Memoir Teacher as People Pleaser
July 21, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Beth Kephart
“How to tell if you’re a people pleaser: the 8 signs you’re too nice and why it’s impacting your wellbeing, (Amy Beecham, The Stylist)” the headline reads. I text the link to my son with a note: I’m afraid that if I look too closely, I might check all the boxes.
The phone rings. He wants to talk, to go through the signs in their order. I’m in a bruise mood. It’s the teaching. I have memoir-teaching rules: Love every student. Fall into the uprise of their stories. Find the right lines in the right books, the right prompts for the right hours, the right praise for the right words and assiduously share them, paying keen attention to the white-froth spaces. Push hard because you believe, and because these are your students, paying, and because if you don’t, you will lie awake remembering the clamor of what you failed to say, to wish, to propound. Be the reason they sometimes give when they do not snag their own ambitions. Accept their frustration as your own. Relay your sorrow. Receive their battering words because writing memoir is never easy and someone needs to take the blame, the fall, the knock for the hardness of the explicit hardness.
Sign Number One, my son says, reading from the People Pleaser’s List: “You will drop what you’re doing to help another person, even if it means sacrificing something important to you.”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
No need to talk it through.
“Okay,” he says, reading: “‘Being ‘nice’ is part of your identity, and you fear you must constantly be this way or you will be labelled as ‘fake’.”
“Hmmm,” I say.
“Let’s talk about it?” he says.
Could we not, I think, ruing my latest texting decision.
Now he’s up to Sign Number Three: “You feel overly responsible for others’ feelings, and will go to any length to not cause pain even if that means not standing up for yourself.”
“Let’s talk ‘nice,’” I say, reverting to Sign Number Two, which seems suddenly more considerate than Three. “I’m not worried about being labeled fake,” I say. “But I am worried about ‘nice’.” Nice sounds like just another word for boring. Nice is tepid, perhaps defenseless, perhaps even without value. My students, I repeat, are paying. Plus, I love them. Am I nice?
“Kind,” my son says, “is better than nice.”
I ask for a differentiating definition.
“The difference in my mind,” he says, “is ‘nice’ is often about doing good things for the sake of winning people over but ‘kindness’ is about doing good things simply because they’re the right thing to do.”
“Wow,” I say.
Teaching memoir is to set a ramble into motion. You urge the writer from behind. You walk along beside them. You run ahead with the jostle of your flashlight in anticipation of the next brazen, barren, brilliant juncture. (Rats to your left, cracks to your right, swerve in the hill up ahead.) You bear witness to the writer’s joy. You are proximate to their terror. I’m not trying to win the writers over. I just don’t want to harm them.
“You often ‘forgive’ easily and allow people to remain in your life with repeat harmful patterns,” my son reads, and I think of the times that I’ve been told that, just because I am a teacher, I am just a teacher, and how I’ve sat there, saying nothing. Tell the truth. Why didn’t I tell the truth? I teach because I write, because by writing I have learned what is worth teaching, I have empathy for the process, I understand the deflation of the fizzle and the exhilaration of the miracle, and how the hell does teaching make you nanoscopic? I should have said. I didn’t say.
“You have a history of being ‘nice’ to avoid harm, and this has become a survival skill,” my son reads aloud, and I think of the man who arrived at a workshop long ago, declaring, within minutes, that he was a memoirist without memory. I sat with him, I worked with him, I watched as he remembered, raved as he wrote, celebrated his emerging story. He left the workshop early and wrote to me to tell me that I was, hands down, the most uncherishable teacher ever. Thank you, I said. Be well, I said. Blessings on your journey.
“You tell people ‘it’s OK’ and comfort them after they hurt you, even though it really isn’t,” my son reads from the list, and I think of the writers who tell me they are better writers now because they are among the privileged students of wiser, cuter, brighter, younger, more svelte, better dressed, never-a-hang-nail teachers. I’ve over-the-mooned for these writers I once called mine, dangerously sloppy in my choice of pronouns. I’ve exulted with them, replied with exclamation points, wondered later why I’d felt the need to bludgeon punctuation. Because there are many, many exquisite teachers, and the writer grows through new perspectives, and I want the best for every student, and I’d hoped to be a privilege.
My son moves through the list; he tells his stories. He asks me to be honest, and he listens. He worries for me and he offers his suggestions, sideways style and neatly unassuming. He’s kind, he says, because kind is right. He respects himself so as to earn respect from others. When he’s hurt he lets the hurter know he’s hurt. He forgives when the hurt was not intended.
He talks, he soothes, I close my eyes. I see the jostle of his flashlight. I conjure him ahead of me, waiting in the distance. I hear the sound of my feet on the pavement.
Beth Kephart is a writer, a teacher, and a book artist. Her new books are Wife | Daughter | Self: A Memoir in Essays, We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, and A Room of Your Own: A Story Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Famous Essay (with illustrator Julia Breckenreid). More at bethkephartbooks.com.
Wow! Scary stuff. I can so relate to that list. Time to take control. Thank you for writing this!
Morgan, I thank you for reading … and for understanding.
Lovely piece. I can relate. And I just shared it, and the link to the original, with a clinical client who really struggles with this problem. Thank you!
Once again, you are speaking directly to me. A beautifully expressed keeper-essay, Beth – thank you. And is your son available to rent?
Sometimes the best teacher is the one you hate.
Deeply felt piece here, Beth. Thank you. I believe I may need a little talk with your son, too!
I get you, Beth. I understand people-pleasing all too well, and it’s a theme in my memoir. In fact, one chapter is called “Learned Agreeableness.” How wonderful that your son is your guide.
Oh, Beth. This is the same son I first encountered in your book, A Slant of the Sun! What a pleasure to listen to him as an adult in conversation with you now–a deeply beautiful and tender exchange. A wise young man, indeed.
About your committed teaching: thoughtful and kind, not “nice.”
Oh, Beth. I was fretting along the way, hoping you’d land in a place of seeing and knowing ALL of your goodness (teacher and human). So glad your son is showing you the way. And please know how vital your teaching is to so many of us. You have been and continue to be one of my core teachers. Your books, the workshops with you, and even our flashes of friendship are always teaching me about the page and beyond.
I love your wise and knowing son.
You ARE a privilege. For me, a gift, a brilliant and deeply soulful mentor.
What a gorgeous way to write about this nuanced situation. And what a unique experience to go through that list with your son.
Ah, your son reminds me so much of my own. How did they get so smart? How did we get so lucky?
Beth, this is wonderful. Your son is an apple who didn’t fall far from the tree. There is real subtlety here. I fall on both sides of the track, and as time passes, I’m striving for the balance point.
Your honesty with the reader comes from the comfort level which exists between you and your son. You are fortunate to have one another.
Looking forward to seeing you at Rosemont in the future. All the best!
Beautiful piece. Bearing your soul is never easy. Thank you, your writing is an inspiration to me.
We as women as so prone to be people pleasers. Thanks, Beth, for being willing to crack open the door and hold it open for 8 counts (!) on this energy-draining habit we sometimes aren’t aware we’re doing, not only in teaching, but writing as well. AND your video for A Room of Your Own is absolutely delightful! (bethkephartbooks.com under News and Events)
My goodness — thank you so much, all of you. I was so very worried about sharing this piece, did not know how it would be received. I am grateful. To you all. And Charlotte! Thank you. Our Virginia Woolf lives. Today is her half birthday.