What I Learned

Last Friday night, Maren and I went to a storytelling event in SLC. As we sat in our seats waiting for the show to start, I complained to her that a student from two years ago had come up to me in the hall that day to ask me how my sister’s leg was. When I asked her what she was talking about, she said, “You know, that one time your sister came home from work and you were having a sleepover with one of your friends and your sister was really tired and she asked you guys to carry her down the stairs and you did but you dropped her and she hurt her leg?”

“You mean that thing that happened 15 years ago?” I asked.

“Yeah, that one.”

I assured the student that the bruise had healed in the decade and a half since it happened. Maren told me that her students constantly ask her to re-tell them the story of how she lost her boot in a blizzard as a kid. I started listing things that my students remember (that I have ten fewer teeth than the average person, how I’ve had a slew of historically named fish that have died, about when I lived in Russia for a while and took too many benadryl on a train back from Latvia and fell asleep on a luggage rack at the border) and things my students don’t remember (the difference between latitude and longitude, that globalization is not the title of a Pitbull album, to bring a pencil to class and write their names on their papers).

Eventually, the event we came for began. The last storyteller related an incident that had happened to him in the first grade. I suggest you all go read the transcript of his story because 1) it’s hilarious, and 2) I’m about to tell you the punchline of the whole thing. He closed with, “I am sorely unsure of the basic rules of primary colors. I don’t know the names of any dinosaurs. I struggle with long division. But I remember that Ms. Beckstead had a boyfriend named Harley.”

Maren and I were both heartened to know that other teachers have been similarly ineffectual in their endeavors to have any meaningful influence on the lives or minds of their students.

At the close of the semester, I always ask my students to write about a few things that they learned in the class. In light of my recent conversation with Maren, I was particularly interested to see what my kids would say. Here are some of their replies:

  1. Having a “single story” of a group gives us an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world.  
  2. Non-violence can actually work
  3. Ukraine is not called THE Ukraine.
  4. When you try your best, it’s worth it sooner or later.
  5. Ms. Poulson hates the song “Reflection” from Mulan.
  6. I’m in charge of my life and I can choose what to do with it.
  7. When you invade Russia, DO NOT invade in the winter.
  8. When Ms. Poulson says “Shhhhh,” she ends it with a hard “t” sound.
  9. Things in the world affect us, even if we never leave the US.
  10. I learned what palindromes are and that Ms. Poulson’s favorite is “Dammit, I’m  mad.”
  11. People have been fighting over the same things for thousands of years and we still haven’t figured it out.
  12. Ms. Poulson has a large collection of shirts with weird people from history on them. 
  13. Young people can be easily influenced, like in China’s Cultural Revolution. You need to take a step back and look at the situation before acting. And, also, if you are going to start a cult, that’s your target demographic.
  14. Get off your spaghetti when Ms. Poulson is talking
  15. Humans have a hard time being around people whom they disagree with.
  16. “There are lots of jerks in this world and you get to decide if you are one of them.” – Ms. P
  17. Russia keeps this dead dude on display because some people liked him and some people hated him.
  18. Ms. Poulson’s mom won’t let her listen to the Shrek soundtrack
  19. Having a port in the middle of a continent doesn’t do much good for your shipping business.
  20. Not everybody lives the same way I do and that’s okay.
  21. The Prime Meridian is not the same as the Bermuda Triangle.
  22. There are two sides to the Israel-Palestine conflict and both are valid.
  23. Millions of people in China died because Mao traded away their food for steel.
  24. You should always let an old man take you into a back room and rip out any amount of your teeth that he chooses.
  25. There have been lots of terrible leaders and genocides in history but Hitler and the Holocaust are the only ones anyone ever talks about
  26. Asia isn’t a country. Neither is Africa.
  27. Ms. Poulson is a communist that feeds off of student suffering.
  28. When I blow my nose, I need to close my mouth because if I don’t, I will get blood all over the car.
  29. Many people in the world don’t have things that I have, like clean water and education and freedom of speech, and I shouldn’t take those things for granted, but actually appreciate them and use them.
  30. It’s amazing that humans have come so far. What’s also amazing is how far we have to go still.
  31. Human trafficking and slavery are still a thing.
  32. It’s easier to pass when you study.
  33. Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake.”
  34. Ms. Poulson will throw a marker at you if you don’t pay attention. But it’s okay because she can’t aim.
  35. People are much quicker to point fingers at other people and blame them than try to fix things in their own control.
  36. When Ms. Poulson starts to laugh, she can’t stop.
  37. The Pacific Ocean isn’t the Specific Ocean.
  38. Grass mixed with castor oil is not bulletproof.
  39. Ms. Poulson deserves a donut.
  40. It’s harder to move up in the world than we make it sound.
  41. Ms. Poulson probably has too much fun at her job.

Yeah, well, they were right about that one.

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Autobiography

[For the 2004 smash hit Ashlee Simpson album of the same title, click here.]

Recently, I’ve been inspired by such modern classics as Bossypants, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, and Yes Please to write my own memoir, you know, when I reach teaching superstardom. Let’s hope people judge this book by its cover, because these are the titles I’ve brainstormed so far:

  • Jesslyn Poulson: A Cautionary Tale
  • Unwillingly Wearing Pants
  • 1001 Places to Nap Before You Die
  • 1001 Places to Die Napping
  • 26 Years of Meals with No Nutritional Value: A Cookbook
  • Confessing My Sins
  • Beyonce, Jay Leno, and Jody Foster: a Collection of People I Have Been Confused For
  • Dr. Jesslyn, Teacher Woman
  • The Communista Mani-fiesta!
  • My Chin is 90% of My Face
  • It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink
  • Don’t Mind Me; I’m Just Being Accidentally Creepy
  • A List of Historically Named Fish I Have Killed and Other True Stories
  • Singing Things that Should Have Been Spoken
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I am a Rock

“I am a rock. I am an island.”

I reminded myself of this every day. I didn’t need anyone else in my life and I didn’t want them. I stood alone, far away from those who were continually reaching out to me.

I’d been suffering from severe depression for several months. It was an illness that ran in my family and one I’d dealt with before, but it took me months to accept that it was coming back. In my mind, depression was just an uncomfortable phase I’d been through before but now was safely in the past, and there to stay.

But after months of mornings when I couldn’t get out of bed and nights when I sobbed myself to sleep, I had to admit there was something wrong.

But what? I had a good life. I was finishing my last semester of classes before an internship and then graduation. I had a new job that I enjoyed, roommates that I got along with, good friends. But I was miserable. Those closest to me recognized something was off. My roommate and best friend, Taylor, grew more and more concerned about me. She greeted me and tried to talk when I got home each evening, but I ignored her and locked myself in my room.

Why can’t she just leave me alone? Why does she have to bother me all the time?

I knew I was being unreasonable. I knew she loved me more than I deserved and was worried about my well-being. But I couldn’t be around her, couldn’t be around anyone. I hurt too much. Any social interactions were too draining to handle. Going to school, going to church, going to work all required me to pretend that I was fine and that I was happy. I was exhausted from pretending but I couldn’t not pretend.

The thing about depression is that it carries with it a good deal of shame. Not only did I feel miserable, but I felt miserable that I felt miserable. Everyone else can handle life, I thought. Everyone else can deal with their problems. Everyone else can be an optimist. I brought this upon myself for being a weak human being.

So, being alone was the best place to be, where I didn’t have to pretend and I didn’t have to be embarrassed. I cut myself off from everyone around me, interacting and going through the motions of my life just enough to make it look like things were okay.

But I’m human and humans get lonely. When I thought I couldn’t handle all the pain, all the unexplainable hurting, I would drive to Utah Lake, park my car on a deserted road by the shore, and cry until I couldn’t breathe. The only one there with me was Paul Simon.

“I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship.”

It was better that way. I was just a burden on my friends and family. Needing no one else was the only way I could prove to myself that I was not the weak, pathetic person I felt I was.

“I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room safe within my womb. I touch no one and no one touches me.”

If I never accepted help or love from anyone else, I wouldn’t have to give it. Because I couldn’t. I was falling apart and it took all my effort and energy to try to keep myself together. I knew I shouldn’t be so selfish and focused on my own problems, but it’s all I felt like I could do. Away from everyone else, I wouldn’t feel guilty that I couldn’t reach out to them and care for them like I knew I should.

“A rock feels no pain and an island never cries.”

Yes, I was a rock, I was an island. And and if I could continue like that, I would feel no pain and never cry.

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Soul Searching

[More Girls Gone Oscar Wilde]

Important things I’m discovering:

I hate it when people say something “looks so [me].” In my mind, they are saying, “That looks like something hideous that only you would wear but no self-respecting person would be caught dead in.”

I think my spirit animal is a cow. They are kind of boring, but I don’t mean that derogatorily. They just kind of want to do their own thing and they’re chill and whenever I see cows, I just feel like I really identify with them.

I resent when people comment that my name “sounds Utah,” or ask if it is a combination of my parents’ names. I like my name. It’s not that weird. It’s uncommon, to be sure, but not outlandish or cutesy. It’s from an Alfred Hitchcock movie and I personally think that’s really cool.

I dislike cooking but I really want a Kitchen Aide. Honestly, right now I think being able to register for one is my biggest motivation to get married.

One of the most frequent adjectives to be applied to me is “sassy.” I take offense with that. What is that even supposed to mean? When I hear that word, I think of someone who is opinionated and overbearing and insensitive and impolite, none of which I want to be. It’s actually kind of got me worried about what kind of vibes I give off as a person.

I’m currently reading The Trial by Franz Kafka and The Count of Monte Cristo and listening to the Serial podcast and watching “Making a Murderer” and I am now fairly convinced I am going to spend a large portion of my life in prison for a crime I didn’t commit. On the upside, I’ve been thinking about the people in my life and I feel like I would have some pretty good character witnesses, which makes me feel really good about myself. Unless they interviewed my brother and he told them about that time when I salted the slugs in my mom’s garden and he told me I was a senseless murderer.

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Summer is…

In an effort to recommit myself to Girls Gone Oscar Wilde (sorry, Liesl and Liz), I’m catching up on posting some old stuff. School started again, though, so I can’t guarantee this will be an improvement (sorry again, Liesl and Liz).

***********************************************************************

Books were always a staple in the Poulson home and our house was filled with nearly every type. Books were stowed on shelves and in closets; they were stacked into makeshift end tables in an attempt to save space. They were neatly tucked in baskets placed in nearly every room.

My mother was determined to make readers out of her four children. Frequently she would declare “Reading Dinner,” perfect for a family of introverts, and each of us would bring a book to read to ourselves while we ate together at the table. Every Christmas and every birthday was sure to bring at least two or three new things to read. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of me and my siblings cuddled up on my parents 1980s waterbed, listening to my mom read a chapter or two from one of her favorite books.

Mom succeeded in raising four rather bookish children. We may have all had different interests and preferred different genres, but we all loved to read. We would even ask our mom to “ground” us, and we’d each snuggle up in our own armchair, turned to face the wall, book in hand, and stay there for hours. I never went to sleep at night until I read a few chapters from a Ramona Quimby book, knowing I shouldn’t stay up too late, but unable to put down the stories I already knew by heart.

But in summer, it was different. There wasn’t bedtime or homework or, even, friends to distract from our favorite activity. My memories of summer are filled with hours spent sitting on a warm patch of carpet, reading until the sunlight moved to another spot in the room; late nights passed reading a good novel start to finish, not turning my light off until 2 or 3 in the morning; afternoons laying on my back on the lawn, arms outstretched to hold my book at just the right angle to shade my face from the sun as I read. We were never a very active family, so while our friends waterskied and attended soccer camps and went on long camping excursions, we read. And read. And read and read and read.

For me, summer means sunshine and picnics and short-sleeves and mountains, but more than anything, it means books. It means time to put down my textbooks and pick up my mile-long reading list. It means waiting anxiously for my older siblings to finish the newest Harry Potter book so it would finally be my turn. It means daily trips to the library and summer reading programs and hours wandering around the neatly organized isles. To me, summer will always mean books.

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Like a Broken Vessel

A little over a year ago, I was interviewed and filmed for a Mormon Message based on Elder Holland’s October 2013 General Conference talk, “Like a Broken Vessel,” which focused on dealing with and recovering from severe mental illnesses. As a generally guarded and private person, it was difficult for me share my experience, knowing that it would be published online for anyone to see. However, I felt that it was important for people, both those suffering from it and those around them, to better understand what depression is and what it is not.

Depression is not sadness. Sadness is an emotion, fleeting and transitory; depression is a thick pair of goggles on the mind, shadowing every experience and clouding every thought. It is a dark lense through which one experiences the world. It isn’t cured by optimism, positive thinking or inspirational Pinterest quotes. It doesn’t need a reason to make its sufferers feel the way they do.

Depression is an illness. It is a spiritual, mental, and physical illness, and must be treated from each of those angles. Fervent prayer and diligent scripture study will not cure it any more than they would cure kidney disease. Medication and counseling may not alone be enough.

With the understanding that depression is a medical condition, it is important to realize that it has profound spiritual consequences. I have never felt so spiritually forsaken as I did during my darkest months of depression. I was sure that my creation had been a mistake and that God was deeply disappointed in and disgusted with me. Knowing that my life had no value and no purpose, I watched as everything I thought I was and everything I thought I valued was slowly consumed by the dark shadow covering my life. Soon, I felt dead inside, a shell of a person, and longed for the rest of me to die as well. Except, I didn’t want to die; I wanted to erase my entire existence. Death alone felt insufficient.

Ashamed, I prayed to the God I knew was indifferent to someone as small and weak and broken as me, apologized that I couldn’t face the challenges of life like everyone else could, and begged Him to take away the spiritual and physical pain that overwhelmed me. I read my scriptures and attended church, even though it was agonizing, hearing about faith and hope and the Atonement and knowing it didn’t work for me.

But, I felt no comfort. No divine reassurances. No heavenly aid. I continued this way for a very long time. I feel this is important because I had to keep going, keep doing the things I knew I should do even when they didn’t seem to help, keep praying and studying when I received no discernable support. It was all I knew how to do so I kept doing it, in the face of deafening silence on the part of my Heavenly Father. It was painful, it was unceasing, and it was dark, but slowly, I began to get better, and I saw that He had been there with me all along, as cliche as that may sound.

Whether you are facing depression, a crisis of faith, or another challenge that alienates you from God, you must keep going. No matter how long it lasts. No matter how many prayers you pray that seem to go no further than your ceiling. No matter how many months you study your scriptures and feel absolutely nothing. No matter how painful attending church is. No matter how hopeless and desperate your situation is. No matter how endless are the days and weeks and years. You have to keep going. I don’t understand why He is sometimes silent, but I know He will not be forever. You have to keep trying, keep hoping for hope.

In addition to doing all the spiritual things I could, it was important for me to do everything in my power to get better, and then have faith that God would fix what I could not. I saw doctors. I tried different medications. I exercised when I could and took care of my body (all of which were very difficult to do when I felt so overwhelmingly apathetic and lethargic).I treated it like the disease it is. It was a slow, agonizing process, but it worked.

I expect that bouts of serious depression will continue to affect me throughout my life as they have in the past, and that scares me. I know how it is to be unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time, be unable to eat, hardly able to move. I am terrified at the thought of having a husband or children who would rely on me, of destroying their lives along with my own. I’m afraid, but I keep going, deciding to cross those bridges when I come to them and having faith that God will help me then as He has in the past.

I hope that the Mormon Message video helps people who struggle with similar things as me. But just as much, I hope it helps the people around them know what to do, what is helpful, and what is not. If I may, I’d like to offer you a few words of advice. First, recognize that depression and other mental illnesses are real, not imagined, and do not define those who are afflicted by it. They aren’t their disease, even though it sometimes feels that way. Depression alters how you think so deeply that it seems like it alters YOU, but it doesn’t. Sufferers may not seem themselves, but they are just sick, even when they appear to be well physically. Please be patient with them. Second, it’s almost never helpful to say that things aren’t as grim or scary or stressful as they seem; just because it appears that way to you does not mean it appears that way to them. Invalidating their reality makes them feel more unstable and unable to trust themselves than they already do. Just listen and love and try to understand, even if you don’t. I am eternally grateful for the precious few closest to me who loved me without condition and stayed by my side, even when I tried to push them away.

This whole experience was really hard (you know, the whole depression thing, I guess, but also the interview and the writing about it) because I was so ashamed; depression was a carefully guarded secret for me. I was scared that anyone who found out would think I was just being whiny or melodramatic. Conversely, I was scared that people might think I was crazy and mentally imbalanced and untrustworthy. As uncomfortable and exposing as this has been for me, I believe that in order to normalize mental illness and remove the stigma and the shame associated with it, people need to share their honest and real experiences. To anyone suffering from mental illness and to anyone wanting to help an affected loved one, know that there is hope. Know that there is light, even in the darkest nights. That light and hope come from our Savior Jesus Christ. I wish I could tell you it would all end soon. I can’t. But it will end. He is always there.

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McKay School of Education

I love BYU. I really do. I had wonderful experiences, met incredible people and am grateful I chose to go to school there.

The thing I don’t like so much about BYU is what I actually spent most of my time there doing – studying to be a teacher. The secondary education programs are notoriously awful. I heard rumors about the horrors of the McKay School before I started the program, but I wanted to be a teacher, so I ignored them and entered the program anyway.

I’m not sure if I regret taking the path I did because I am pretty happy now. However, my undergraduate experience would have been much better if I had chosen just about any other major than the one I did, and I’d probably be better at whatever it was that I was doing than I am at what I do now.

I’ve thought a lot about my program over the last few years and have decided that the people in charge at the McKay School must just not know how truly awful the quality of education they are giving really is. I’ve talked to many other students, both in secondary and elementary education programs at BYU, and have discovered that my experience is not unique and that the problems I faced are widespread.

I’ve been drafting a letter to the McKay School for several months, hoping to detail my experience in a way that would highlight the weaknesses I saw, but not come across as bitter or hostile, thus hopefully prompting much-needed reforms.

I’d like to send this letter within the next week or so and I’d like some perspectives on what I’ve written before I send it, especially from graduates or current students of the McKay School. Let me know how it comes across and if you would listen to what I say if you were a college dean reading this letter. Thanks in advance for your help.

 

To whom it may concern,

I graduated from Brigham Young University last spring with a degree in History Teaching. I began my program in Winter semester 2011 and completed it after a teaching internship in the 2014-2015 school year. Upon graduation, I was unable to find employment as a licensed teacher and am currently working at a junior high as an attendance tracker.

As a recent graduate of the McKay School of Education, I feel I have a current perspective of many elements of my program, perhaps a perspective unique from that of the administrators and professors of the college. I have some concerns about the way the various education programs of the college are formatted. I feel strongly about the importance of education and of the importance of good teachers and these beliefs prompt me to write this letter. I believe that the administrators, professors, and other employees of the McKay School share these convictions and strive to create meaningful, rigorous programs that will train qualified teachers. It is under these assumptions that I write this letter, and I hope that it will be thoughtfully received, as the intent behind it is well-meaning and not condemnatory.

Throughout my time as a student in the McKay School, I encountered setbacks and disappointments, several of which almost caused me to abandon my lifelong goal of becoming a professional educator. In my earliest days at BYU, I received advice from the advisement center in the McKay School which proved to be incredibly damaging while applying for jobs several years later. When I asked an advisor about the advantages and disadvantages of both the History Teaching and Social Science Composite majors, I was advised that a History Teaching major would be more marketable as it shows a depth of expertise that principals would look for and that a Social Science Composite Endorsement would lack. In the final months of my teaching internship and the summer thereafter, I applied for over sixty certified teaching jobs in five states. Every one required a Social Science Endorsement. I am currently spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars beyond my undergraduate work to take the additional eleven classes needed for me to get this endorsement, time and money that I would have preferred to spend pursuing a graduate degree. I wish I would have known as I began the education program that my declared major lacked the marketability needed for me to find employment.

Additionally, I found that the majority of my education classes did not adequately prepare me for the challenges I would face in a classroom. Many of the classes were largely theory based, lacking any useful application or purpose. Most of the assignments in these classes seemed nothing more than a series of hoops through which I was required to jump. My classmates and I failed to understand how what we were learning would have any real-life application, ironically something that we as teachers are always encouraged to demonstrate to our students. The limited time I spent in classroom observations for these classes (if any time was required at all), did not help connect the dots.

Before I began my first day as a teaching intern, I had spent no more than ten hours actually teaching a class in a public school. This includes my 276 class, practicum class, and all other secondary teaching classes. During these very rare teaching experiences, I was never observed by a BYU teacher or professor and received only limited feedback from the teachers in whose classes I taught. I believe the vast majority of my teaching experience and expertise came from teaching experiences outside of my formal education at BYU.

When I actually began teaching in my own classroom as an intern, the support I received was no more plentiful. I met my BYU mentor on only two occasions, once briefly in August and again in March. On neither occasion did he watch me teach or give feedback. In the time between these two meetings, I received either brief and unhelpful, or no responses to the emails I sent him. From what I understand, this was an unusual and alarming situation for the McKay School. However, when the college was made aware of the neglect on the part of this man, I still received no help, support, or information. Thankfully, my mentor teacher in the school where I taught was supportive and provided me with the guidance that I failed to receive from the university where I paid tuition.

A doctor would not be permitted to perform an open heart surgery after only having observed such an operation. A pilot would not fly a plane after only having watched another do so. Common sense would dictate that a teacher should not enter the profession with similarly limited experience.

Throughout my time as a student, I was often frustrated by the lack of information available to me. When I had questions about classes or licensing or graduation, I was bounced between the College of Education and the College of Home, Family and Social Sciences, under both of which my major technically fell. Neither advisement center seemed to be able to help, but suggested that I visit the other. In dividing secondary education majors between two schools, there is a danger in neither school taking responsibility for providing students with the help they need to be successful both before and after graduation.

There were some elements of my program that I found to be effective. My 276 class was enlightening and its professor inspiring and helpful. Additionally, Dr. [name has been changed], from whom I never took a class, was always willing to help and guide me when I asked for it. Studying backward design and creating entire unit lesson plans in my method class were some of the most useful things I did in helping me prepare to enter a classroom. But overall, I feel that there were alarming gaps in what I was taught in the education program as an undergraduate student.

I do not expect that the College of Education should reform its programs based on the experiences of one graduate. However, I would hope that these concerns would be carefully considered and that the validity of such concerns be investigated. I have spoken with many other McKay school alumni who share my opinions and together we hope that changes can be made that will help better prepare future graduates and make us proud to have earned our degrees from an institution that constantly strives to improve the quality of its instruction.

Again, the purpose of this letter is not to complain about perceived injustices, but rather to ensure that administrators within the college are made aware of certain shortcomings and weaknesses in its programs. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.

Respectfully,

Jesslyn Ann Poulson

Class of 2015

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