I want to tell you about my dream.
I’m not going to tell you who I am. Let’s just say that I am a teacher. I’ve got a story to tell. It’s a fictional story that might have an ounce or two of truth in it, for all you know.
This story came to me in a dream—a dream I badly wanted to come true but, when I woke, the dream was gone. Every night I go to sleep hoping the dream will return and come true.
It could happen, you know. Dreams are like that sometimes.
It can be heart wrenching, this career I’ve chosen. Teaching in a large, urban public school both toughens you and, little by little, softens you. Most young teachers come into the profession with dreams of changing the world all at once. They soon find out that isn’t going to happen. Schools like mine, they’ll chew you up and spit you out if you let them. Some students will say and do things that can tear your heart out. It’s easy for young teachers to take all this personally. I know because, once upon a time, that’s just what I did. These kids will make you feel defensive and mad. If you aren’t careful, you’ll respond to them in a way that will damage your relationship with them. Once that happens, teachers are surely in for a rough and stressful ride. A lot of teachers never get past this point. They burn out and go away, off to some other dream. Those of us who stick it out have to find a way to come to an understanding with our students. That requires finding out why they act the way they do and say the things they say. That requires listening—really listening. But be prepared, you’re going to hear some things that will keep you up nights. Some of these kids have been to hell and back. They have a story to tell and, too often, nobody wants them to tell it. That’s where I come in. I, too, have a story to tell—the story of the Blog Club.
It all started one year when I had a heart-to-heart talk with the roughest class of my career. Individually, these kids were likable, even loveable, but as a group, they were a toxic circus. Many days they showed little interest in anything I had to say. They could be unmanageable, rude, and quite vulgar. Regrettably, there were some days when I could not take it and, though it shames me to say, I totally lost my cool with them and blew up. When that happened, things did get temporarily quiet, but I didn’t feel any better and, what’s more, I felt from them a strong and eerie feeling that they were completely used to being responded to in that manner, which made me feel worse. Something had to change. So we took an entire period, threw out the lesson plan, sat in a circle and just talked. I told them how it made me feel when they treated my class like a block party in the streets. They nodded their heads in understanding. Once I’d had my say, I told them that I wanted to listen to them—to hear anything they had to say about what was going on in their lives that made them feel frustrated or angry. I wanted to hear from them what caused them to act out the way they often did. For the next 45 minutes, choking back tears, I heard story after story that opened my eyes and cut into my soul. These young teens were carrying burdens of trauma you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Kids like these have inhabited every classroom I’ve ever had, but this particular class happened to be chock full of them. The fact that I’d had the nerve to take their behaviors personally caused me great shame. The one thing that kept coming through loud and clear from this little therapy session was the feeling that these kids felt like nobody wanted to listen to them. That stung deeply and convicted me immediately. How many times have I made students feel like I didn’t care enough to listen to them?
That was the moment of conception for the Blog Club.
My original dream was to be a writer. What that actually meant I had no idea. I just knew that putting words together in an interesting and entertaining manner always seemed to come easily to me and made me feel good. I wrote for my own amusement and shared my words with a few close friends who seemed to enjoy what I’d created. That gave me great pleasure but I still had no idea what steps to take to become a writer. I also lacked confidence and was deathly afraid of trying to follow my dream only to wind up a miserable failure. So I never got up the nerve to follow my passion and I pretty quickly became a miserable failure anyway, until I settled on a new passion, education.
Then, before I knew what had happened, my first passion found me again and we were reunited. I found some success as a writer. The success didn’t come until I was finally able to decipher the difference between writing well and being a writer. I finally discovered it when I became willing to be vulnerable in my writing—when I finally decided to slice open a bit of my soul and bleed out my truth into my words. As soon as I was willing to take that risk, my writing began to find an audience. I decided I could offer that to the students who have so much to say but feel like no one will listen. I couldn’t possibly fix these students’ problems and wipe away their scars, but I could create a platform where they could risk being vulnerable and tell their brutally honest stories. That much I could do.
The Blog Club was born.
Before long, I had kids coming to join the club. It was a small but mighty group of girls who had stories to tell and a passion for writing. We set up our blog and began to discuss how to tell their stories.
These were our guidelines:
- Write in whatever format you wish—poems, fictionalized stories, personal essays, you name it.
- Don’t use real names.
- Write your truth, be brutally honest, take the risk and don’t hold back.
Pretty soon, the stories began to come in and did they ever rise to the challenge. There was “X”, the girl who told her story of coming to grips with her attraction to other girls and how she eventually got up the courage to come out to her family. “Y” told her chilling story of being abducted by an uncle for a week when she was in 3rdgrade and the emotional scars she still bore from that trauma. “Z” told of her drug-addicted family, a stepfather who abused her mom and made late night visits to her room to sexually assault her at a very young age.
These stories immediately found an audience, read by thousands of people in over a dozen countries. Their readers left many warm and supportive comments. When the girls saw these comments and read the analytics reports about their readership, they lit up like fireworks. It had turned out that lots of people had been listening to these girls who thought nobody wanted to listen to them. They had found a way to create something positive from their trauma. Their confidence was growing, their self-esteem inflating. I was ecstatic. I was seeing that this club was making an instant difference in the young lives I most wanted to impact. As far as I was concerned this club had endless potential and the sky was the limit. I’d asked these girls to dream big and they were doing just that.
Then it all came tumbling down.
The fact that these stories, told so powerfully and honestly, were being shared publicly was too much for the school. Though care had been taken to remove any association with the school, real names omitted, and student submissions published anonymously, the order came down to cease and desist. It was suggested that the club might be allowed to continue if the stories were only of an uplifting and inspirational nature. That offer ran counter to our mission and purpose. So, with a heavy heart, I took the blog down.
It crushed me to have to break this news to my bloggers. I decided to write them a letter to explain how I had laid my soul bare to fight for their right to have this cathartic vehicle of expression, but that it made the school too uncomfortable.
It was what it was.
But I also told them to take the next step—to use this setback as an opportunity to set up their own personal blogs where they could post their truths without fear of censorship or reprisal. I told them that I would help and support their efforts in any way I could.
What happened next I could have never predicted in my wildest dreams.
Those courageous young bloggers of mine would not be silenced. A core group of them, with the support of their parents, went right on blogging. They created a new and independent blog of their own. Their stories were raw, honest, relatable, and often quite sad. But, ironically, they were also uplifting and inspirational—funny how that worked out. After all, these beautifully scarred teens were battling to make lemonade from the lemons they’d been given by their fates. They were brave enough to step out of the shadows of trauma and speak their truth to the world, all the while becoming more confident and empowered. They were building their self-esteem and, what’s more, they were becoming writers—real writers.
It didn’t take long for the media to begin to take notice. They were approached by a local magazine, which ran a story about their blog. This led to a series of interviews on local news shows. Not long after that, national media outlets began to notice, Huffington Post shared their story. Suddenly, my young bloggers had gone viral, all on their own. I, by necessity, watched from afar. I no longer had anything directly to do with this project, but I was as proud of their work as I was of anything I’d ever done.
Over the years, I kept in touch with my bloggers. Some of them took their story telling to heights I could never have imagined. One majored in journalism and began a career as reporter. She recently wrote an investigative piece on domestic abuse that was picked up by the New York Times. Another has published a popular series of children’s books about a little girl who lives with parents who abuse alcohol and drugs. And two girls went on to write a movie script, called The Blog Club, about a group of girls with stories to tell who would not let anything or any one silence them.
And then I woke up.