My Student Didn't Know She Was Un-muted: A Valuable Lesson About How We Treat Others
Last week I was teaching a college success course virtually and was going over some information with 90 first year college students.
During the Zoom call one student accidentally un-muted herself, and began to loudly confess not only that she felt woefully unprepared for academia, but also that she though that the rest of the students on the call were (in her words) "a bunch of f***ing nerds."
I, of course, felt my heart in my throat as I desperately searched for the "mute-all" button. After finally confirming that her audio was silenced, I then had the difficult task of continuing the presentation with 89 students who had just been insulted by a peer, and the one peer who had no idea her personal thoughts had been overheard.
While her candid confession was not at all what I wanted or expected, there was a subtle truth to what she said that presented itself as a valuable teaching moment. When in life we as human beings feel the most insecure, we are often the most aggressive toward those around us.
I have struggled with my own insecurity for years. At first, when I was much younger, I thought it was best to deny these feelings of inadequacy by pushing the blame toward a second party. Instead of admitting that I had an issue that needed to be addressed, I found that it was easier to fault someone else or to turn the focus on their wrongdoings. This approach gave me an artificial sense of peace on the surface, but internally, I was rocked by anxiety and self loathing.
The young woman in my class projected her feelings onto the innocent bystanders around her. Her fear of not being able to keep up with the demands of college soured the way she thought about and spoke about her peers. This very same thing happened to me in my life, and I would assume that many who read this may find themselves equally guilty.
I dropped out of highschool in 9th grade. It was a decision that haunted me for years, and one that I immediately regretted (though not enough the reverse the decision). Instead of telling the truth to those closest to me though, I chose to lie to my friends, my family, and even myself, convincing all that I had not really dropped out, but had only switched over to "home-schooling". I went so far as having my parents buy the homeschool books, knowing that I had intention of ever completing any of the work.
The lie, however, grew from there eventually evolving into me telling people that I had graduated early (so, of course, they'd leave me alone about it). Trying to remain committed to this falsehood certainly took its toll on me. While it kept me from facing the bitter truth that I was by definition a failure-- protecting my feelings-- it did nothing to help me grow as a person. In fact, the lie I held onto so dearly, sheilded me from any form of accountability, preventing me from taking any actionable steps toward a better future. As a result, I spent the best years of my life afraid of letting my secret out.
Lies have a corosive effect on the human psyche. The longer I held this truth in, the more and more I felt the walls of this house of lies slowly corrode around me. And instead of tearing it all down, exposing my foundation, and building something new in its place, I chose to buy a fresh can of bullshit and paint over the mold and mildew to make the mess look prettier.
It's kind of funny, but from a brief experience of working in a kitchen I know that when something is rotting and decaying, it can hide in a perfectly normal looking container for a long time without anyone noticing. Eventually though, when the lid of said container is opened, there's no air freshener on this planet that can prevent that disgusting odor from escaping. The same was true for me. My insides were ruined from the lies and self-doubt I held onto and so when I opened my mouth, every word I spoke was tainted with anger and insecure fear. I treated those around me poorly, all the while hiding behind a victim's mentality.
Eventually though, years later, I was challenged by a mentor to stop feeling sorry for myself and confront the root of my problems. Thankfully I took that advice to heart.
The next decade of my life became dedicated to accomplishing one central purpose-- confronting my insecurity (which for me was a lack of education).
After completing a GED, a bachelor's degree, a master's degree, and now contemplating a doctoral degree, I feel the best I ever have. I no longer hate myself for the mistake I made as a 14-year-old boy. I no longer despise myself for wasting so much time and believing that education wasn't for me. I no longer regret anything that happened except for the way that I treated those around me. And maybe, after 7 years of college the most important thing I've learned is how to treat others better.
My conversation with the student after the class was a positive one. We are beginning to address the central issue of why she feels overwhelmed and how we can practically change that. She seems hopeful, and that's the first step.
It's important to remember that this student isn't the only one who has struggled with this, and I'm not the only person who has let personal insecurity ruin friendships. I'm convinced that even right now hundreds (if not thousands) of people are falling victim to this same thing. And so, I share this experience not to preach at anyone reading this-- clearly, I've had a lifetime of selfish mistakes and probably wouldn't qualify as a good role model (nor would I want to be considered one)-- but rather, that maybe someone might catch themselves before they make the same mistakes.
At the end of the day, it's simple: Your issues are not an excuse to treat people poorly.