Legitimacy is important. It’s why Trump bombed Syria. It’s why Kim married Kanye. It’s why Beyonce made that ridiculous photo shoot. (Yeah, I said it). Legitimacy can define our career, our self-worth, and our relationships. It can anchor us and sustain us when we aren’t being fed by our work, by our studies, or by our relationships. It can remind us that we are grounded in something specific, if not special. We have a linear trajectory by which we can aspire.
When I was a teacher, sometimes the students would ask about my life. The first time it was easy. I was 22, they were 10. I steered the conversation to one about proper etiquette and expectations.
The second time it was a little harder. I was 25, they were 8 to 14. I was working as a Title I teacher in a hybrid virtual charter school. (I know, right?!) Half the curriculum was taught at home, the other half was provided at school with certified instructors. Half modeled home schooling, with guided curriculum and ready-made lessons. The other days were spent at school participating in social clubs, completing science experiments, and receiving tutoring in reading and math.
In some classes, I had 2-3 students who were at different degrees of the autism spectrum. In other classes, I had 10-15 students ranging from 4th to 8th grade. The vision of the school was one of flexibility and relevancy, but in practice, students and parents were at odds with its vision. Some of my students were children of aspiring actors. Their parents chose the school because they were on the road often and wanted consistency.
Some chose it as an alternative to the model of special education that existed in their nearest public school. The integration of technology appealed to them. All of us teachers were assigned to a cohort. All of us were part-time. We were located in a temporary building in a temporary space in an experimental school with brand new leadership.
The third time was harder, still. I was 33, they were 13. I’d spent almost 13 years in education with hybrid teaching and administrative roles. I’d worked primarily in adult education. I’d been mentored and observed by life-long educators; I had observed and mentored (hopefully) life-long educators.
I’d developed a fondness for restorative justice and a contempt for adultism and ageism. I’d started as a part-time tutor there, but became the 7th grade teacher when their original hire quit in the 3rd quarter.
Transitioning was difficult. I was ineffective and ill-prepared. They were still fresh from the loss of their first teacher. I was an unwelcome intruder in a hostile space.
I wanted to establish a good rapport with my students, but I didn’t want to coddle or condescend. I wanted to be open and authentic. Experience had taught me to focus on what was safe: family, origin, and favorites. I couldn’t say, wouldn’t say, what was true.
What was true was that I had spent the last 10 or more years trying to create a career that others would see as legitimate. I thought teaching would do it, but over and over again, I had failed. Education was the target, but there were a series of consistent, significant misfires.
What was true was that I was impatient to legitimize my relationship. Not because of marriage itself or because of what it is supposed to mean for women (I didn’t actually care about that), but because there are parts of me that have always struggled with holiness, faith, and God’s call on our lives.
The parts of me that still believe crave authenticity; they crave legitimacy. Marriage is legitimate (although love is not a marriage).
What was true was that I understood that no career, no affection, and no relationship would save me from an illegitimate life (well, you know what I mean). Legitimacy is why Trump bombed Syria. It’s why Taylor Swift keeps making music. It’s why Katie Holmes is tired of hiding her love for Jamie Foxx.
Legitimacy, or the fear of being illegitimate, can ruin us.
Illegitimacy led me to law school.
I’d been working part-time, teaching basic skills computer classes to incarcerated women at a women’s correctional facility. I was happy.
The longer I taught, the more they shared. Stories of sexual abuse and sexual trauma, of drug addiction and homelessness. Almost overnight teaching became irrelevant.
They needed an advocate. They needed laws that would keep them safe and a justice system that would help them when addiction sprang from their trauma. Being an attorney was legitimate, so off I went.
The problem with legitimacy is that it cannot, in and of itself, satisfy us (not permanently at least). We can’t maintain it. We need it at work. We need it at home. We need it on the playground and on the dance floor, truly.
We need it all the time– need that feeling to live inside of us.
Legitimacy is important. It can compel us and encourage us to aspire. It can give us purpose, resolve, and a sense of peace. It can arm us. But if we’re not careful, it can also steal our joy– moments, experiences, and memories whose value and worth are without parallel. Whose measure is without comparison.
What has legitimacy taught you? What mistakes have you made in the shadow of illegitimacy?