Why does this keep happening? Why are children who have walked this earth only a handful of years giving up on life? How can we tell them they’ve got what it takes to make it? Because they CAN make it. The human spirit is built to withstand limitless stress and pain and struggle. So, when they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, why do they not have faith that it will be there, if they just keep going?
It just breaks my heart.
I asked my students this morning what they thought. You may think you know what was said, but I wouldn’t put money on it.
“Hurt people hurt people.”
Yup. And it was uttered without a giggle. It was received without an eye-roll. In fact, the words themselves were just a parroting of a phrase Mr. Hopkins uses quite often. It was the seriousness with which those four words were declared that healed my heart – just a bit.
You see, the scariest part of becoming an alternative school teacher is going in with the knowledge that these kids don’t even have to know you to pretty much loathe you.
“What if they hate me?” I would whine to my friends the summer before my first year.
“They’ll love you. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
So easy to say; so easy for someone else to believe. However, when you are sitting across from a student staring you down, jaw clenched and chest heaving, it takes a lot of nerve to keep calm and forge on. I really worried that I didn’t have what it would take. I was afraid that they simply would reject me.
Well, I must admit that some openly don’t even entertain the thought of receiving any kind of help. Their anger at the world and its unjustices, their fear of love, their distrust of authority – all of these things aren’t so easily mended. Sometimes their walls have taken root in a foundation of pain that will not allow them to crumble.
But sometimes, even if they don’t break, a crack will open. That’s when we ALL have to make our move.
Don’t waste a single second! You may not get another chance! They will throw something out there to show you where it hurts the most. Grandma’s sick and Dudley is worried she’s going to die. Jillie Sue is going to see her mom tonight for the first time in five years. Billy Joe’s brother is going to jail again, Mama’s mad at everyone, and he just can’t do anything right, so why should he even bother?
Acknowledge it. Empathize with it. Most importantly, tell them how freaking proud you are of how he or she is making it through. Praise the fact that they are holding on and standing strong! Let them knew that you “went through some ‘thangs’” yourself and are glad to know you can persevere. Teach them the beauty of self-respect and courage.
Next, challenge them to something – an extra ten math problems, five of the hardest spelling words you can find, making it through a whole week without any lunch detentions. Finally smile, look them square in the eyes, and tell them you can’t wait to see that strength in action!
With our students we have learned it is sometimes not best to tell them, “Everything is going to be okay.” They are savvy enough to know that there is no way we can promise this. Carefully assess your students to know which ones need reassurance and which ones need the “hard-line”.
Mr. Hopkins and I ended Morning Meeting with our OA Avengers by sending them on a mission to show those who feel that they can’t take it anymore that not only can they take it, they can take even more, if necessary.
Tonight, I still don’t have answers to my questions. My heart is still broken for every child who is thinking of giving up or who is considering school a scary place. All I know is that my students made me feel better today, and that reignites my hope that the answers may soon be found.
In the meantime…
Consider the words of legendary singer Garth Brooks, who got me through a lot of “thangs” in the nineties:
(Sing it with me, now!)
“You know a dream is like a river
Ever changing as it flows,
And a dreamer is just a vessel
That must follow where it goes.
Trying to learn from what’s behind you
And never knowing what’s in store
Makes each day a constant battle
Just to stay between the shores.
I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry.
Like a bird upon the wind
These waters are my sky.
I’ll never reach my destination
If I never try,
So I will sail my vessel
‘Til the river runs dry.