On remembering what it feels like to be terrible

Apparently, I didn’t actually want to remember what it feels like to be terrible because I wrote this post title last August and didn’t put a single word in the post itself.

So what inspired the title all those moons ago? A workshop at my school before the year began entitled, “Remembering What It Feels Like To Be Terrible.” It was a drawing lesson, but it was mostly an exercise in empathy. The point was to get us into our students’ mindsets. They come into our classes not knowing. Not knowing content. Not knowing what you want (and not knowing that knowing what you want isn’t really the point). Not knowing how to be in your class. Not knowing what to do in your class. Not knowing who they are or who they’re supposed to be or if they’re supposed to be someone in particular – in general; for you; for the strange assembly of energy that is their specific peer group in that new room. It’s quite the cognitive and emotional load, and all learning is emotional, so remembering what it feels like to be terrible is remembering what it’s like to feel: lost, stupid, alienated, unloved, anxious, desperate, and yet, also, if you’re lucky, excited, curious, grateful. Basically, doing something new/unknown is facing your greatest/worst fear. There’s a simultaneous terror and excitement. At the start of it, of course, it’s mostly terror; your body revolting against you for subjecting it to obviously imminent death. But then, if you surmount your body’s rebellion, you might get into a flow and feel safe, which is when excitement takes over, and before you know it, you’re learning (not that you weren’t amidst the terror). All that is if whoever’s guiding you takes care of you, makes you feel like you’re taken care of. I hope I create this type of environment.

To be fair, in terms of the workshop, I used to draw a lot when I was younger, so I wasn’t really stepping out of my comfort zone. I just got to feel like a child again, which for me was never terrible. (Granted, I behave like a child most of the time anyway, so this wasn’t much of an energy shift.) There was also nothing at stake. No grades. No judgment. No aspirations of college. No promises of a new artistic career. No pressure at all, in fact. I got to learn for the sake of learning.

More recently, I started playing ice hockey, which, again, isn’t really stepping out of my comfort zone. I’ve always played sports, and I’ve always loved watching hockey. Same deal: no stakes, all fun. New and challenging, yes. Scary and identity-threatening, no.

The workshop – and the hockey endeavor – has left me wondering about what conditions lead to a transformative learning experience. With both the workshop and hockey, I chose to do it. Freedom (and I realize this is hardly revelatory) must be a necessary element. In school, we have to manufacture freedom since they have to be there and, most of the time, they have to take your course. It’s hard to feel wondrous and curious when someone you don’t know; when some system you weren’t responsible for is telling you: “This is your duty, and it’s good for you.” Why should we expect students to just drink that weird imperative up? Who are we to say that we know what is necessary and good for everyone?

Instead of remembering what it feels like to be terrible, which implies a distance from the feeling because you’ve been free to avoid it since (not necessarily a good thing if growth comes from such discomfort, so long as it’s not the kind of discomfort that begets learned helplessness), we have students who just feel terrible. How do we teach (buzzword alert) a growth mindset that enables students to metabolize a “terrible” feeling as proximity to positive transformation? I thrived in the above situations – sort of – without stakes and evaluation, and that’s all they experience; everything matters so much (or at least it feels that way) and you’re constantly being judged for whatever you do and don’t do. You don’t get to be; you have to be somebody, and too often, that somebody is a preset mold that you’re expected to conform to.

Then again, I’m just a coward who doesn’t want consequences or criticism for what I do.

Ah…now I remember what it feels like to be terrible.


  1. dasfuller

    Oh shit, this was our 1,000th post!

    1. Luigus (Post author)

      I noticed that too!


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