I recently had the pleasure of being a panelist for the East Harlem Scholars Academy charter network community in a discussion about how to cope in the face of the rash of conspicuous police brutality, terror attacks, not to mention the inflammatory and degrading remarks provoked by presidential campaigns, and innumerable other anxiety producing incidents that have flooded our cultural landscape. The audience was made up of EHSA teachers, administrators, parents, and community members and was held at St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in East Harlem. That a forum was this community’s response to the surging social and racial challenges of our times; that the EHSA's collective energy was focused on how to come together, to listen, and to connect with one another touched me profoundly.
The panel was composed of a cross-section of diverse perspectives and areas of relevant expertise: a child psychiatrist, a parent of three children in theEHSA schools, a middle school faculty member, a recent EHSA high school graduate and sophomore in college, a doctoral student studying the relationship between trauma and learning, and me, a specialist who works to support the wellbeing of our kids and school communities using the combined tools of yoga and mindfulness. The moderator made a few notable inquiries: 1) What were some of our raw emotional reactions to the back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile ; 2) What is the appropriate age that parents and teachers should consider talking to children of color about possessing an undervalued and abused status in a society plagued by the complex issues of race, class, socio-economic access, education, poverty and a history of violence?; 3) What is the most important thing that we can do as educators to support our students and be allies during upsetting times of conflict within our society?; 4) In the face of all this madness, what brings you joy?
Each question offered panelists and members of the community an opportunity to reflect, and tap that tender emotional place in ourselves that had been affected by the recent violence. As we all listened to each other, the collective sighs and murmurs made clear the well of empathy felt for the diverse spectrum of emotional and intellectual responses to the questions. Many sought strategies to cope with this trauma that had affected us all. Yes, trauma. It is arguable that watching or listening to the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin (and so many others) die and then be denied the basic human dignity of an acknowledgment of the wrongness of their deaths has put this entire nation, let alone our children, into a deeply traumatized state. To witness a serious injury to, or the death of, someone else is a traumatic event. And when experiencing such traumatic events repeatedly calls forth overwhelming feelings of terror, horror, or helplessness, it can’t help but be traumatizing to the national psyche on a large scale.
Our panel discussion asserted that trauma can be soothed when one's experience and emotions are heard. There was a felt sense that a real catharsis was silently and sometimes audibly occurring within the hearts and minds of those present in the church. This release came about through the act of empathetic communication, which creates space for the possibility of authentic sharing of innermost fears, feelings and concerns. It’s amazing the way even some of the toughest and most upsetting events, when shared in a safe place can yield deep healing. The more questions we answered as panelists, the more collaborative our responses became, as one panelist’s response dovetailed with another’s, or one echoed the phrasing or continued the thread of a previous panelist’s thoughts.
When the discussion ended, each person who approached me to thank me or introduce his or herself mentioned that she wished we had more opportunities to participate in forums like this one. It was simultaneously an obvious and remarkable request. We live in community, we work in community, we transition from place to place in community, and yet we rarely make time to simply connect in real and meaningful ways. We often wait until a crisis has occurred to pool our collective resources of wisdom and empower ourselves by coming together.
While this panel asked the room of mostly adults to reflect on “What Can We Do When the World Feels Like It's Falling Apart?”, the parallels between the challenges and responses shared and what happens in the many classrooms I’ve taught in was uncanny. I was reminded that being a teacher affords me the critical opportunity to create a little microcosm of the world where my students and I can learn to cherish the full spectrum of what it means to be thinking, feeling, active, complicated, and creative human beings. This full spectrum includes EVERYTHING that can occur while being human in relationship with others: from the uglier or more unpleasant conflicts and upsets that arise in the classroom community, to the simple routines and procedures that ritualize being together, and finally when the learning and application of skills and new knowledge are integrated by my students in a seamless and thrillingly empowering way. As a teacher to both adults and youth, I have learned to obsess less on the content I have taught or teach, and more on what kind of human being I am supporting my students to become. ELA, math, STEM, SEL, yoga and mindfulness are vitally important content areas. However they are all merely the tools that I may offer my students to help them access themselves, their power, their fullest potential, their self-realization.
I hope to remember that a singularly powerful remedy when things fall apart is to create safe spaces to come together and share how we feel. I hope we continue as we did during the forum to practice seeing each other. I hope we listen with kindness and curiosity. I hope we trust that we will be heard and valued. I hope that we repair. I hope that we heal. I hope that we learn from each other. I hope we collaborate and create new possibilities for ourselves and our world. In doing all this, I hope we come to know ourselves better and become less fearful about putting ourselves out into the world in the most fully expressed way. I hope that then we can take each step in our individual journeys from a less bound and more resilient place.
There are certain points in your life when you feel like everything is decided for you. You can clearly see your next hour, day, week and year. Life is a finished book, each chapter named, edited and ready to read. Some may feel that being in this space provides clarity, safety, and security because the decisions made for you make you feel in control and comforted. However, when we are not ready for life to be decided for us, we can feel more out of control than in control when imagining these set decisions and choices are already written in our script of life.
And what if life is a finished book for you? You can open to a set page and know exactly what is there. You have edited and re-edited and it is ready to be put on the shelf. An accomplishment perhaps, something you have worked hard on and are proud of. But what if, one day, everything that has been decided for you changes? The pages in your book become mixed up, chapters all over the place, and all of a sudden the book that was ready to be shelfed, doesn’t make sense at all. How do you deal with this? Are you flexible? Are you a flowing willow tree that sways with the wind of change or a stiff branch that cracks whenever a big wind comes?
Some children have many choices made for them throughout the day. Perhaps they wake up and their clothes are already laid out and their grown up dresses them. They go to school and the teacher tells them their schedule. When the child is upset the teacher gives them the answer to their problem. After school, maybe they go on a playdate which was arranged by their parent, they eat dinner, and then are scheduled to be in bed by a certain time.
As we know, it is hard work to be a parent or a teacher. Of course, children need structure and rules, they need some choices and decisions to be made for them. But I ask you, and I wonder for myself, are your students and children really ready for all of these choices, scheduled activities, and answers to be decided for them? Are they making the child feel more in control or more out of control?
As teachers, we want to help children fix their problems. We want to say the right thing when they are feeling wrong and we want to give them answers to their questions to help them feel safe, secure, satisfied and comforted.
But as I am growing as a teacher and a person, I am realizing that I need to find a balance in how I help students fix their problems. I cannot always make the correct decisions for them because I need to empower them to figure out the correct answer on their own. In the classroom, teachers place much attention on controlling the class and managing their students. And yes, this is a necessary skill if you want to become a teacher. But I invite you to think about how you want your students to feel in your classroom. Perhaps we are the ones that should be most in control, but ideally, we would like the student to think that they are the ones who are most in control. They should be the ones who feel most in control of themselves, their emotions, and their bodies. We should be there to inspire, guide, give choices, and nudge in the correct direction. We should be there to teach them the skills that help them to recognize that their emotions will change and situations will change. We should teach them that they will not always be in control but that they have a choice about how to react when things do not do their way. We should be there to teach them that the power of decision making is within them and not outside of them. We can guide our students to become flowing willow trees or stiff and rigid branches. The choice is up to us.
I wrote this song to help children recognize that sometimes things can change. The change can be sudden or gradual, bad or good, happy or sad, but the exciting thing is that they can react to the change however they choose. They are in control over their situation and their emotions.
LISTEN HERE to "Listen Within" by Lianne Bassin