“Jena, how can you be so happy with your ears so big and flappy?” was one of the questions used by my uncles and their friends to repeatedly tease me as a child. I always took it in stride and laughed it off, because I was young and not really worried about the way I looked.
You see, my elementary school friends had always known and accepted me with my “big ears.” I was on the track and basketball teams, and I was a cheerleader. I had a strong group of friends, and I belonged. I LOVED school and couldn’t wait to start at the end of every summer!
So sure, my ears may have been “big and flappy,” but elementary school life was good! And then...
Middle school happened.
Now my friends and I, overrun by hormones, were funneled into a new school with 3 other elementaries frantically trying to figure out where we fit in this new world. It wasn’t easy (at least for me).
There are two things, a moment and an experience, that stand out in my middle school memory:
One - It was the third day of school in the locker bay. I was heading out as a new boy was coming in. As we passed, he cupped his ears with his hands and blew up his cheeks. He laughed hysterically and told me I looked like a monkey.
Two - I was losing many of my friends. All of these new kids kept swooping in like vultures and taking them away. I thought we were closer than that. Guess I was wrong.
School just wasn’t what it used to be… My sense of belonging had begun to disappear. I no longer fit in the way I used to. Maybe it was because of the way I looked.
So where does this leave me today? How much of an impact did these moments and experiences have on me later in life?
Well, at 14 I had bilateral otoplasty, surgery to pin back my ears. At 15 I found a hairstyle that I felt confident with, because it hid my ears that still stuck out more than I wanted. At 25 I attended an event where I styled my hair in a ponytail for the first time since I could remember. And now at 32 ponytails are part of my day-to-day style, and I no longer fear my ears.
The friends that were so easily pulled away in middle school weren’t meant to be my lifelong friends and that’s okay. Two of my best friends are friends from my elementary school years. The rest of my current friends are those that I choose to surround myself, not people that I’m trying to fit in with.
Generally life is good! I am happy being me! I don’t dwell on these moments and experiences, but rather reflect on them in a way that continually helps me to learn more about myself. My sense of belonging has returned.
So where does this leave you and your work with children?
I think you can begin by asking yourself some questions. Have you ever felt like YOU didn’t or don’t belong; what was that like?
Do you foster your students’ sense of belonging? Have you ever asked your students if they feel like they belong to your classroom community? To your school community? To the community at large?
How about your students that get pulled out for special services; do THEY feel like they belong when they are being pulled in multiple directions?
I believe that as educators we must take the time to TRULY get to know our students and support their sense of belonging. Additionally, we must be sensitive to the words that we use with our students. The impact, whether positive or negative, may last far longer than you expect.
In the end, we want ALL of our students and the others that we influence to have positive self-images and to know that they belong.
Jena Fahlbush is a Specialist for the PATINS Project. She is a licensed teacher for grades K-6. Her wide range of classroom experiences include working as a special education paraprofessional, peer model preschool co-teacher, Title I instructor, and 3rd grade teacher. As a strong believer in the power of technology and universal design, she is excited about sharing how the right tool and intentional design can change the game for a student. She enjoys watching movies, camping, playing games, traveling, and home projects.