Find your inner nerd

The following blog post is taken from the ethics speech that Chinese teacher Elizabeth Sears delivered to Middle School students and faculty. She shares how embracing her "inner nerd" led her to follow her passion for foreign languages, which in turn led her to a fulfilling career and a happy life.

When I began teaching at Landon five years ago, the year began like any other. Preseason meetings. Ice breakers. Picnics. The pomp and circumstance of introductions in the amphitheater First day of school jitters. And, many, many introductions of myself and my background to students and parents, colleagues and administrators, and other members of the greater Landon community. Then we move on, consumed by the tasks at hand of schooling, the pace of the year, the excitement of each new season, and the relationships that are flourishing.

As the years continue, that foundation, that shared history, is what we build upon. But what we sometimes take for granted is the time set aside at the beginning of the year to really get to know each and every member of our community — both new and returning. Indeed, our community changes every year. Oftentimes, this "getting to know you" really only takes place if two people are linked by some commonality — shared geography of classroom locations; a shared curriculum; shared students, shared athletics teams and musical groups; the list goes on. Interestingly, as if the universe knew that I would be touching on this topic today during my speech, in the days leading up to today, a handful of students, both Middle and Upper schoolers, and colleagues came up to me and asked one of those beginning-of-the-year introductory questions I am often asked when we have a minute to chat: "So, why Chinese?" I chuckled as I responded to them, "Interestingly, that is part of what I am talking about in my ethics speech this week!" "Cool!" they responded. So here goes.

When I tell people I am a teacher, they can very easily wrap their minds around that concept. Students, homework, tests, classroom management — the works. Very often, the follow up question is something along the lines of, "Well, what do you teach?" When I respond with "Chinese," I can almost see the gears in their brain short-circuit momentarily. Their eyes get wide, and they often they cock their head to the side a bit, not unlike a dog when it hears a new and intriguing sound. "Oh!" is a common response. "So, you speak Chinese?" "Have you been to China?" These questions are generally well-intentioned, though I have been told I don't "look" like I speak Chinese. But that is an ethics talk for another time.

Depending on my relationship to the person with whom I am talking, our venue, and the time we have together, I politely divulge more information. I tell people I have studied in China twice, once in Beijing and once in Hangzhou, and neither time was I permitted to speak English for the duration of my studies. I tell them I have traveled there a number of other times with family (pictured above) and students to share with them the beauty and history of the country. I tell them that my now 87-year-old grandmother came to China with my parents to visit me, and she can still recount her memories of the trip — the food, the sites and the people — with detail as vivid as if she had just disembarked from her return flight home. I tell them, "Yes, I have been to the Great Wall and Hong Kong, and have learned how to harvest tea leaves at plantations in Zhejiang." And, if they don't look incredulous or overwhelmed by all that, I tell them that I took a train with eight close friends to spend a week in Tibet. I tell them that one of my closest friends in my adult life is from Taiwan, and though I have not yet been to Taiwan, it is high on my list of places to travel within the Chinese-speaking world.

And today, given the rare opportunity to be more raw than I have been in the past, I get to talk to you all about my inner nerd — the things that make me me. I have always loved languages. From a young age, the idea of being able to speak a second language fascinated me. I did not grow up speaking a foreign language; my mother told stories of struggling through German when she attended high school, and my father perhaps mentioned in passing that he studied French, but I did not learn a second language as a child. As a young girl, I have vivid memories of making up gibberish languages for my toys to speak to one another. In fourth grade, I remember going to my town's public library and selecting a picture book of French vocabulary. Though baffled by this rather obscure interest, my parents were very supportive. In Middle School, similar to many of you, I studied Spanish. And I loved it. So much so that when I began high school, I decided to study French as well. Many of my friends thought I was crazy. "You're giving up a free period to take ANOTHER class?" they would say. But none of that bothered me all that much. But let's speed this story up — and delve into that essential question that I hear so often: "So, why Chinese?"

Elizabeth Sears Landon School

I started studying Chinese my freshman year of college — the fall of 2005. And man, was it hard at first. Let's be real, it will always be kind of hard. I empathize with many of my students and their journey studying Chinese because I have been there — in their very shoes — slogging through character memorization, dictation quizzes and listening exercises. As a senior in college, I remember a conversation with my roommate and best friend. She was a theater major, talking about all the work she had for a class she called "Clown Class." I'm sure it was a rigorous class — but hearing her preoccupation with finding a red nose to bring to her final exam while I was reading pages of texts and preparing to write essays in Chinese was not easy, even for the most passionate language student.

After graduation, I needed a job. I faced a lot of external pressure to find a job in the world of business, finance or consulting because, "You could make so much money in that field if you speak Chinese!" However, my gut told me I would not be happy in that field. I found a job teaching Chinese at a private school in Connecticut, and — what do you know? — I loved it. After only about six weeks in the classroom, my heart and my mind finally agreed: "Yes, this is most certainly what I want to do with my language." A graduate degree and multiple summers of immersion teaching experiences later, I stand in front of you with three suggestions that, though perhaps a bit conventional, have helped me over the years. I share them with you with the hope that you can keep them on the back burner of your mind and refer to them when life demands some sagely advice.

1. Find and embrace your inner nerd.

You have to find your inner nerd. Or perhaps it isn't as much "inner" and is a more overt nerd side. Fortunately, I am surrounded by people — you all — who give me the chance to be a nerd on a daily basis. When talking about various concepts in class, I will often say to my boys, "Does anyone else think this is cool? Or is it just me because I am a language nerd?" While a handful roll their eyes and others have a vacant expression on their face, some crack a slight smile. Or even laugh. And that smile makes my heart sing. In all seriousness though, answer the rhetorical question what makes you nerd out? What makes you, you? Embrace it. For me, it was foreign languages. And, later, Chinese. I knew it in fourth grade, and though my path has since meandered and unfolded in unexpected ways, do not deny those early interests and passions that piqued your curiosity and made you wonder what else was out there for you to discover.

2. Get to know the people around you.

Building off the previous recommendation, figure out what makes your friends and classmates "nerd out." Ask people about themselves. Find what makes them them and establish common ground in your nerdiness. Learn a foreign language so that the number of people with whom you can connect multiples exponentially. Find the people who love you for who you are and who inspire you to be a better you. You cannot imagine how happy it makes me when you all share with me stories of how your parent went to China on business. Or how you have a Chinese neighbor who taught you a couple phrases and invites you to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Or the fact that part of your family heritage is rooted in China, or East Asia, or truly anywhere in the world. This sharing is the fiber that strengthens our community. This is what nourishes our bonds and this is what helps us tell our collective story. Draw strength from our similarities and embrace and learn from our differences.

3. Follow your heart.

Ultimately, what has helped me become, well, me was being comfortable with the fact that I was following my heart in terms of my interests and passions. No, I was not one of the "cool kids" in high school, picking up a second language for my course load. Sure, I had twinges of jealously listening to my friend stress about "Clown Class," but I did love my Chinese classes. No, it was not easy to have limited access to family while adhering to a "Chinese only" language pledge from 12 hours in the future. And, for better or for worse, teaching is not necessarily the career to choose if you want to buy private yachts or fly off to secluded, pristine Caribbean islands for a weekend. But ultimately, I am happy with my choices. I am happy with me. And I hope you all find what makes you happy to be you.