I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about honesty lately, and to wonder why I’m so obsessed with it as of late.
I was reminded today of something I knew once and ignored: that it’s too easy to anthropomorphize Teach For America to get out of criticizing a real person or people. “TFA” can’t defend itself in conversation, so we don’t have to hold ourselves accountable to bringing up critiques with “TFA” itself. But knowing what I do—that my TFA experience is just a bunch of interactions with people, individuals who are smart and usually willing to acknowledge their shortcomings—I can’t get caught up in blogging with a big fat nobody as my audience. When you’re talking to real people about Doing It Wrong, you’re forced to be specific and actionable.
The biggest, boldest-print lesson I’ve learned from this experience has been that I can never, ever know someone else’s experience and should never, ever act upon the assumption that I do. With this lesson, understandably, comes a bit of trepidation, a little too much hesitation making me want to think it all out, write all about it, and learn as much as I can before doing anything. It’s made me justify all this thinking as an end, instead of remembering it’s just the first piece of achieving the end.
When honest stories are the goal itself, anything goes as long as it contributes to thetruththewholetruthandnothingbutthetruth. But that’s not enough. When honest stories are the means to a real end, they need to be more than just one part of the whole picture. Even though every story is different and brings different facets of reality to bear, and though no one person can ever tell the real “whole truth,” I still need to push myself to see my own—still whole and honest—stories as tools for change, not just stories. I, and any TFA staff member I would hold accountable, can’t cop out and hope that our stories are mere pieces; we can’t rely on our audience to hear so many other stories that balance ours out in order to get the whole truth.
You and I are both folks who care about action, changing this problem we complain about. So what kind of honesty would I hold myself and you accountable for?
I want us to be careful when being intentional about messaging. “Intentional” is important but too easily allows us to adjust and omit. I want us to trust others with the full, honest truth. Corps members, students, parents, school districts, partner organizations and TFA staff all deserve to be given a full, whole and honest message—not pessimistic, just whole. I want us to remember that our whole experience deserves to be shared, but needs to be shared for a purpose. Our stories need to be whole by themselves, and not limited to what is easiest to remember. If we edit a story for an audience, I want us to do so only for reasons we would fully disclose. And then fully disclose those reasons.
In some ways, I do still believe honesty is an end, one that needs to be achieved on the way to larger, more important ends. I still think overcoming defensiveness and fear of exposing our failures is one of the biggest things we can do to close this thing faster. But just like anyone who writes on this site, I need to remember that it doesn’t, and can’t, end there.