizing what really is important. When it comes to survival – context matters. 

We are all surviving something – and when you’re in that mode, you do what you can – and that takes courage.  In fact, I would argue that “common sense” – as it is being used here, is a bit patronizing.  

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This is the last short story we are sharing with our students before the school year ends.  

The MESSAGE I want students to take away from this is that, when it matters (AND IT ALWAYS MATTERS), there are more important things in life than work.  

That summer, twenty-six years ago, my parents made a choice.  Often, when we are younger, all we can do is trust that the people who are responsible for us are making the right choices. Even if it’s as simple as choosing which story to share. Because, I have a feeling, that twenty-six years from now, this will be the moment that they remember – maybe not the story – but hopefully, the message. 

With that having been said, now is the perfect time to re-prioritize what is important to you.  Don’t wait until you’re on a ledge to figure out what truly matters. 

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