Why I Teach By Maria Venegas

Maria gymI have always been a dreamer.  As long as I can remember I loved kicking back and thinking about my future.

In fact, when I was a mere 7 years old my Dad brought me home a t-shirt while on a business trip and it came with iron on numbers. I recall doing some “heavy duty thinking” while in the bathroom pondering what number I wanted on the back of my shirt.

And what came to me was, “32.”

I wanted “32” because that was the age that I wanted to be so that I could begin doing the work that I was supposed to do.  Why I thought this as a child I don’t exactly know, but “32” proved to be a pivotal point in my life.

Prior to that age, though, I had several poignant experiences that would prepare me for the life that I was to live.

First off, I was born with a genetic difference that resulted in me having 2 fingers on each hand and 2 toes on each foot.  I was born in 1965 and so feedback at and around that time suggested that my schooling experience should be in an environment with kids labeled as, “mentally retarded.” My parents were literally told this, but had the wherewithal to not consider this advice, and so I participated in general education classes with my peers.

The thing, though, was that my Dad loved to travel! I ended up going to 3 elementary schools, 3 middle schools, and 3 high schools.  Fortunately, 2 distinct sides of my personality served me through all the upheaval and beyond; I was a “shy-rebel.”

Shy to the point that being quiet in social situations, and having a blatant physical difference, set me up as the perfect victim. For example, one day when I was in the second grade I was walking home by myself and was jumped by 4 boys. They punched and kicked me yelling at one another as to what to do next: “break her glasses!… break her lunch box!!”  My small body, though, stood stoic and completely unwavering like I had become part of the cement, showing no emotion, keeping my chin up, and maintaining a steely-eyed focus on the furthest point on the horizon.

No doubt, I did “lose it” when I got home, crying so heavily to my mom, that I could barely get the word out that I had been, “mugged.”

But that incident was a powerful anchor for the tenacity and resilience that continued to partially serve me throughout my school experiences.  It was the catalyst for my, “I’ll show you!” attitude.  It prompted me to begin taking on “audacious” beliefs in middle school like, “boys are willing to date me,” and then in high school,  “O.K….boys aren’t so into me,” but, the few friends that I had, and teacher feedback,  definitely suggested that college would be receptive, and so I had an early extrinsic, acceptable, and worthy goal.

Thus, the rest of my high school experiences would be seen by me as merely temporary, and a vehicle to recoil back into my shy self and study my peers behaviors for their underlying truths, while also preparing myself to step up and willingly participate in my called upon future.  And yet, meanwhile–serendipitously–there also hung a dangling early interest in wanting to help young people like me and those whom I had been watching; perhaps as a school counselor, who could help kids navigate their experiences much easier and with greater self-power.

But I also had a secret desire!

I wanted to perform!  I wanted to act in TV or movies, but I felt that because of my hands and feet it wasn’t a real possibility so I started sharing with others that I wanted to do “behind the scenes work.” I kept up this “safe” response while attending UCLA and eventually took on what others would define as a  “smart” position within the U.S. Government.

And then I turned, “32.”

At 32, my only sibling—my brother—was killed in a hit and run accident.  That experience threw me into seriously reconsidering my mission on the planet, and more seriously discerning who I was becoming as a person.  I decided to go back and create a profile of all the reasons as to why I had wanted to work in the alluring entertainment field to determine what real destiny I wanted for myself that might have been hidden in that aspiration.

My list revealed that I wanted to work with a team of positive and creative thinkers, I wanted to do something that had a real, tangible, and visible outcome that could be shared, I wanted daily doses of bliss that comes from the connection with passionate work, and I wanted the recognition from participating in something that appeased the masses. So in reality, I wanted what might only be seen from the vantage point of a semi-maturing adult…

What I wanted was that which I had not brought to my schooling experiences. That “sort of “ helpful rebel side, had also partially brought on a limiting belief that my hands and feet shunned others away. It had me diverting to the socially safe career focused mind-set, and avoiding the need for connection. Ultimately, I believe, I was redirected back to education so I could more deeply, and more honestly, learn to do what I most missed out on, and what was absolutely necessary for more self-actualization and joy.

Maria with studentsAnd I wasn’t just guided back into, “education,” but rather, “Special Education.”  I moved into working with those students who most needed the means to elevate themselves. I started collaborating with young people who have never been taught how to clearly articulate their innermost values and discover how they could link school and life experiences to that which was most important to them.  I started to learn and practice everything I could about leadership, Coaching, and human behavior in order to assist this population of students who have been projected upon as limited in ability.

Slowly, and purposefully, I learned how to move into them so that they could move into me.

And subsequent to all of these experiences I have learned that my own difference isn’t so relevant anymore.  Because it’s so visible kids definitely notice it and respectfully ask what happened, and I’ll answer them with a humorous “tragic shark bite story” or “alien conspiracy plot that’s forming,” but all in all we spend our time challenging each other on how to engage in the moment so that we can continue to grow to be better people.  We engage taking turns as both teachers and learners so that we can become more authentically loving people.

Today I also consciously keep an eye open for that non-responsive student.  The one who could so easily fly under the radar; showing up in body, but not through participation.  This student Maria photo full flaunt
continues to be my ally; letting me know that, once again, it’s time to soften up, become vulnerable, hold hands with fear, and allow connection and relationship to form through my initiative.



For more on my life and personal philosophy in how I work with students, please feel free to view my TEDx Talk!




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