The Fighting Idealist

I have been accused of being an idealist. Bushy-tailed and bright-eyed, I supposedly hold an unrealistic, overly-optimistic view of my potential impact as an educator. I can almost hear their thoughts: “Just wait until she really becomes a teacher – then she’ll see how impossible it is. No one can make a difference anymore, not with teaching to the test. Poor thing, she’ll see.”  

Idealist? Why, yes, I am. Guilty as charged.

What most people do not know, however, is that I’ve already had my ideals shattered. I’ve already discovered that they will never happen. I’ve already learned that when Idealism meets Reality, the former tends to resemble an opossum that tried to cross the interstate during rush hour. My ideals have already been mangled by reality.  This particular lesson has been etched into my spirit by the pain of that collision.

For a time, I turned away from my ideals. “Why bother trying? It will never happen. There’s no point.” Cynicism crept into my heart, turning it bitter. The broken edges of my dreams cut into me, a chronic ache that I could not ignore.

So I began to truly THINK about that question: Why bother trying?

My ideals will never happen. Perfect conditions will never exist. No matter what I do, there will be bad people, bad circumstances, and bad choices to make. I cannot change those facts. I cannot make life ideal.

What I can do, though, is make it better.  

If I hold to my ideals, I will never see them accomplished – but I WILL see things improve. To put it in numerical terms: The improvement may not be 100%, but the students may be, say, 30% better than they were without my help.

Isn’t 30% improvement better than 0%? For that matter, isn’t 1% improvement better than 0%? (And I will always work to up that number; I will not settle for 1%. Or 30%. Or 99%. I can always do more.)

When I became a Big Sister, I researched about being a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters. I discovered that one common reason Bigs give for quitting is because they could not bear to see the conditions in which their Littles live; they believed they could not make enough a difference to counter the circumstances, so they stopped trying.

This data made me angry. What good is that? Did turning away from their Littles improve the children’s lives at all? Nope. It only made it worse, because now they had the bad conditions AND an adult who gave up on them.  

Children in tough situations NEED idealists. They need someone who can see the potential that lurks within them, even when the rest of the world is blind to it. That requires a certain level of idealism. However, they need idealists who have already been battered and bruised by life, yet still stand up to fight again. They need people who believe that the small victories are worth the pain.  They need people who have deliberately chosen to not give up, no matter the odds.

That’s me. I am an idealist, absolutely. However, my once-shining armor is now grimy with dirt and battered from hard-fought battles. I may be an idealist, but I know that my ideals will break against reality. I choose this path knowing that it will be tough and that it will hurt. I enter into teaching knowing that it will be yet another battle – but also knowing that it’s one worth fighting.   

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