Faculty Voice: Emily DiDonna

didonnaI have spent most of my life not knowing quite where I fit in. As a kid, I was outspoken and not always interested in the things it seemed other kids were into. I was friendly with most people, but never part of the “in” crowd. I wore that as a badge of honor, though I’ve never been quite sure if I did so because I was proud or was just pretending to be. I dressed differently from the other girls in my class, and considered myself a bit of a rebel. While students talked about their families and how similar they all looked or acted, I reveled in the fact that I was different because I was adopted. I loved theater and art, and was often the one taking on the opposing viewpoint in a class discussion. To know me as an adult, you might not be surprised to hear these things. I still consider myself someone who walks the line between being an insider and an outsider, who says pretty much whatever she is thinking to anyone who will listen, and who is drawn to those who are different.

In middle school, in particular, I pushed boundaries. I tried on different metaphorical hats to see what felt good and what looked completely ridiculous. I tested relationships with my peers and with the adults in my life to see who really cared and who didn’t. I wanted to be a good student, but struggled to know how, as distraction often got the best of me. I tried to balance life at home with life at school, particularly when things in one place or the other got hard. Learning how to be a person was far more interesting to me than learning math or English, and much of my life has been focused on just figuring out how to live it. And yet, I often worried that I was the only one who didn’t have it all sorted out; I couldn’t wait to become an adult who had completed the journey and had absolute clarity.  I decided to forge ahead anyway, embracing it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

When I realized I wanted to teach, I knew that middle school was the only place for me. My own experience had been—like many others’—a time of such intense change and exploration, and while so many will say they were the worst years of their lives, I believe they are some of the best. When else can you try out so many new things with relatively low risk? In middle school, students begin to cultivate their own voices, to be taken more seriously as thinkers and as individuals. You can fail miserably or succeed beautifully, and still have time to do both all over again.

Middle school taught me not to take myself too seriously, having learned that I needed to be able to laugh at myself in moments of embarrassment and be vulnerable in moments of hardship. As a teacher, I get to help students work their way through their own life learning every day. I challenge students’ thinking, I push them out of their comfort zone, and I offer love and support when they are hurting. I use humor to connect and to remind us that there is so much that is funny and real and human about our mistakes. There truly is beauty and magic in the messiness of middle school, and I love spending my days here.  

As a middle school teacher, it is hard not to regularly reflect on my own identity. Being surrounded by young people who are in a constant state of flux naturally lends itself to that questioning. Who am I as a teacher, a colleague, a partner, a mother, a daughter? You might think that at this point in my life, I have the answers to those questions, but the truth is, I don’t. I think we are all always changing; our circumstances shift, and so do parts of ourselves. Just when we think we have something figured out, a new challenge arises calling everything into question once again. Sure, there are things that have remained steady. I still struggle to listen more and speak less. I appreciate the weird and wonderful things in this world, and have a tendency to lose my focus on the task at hand. I love relationships of all kinds, and pour my energy into my interactions with others, sometimes to the detriment of my productivity. But in the end, I remain on this journey to understand who I am and how I fit in. I’m beginning to realize that this may always be true, that life is just a steady stream of transitions that require adjustments and, if we are open to it, growth.

Perhaps that’s what draws me to middle schoolers, or maybe it’s that I wish my own teachers had been real with me when I was that age. Believing that others had it all figured out took a toll on my confidence growing up, so knowing that it wasn’t true probably would have helped me feel more comfortable within my discomfort. So there it is, the secret: none of us really has it all figured out. How boring would that be?