Have you ever had a day that rocks you to the core? A day that makes you believe in humanity? Have you ever witnessed such powerful love you can’t help but cry? I have and it was in my fifth grade classroom. During a class meeting my students opened up and supported each other in ways that would soften the most hardened heart.
Now I work in a community with gangs, poverty, and drug abuse. And like many teachers I don’t want to know every sad story. Some are so heartbreaking it makes it hard to teach. But this one year I had students facing extreme challenges that were affecting everyone. One little girl had gone from Student of the Month to a taunting bully. Another kept stirring up girl drama while ignoring her schoolwork. Soon she was two years behind.
I wondered why?
The school counselor and their parents soon told me. The bully had recently walked in and found a cousin hanging from a rope, the victim of suicide. That, compounded with a single parent household and relatives in gangs, made her so angry she lashed out at whoever was nearby.
The second girl had a father who’d been arrested for gang activity in a loud raid on her home. His arrest was in the papers and she was so ashamed that she could barely focus in school. She often started to cry in the middle of class and asked to be excused. I tried my best to comfort her or distract her with a joke or interesting work. But when a child is missing her Daddy there is little a teacher can do.
Neither of these girls shared their pain with their classmates. Both were too ashamed.
One day the tension felt so high I called a class meeting. I cautioned the kids about the rules saying that this was private, not something to gossip about. We could share with our parents but not on the playground. Then like I often do, I started it off with acknowledging how proud I was to be their teacher, how honored I was to be part of their lives, and how much they meant to me.
I smiled at the girl whose father had been arrested and passed her the talking stick. She whispered in my ear, “I want to share about my dad. What do you think?” I told her it was her choice.
She turned the talking stick over in her hands as she spoke. “I know I’ve been fighting with some of you guys. I’m sorry. But it’s because I’ve had hard stuff to deal with. My dad got arrested. And I don’t know when he’s coming home.”
As she started to cry in the arms of the child next to her, we all chanted, “Thank you for sharing.”
I acknowledged her for being so brave and once again cautioned the students about the rules.
Next was the bully’s turn. She looked at her sobbing friend with wide eyes and shared. “I haven’t been acting great either. But it’s because I had a loss. Of my cousin.”
The kids stared at her with wide eyes. And compassion.
What happened next gave me chills. Along with the usual please-be-quieter-so-I-can- work, a couple of kids tearfully shared their parents’ divorce and how lonely it made them feel. Then two more children said they had a parent in jail and how that loss haunted them. But between each difficult sharing was such empathy! Time and again I heard both boys and girls say, “I’m sorry for your loss and I’m here for you.”
We passed the talking stick around the circle multiple times that day and each time we did a new child revealed loss or pain. Yet every heartrending story was tempered with classmates speaking up with loving affirmations.
And when we were finally done I held the talking stick and said, “We’ve discovered something very special today. That we all have sad things to deal with. Things that are out of our control. But we also have this amazing community of support to help us. I am so proud of how brave and kind all of you were. When you’re sad, remember this and it will comfort you. We are so lucky to have each other.”
36 children. A talking stick. And a room vibrating in love.
I couldn’t help but cry.