We do this project. The kids write about a problem they have overcome, creating a symbol to personify that problem so that they think of resolving the situation in a healthy way, in an assertive, active way. So I go around the room to see what they are going to write about. Deaths of grandparents. Depression. Moving between many different households. My house burned down. Lost both my parents. My mother’s boyfriend’s drinking.
Sometimes I know about the tragedy already. Sometimes I don’t. Today I found out one of my students both has a kid and has been shot. “Both of those happened to you?” I asked, concerned the assignment had been misconstrued.
“Wow. You’re tough.” Kid is tough. Has fought me hard on occasion, but eventually settled into my boundaries pretty well. Now I see where that toughness came from.
It softens everyone in the room, the day when they write down their wounds. It softens them as much as it softens me.
The next step is that they personify their issue. Maybe it’s like spiders crawling all over your body. Or a storm that just won’t pass. A dark, winding cave. Tigers chasing you. And one of my favorites: a lawnmower that comes by over and over to cut you down.
After school today, a kid came in to drop off some make up work, and I asked how he was doing, what was up with him. I was just being sociable. He told me how he was doing, though, and it wasn’t good.
“Oh,” I said. “Why don’t you sit down.”
Kid gushed like a spring river. I had never had a personal conversation with this kid before. I’m not the sort of person people usually tell their life stories to. But boy, this kid had a lot to say.
Let’s say he had a zombie army that invaded his house, and they stretched his head and heart out so far it was overwhelmingly heavy. He was in no danger, and there was nothing I needed to do about it. He was just reeling.
I sent other kids out of the room when they came in to ask me something. He didn’t seem to need privacy. Our school is so small. A lot of times people just put their business out there because it’s hardly worth the trouble to conceal it.
“The worst thing is, no one understands,” he said.
I certainly didn’t understand. Zombies never invaded my house, and I never had my head and heart stretched out quite that way.
He kept going and going. “I can’t talk about my feelings,” he said. “I’m not that kind of person. And there’s no one I can talk to.”
“Well, you’re talking to me,” I pointed out.
“But you’re Ms Schurman. You like, just listen, and work around the problem, instead of trying to jump in, and you’ve been my teacher for a year, and you’ve helped me before.”
I really wasn’t sure I had helped him before, but no reason to mention that. That was the least of my problems. I was about to cry. I was Ms Schurman? What did that even mean? School, that school, is the only place anyone calls me that. I was Ms Schurman, sure, I guess. I am when I’m in that building, and I am Ms Schurman with a stack of papers on a Saturday afternoon, and at a party when I tell people about my school so they know some city schools, and some city kids, are productive and happy and ambitious.
At the end of the year, I used to feel like I physically took off that name, that burden, but as time has gone on, it’s gotten less heavy. It feels more like a part of me.
I asked him if he wanted me to tell his teachers he was going through some stuff, and he needed some leniency for a while. He said yes. He left.
I went to take my half-empty juice back to the fridge in the closet in the chemistry lab, and I stood there in the dark and teared up as much as I thought I could without looking like I had been crying when I came out. I looked at the wood grain on the door of the mini fridge, and the unlit light bulb hanging down, and the dead sink, and I thought about my friend who had taken her breast pump in there when she returned to work after having a baby. God knows what else people have done in that closet. It’s an old building.
I remembered another time when a teenager said, “I know I can trust you.” And I thought that those two compliments were two of the best I’d ever gotten. I worked damn hard for those.
I listened to a lot that disturbed me, and I kept an open expression on my face when my stomach was cringing, and I bit my tongue and did not say a thousand things that came to mind, no matter how critical that information seemed. What I know, what I’ve learned, is only occasionally, and only in tiny doses, useful to others.
And I know for sure that teenagers get tired of people always telling them how it is and what they should do, because I’m almost as touchy about being bossed around as they are.
Walking back to my classroom, I thought of one of my favorite quotes, from Fred Rogers, of the “Neighborhood”: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.” That one makes me cry, too.