The words resonated with me as a friend and I were discussing how hard it can be to embrace our true selves. It is easy to lose sight of who we are when we are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us who we should be and how we should act. Unlike the caterpillar’s fixed and unavoidable transformation into butterfly, we can easily remain dormant in our cocoons; forever waiting for the bright rays of sun to wake us up.
As I was driving home later that afternoon I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror and saw a few white wisps of hair that had managed to avoid my monthly dye job. Perhaps my hair color was my perpetual cocoon and it was time for me to ‘butterfly up’ accept my silver hair and in doing so, accept me.
Growing up I used to roam the ample woods around my parents’ house for hours at a time. Often coming home with scrapped knees, scratched hands and a sore voice from singing at the top of my lungs to the squirrels in the birch trees.
But somewhere along the way on the twisty path that is childhood I enveloped myself in a chrysalis of self-doubt. My lack of confidence was fed by bullies who tormented me when I got answers right, teachers who doubted I could correctly solve problems and peers who ostracized me on the playground and in the classroom. I began to get so good at wrapping myself up that I became lost in the darkness. Hibernating my life away, adrift in the alluring pool of depression that had fully enrobed me, waiting for my summer.
To the outside world I seemed fine. My high level marks certainly didn’t reflect the gulf of sadness that I carried around with me from class to class and home again. When walking the halls, I kept my eyes down and focused on where I needed to go, trying hard to acculturate myself in the masquerade dance of adolescence. I had become so adept at putting on my faux-fly wings each morning that for many years I truly thought they were real.
When we began looking at colleges for me and possible careers my mom, knowing my love of French, suggested I become a French teacher. I turned to her and said, “No way, are you kidding? They are so weird, that is so not me.” My faux-fly wings had once again whispered to me that I couldn’t trust my intuition, that in order to be happy I needed to change myself into something I was not.
College came and went. After four years, two degrees and a minor I was still nowhere closer to achieving butterfly status than I had been when I entered. In fact, after a few challenging events I think I may have retreated deeper into my chrysalis allowing my faux-fly wings to flourish while my butterfly wings remained listless from atrophy.
To make matters worse, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. When my first job-offer fell through, I thought I was done for, after all what does one do with dual majors in French and Philosophy?
A few days later I got a call from a friend saying that there was an immediate need for a long-term substitute French teacher at his hometown high-school and that the applicant need only speak French. When I called to inquire I was hired over the phone and began the next week. Walking into French four that first morning forever changed my life. And while the first few weeks were incredibly difficult and there were times when I thought the bad days would out-number the good, I finally began to let the light into my chrysalis.
Let The Butterfly Out
The truth is that like my teenage self, more and more of today’s students are coming into our classrooms hurt; wrapped up so tightly in self-doubt, depression and anxiety that they don’t know they are meant to be butterflies. And like me they can be very skilled at hiding their hurt, masquerading amongst the butterflies as faux-flies.
Even though I wouldn’t wish my teenage years on my worst enemy, they have helped me become a better teacher, a better friend, a better mom. Many of my students who feel marginalized seek me out as confidant, coach and champion. While I cannot boast to know exactly what they are going through, I have known enough dark times to let them know that they are not alone, that there is always help and that, as my grandma Marge used to say, “The sun always shines its brightest after a thunderstorm.”
As more white hairs popped up I decided to go through with it and stop dyeing my hair. Instead I have set about getting a series of highlights to allow my natural color to grow out. The day after a very long salon appointment my seven year-old came home from school and ran her fingers through my silver hair. Then she whispered in my ear, “I love your hair mom, it’s so you.”
Turns out I guess I really am that weird French teacher, and you know what? I couldn’t be happier. Had I listened to my faux-fly wings I would never be where I am today. It has taken me years to accept myself for who I am. Now I’m ready to soar.