While teaching from one of my favorite novels, Stephen Chbosky’s seminal YA work The Perks of Being A Wallflower, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the main character’s de facto love interest, Mary Elizabeth. Though only a bit character, she proves a perfect foil to Charlie, and Chbosky’s wily name choice for this ultra-feminist, insecure, faux intellectual provided a gift wrapped challenge for my students.
Me: So of all the names he could have chosen, why this sort of stuffy, first-and-middle name? In fact, it’s even hard to say over and over again, but she only goes by Mary Elizabeth.
Me: Okay, so what do we know about her?
Them: Well, she’s super annoying, she doesn’t stop talking, usually about herself, and she wants to, like, make Charlie into her boyfriend instead of just letting him be who he is and be her boyfriend.
Me: Getting closer. Now, look at her name but only as initials.
Them: M-E. Yeah, so. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, ME!
The thing about Mary Elizabeth is she’s as incapable of accepting her own narcissism as Charlie is of understanding that people actually think that way. To him, other people are the focus, are the priority, are the story. He is, after all, a wallflower.
I think that’s why I connect so closely with Charlie. He spends his short life thinking about others, about how he can affect the lives of people he loves by sacrificing himself. In fact, such selflessness becomes his albatross, his cross to bear, and it nearly kills him.
As educators, we’re all Charlies. We deliberately sacrifice ourselves in the interest of others: our kids, our colleagues, and our own families. And we do so based on an internal locus of control, a speedometer set firmly on Go, which few of us are willing, or capable, of resetting.
So the pandemic hit reset for us.
Now, we are all forced to change our camera angle so it faces us. Our life’s camera roll includes far more selfies than it once did as we weigh our own health, the health of our own children and parents, our work-life balance, our mental health. The list goes on and on. We’ve gone from Charlies to Mary Elizabeths.
And that’s ok.
Because in doing so, we are finally prioritizing ourselves, not as part of an either-or ultimatum, but as part of a necessary shift in our point of view. A shift that, if considered earnestly, will only serve to make us better educators, better colleagues, and better people.
Take more selfies, my friends.
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