I know I'm asking for psychological trauma when I ask my students to write essays about a crisis in their lives, and how they learned to cope. It hurts to know that they've been through so much pain. I had them start by writing a poem and then pinpointing the crisis in one word. Then we outlined our thesis and topic sentences together. I was trying to talk about how the thesis is the heart of the essay when I looked up and realized how many of them were lost in thought. Realizing that I had opened an industrial size can of worms, I had to stop the lesson and play social worker for awhile. We gathered into a circle as I explained that I wasn't trying to hurt them by forcing them to tell difficult stories, I was trying to help them remember how strong they are in their ability to learn how to heal. Their lives are hard and the expectations on them so low. Please just let me raise the bar they set for themselves.
Walking the line between getting too involved in students' stories and coming off callous and uncaring is difficult. I sense myself galvanizing, protecting my mushy heart. I am starting to understand the professional distance that you must keep from your students, or you will hold their pain in your chest cavity, too. It still amazes me what they will tell you about themselves and their lives if you provide the opportunity. M came out to me today, while A wrote a seething poem about his father's death. C talked about being neglected by her parents. R talked about being sexually abused. S talked about being beat up daily for being the smallest kid on the block. All of them laid out narratives about pain, fear, hatred, feeling unloved, not belonging, being depressed, being unhealthy, not having enough to eat. Living in darkness at home because their parents can't pay the bills.
Talk about perspective. Fuck the digital divide, what about the quality of life divide? While it's true that my students aren't being exposed to technology in the same way as their suburban counterparts, which is horrible... that's really not high on my priority list right now, when they have such basic needs that aren't being met. I always bring my lunch but I rarely eat it, I usually give it to my students. Last year, we noticed that they were wearing hoodies to school in January, because they didn't have coats. I started raiding thrift stores for warm things to slyly pass to them as gifts when no one was looking.
I tell these stories not to shock you, not to bring praise to myself or to tell you that everyone should work in an urban public school. Clearly, not every teacher enjoys, or is meant for this struggle. To me it's not an option, it's not a choice, and I don't say that heading for martyrdom. I feel an intense connection to this struggle, which was my own, and in helping these students find value and purpose in their lives. I know that these students are going to be responsible for the widespread cultural change in this country that I hope I live to see. I know that they will be the ones to ask the right questions, demand answers, unite and stand up for their rights.
Pac said, "the elevation of today's generation, if I can make them listen." They weren't listening today. And I was asking the wrong questions. I've learned that being stern is how they see that I care for them. Having high expectations and maintaining consistency is how I gain their respect. Calling them out is how they know I'm looking out for their backs. They're still crazy, self-involved and won't get off of myspace, so I grab their myspace addresses and remind them to finish their essays.
I don't know what I'm trying to say, I'm just trying to speak their language. On Monday, they caused a first draft that I've been trying to write for a year. I love this group already, too. This is going to be a long life of saying hello and goodbye to students, and hoping that I can give them skills that will help them work hard on this world.