Monday, May 26, 2014

"Can you hear me? I am suffering, can you see?"

I started a teaching residency in Dorchester this week.  Dorchester is known for being a particularly  dangerous place for families and one of the most difficult places to teach in the Boston Public School system.  Dorchester schools are difficult for many reasons you'd expect.  No funding, burnt out teachers and not enough leaders in administrative positions.  As my coworker said earlier this week as an ambulance halted our commute to Frederick's Middle School, not for the first time, "that siren seems to the theme music for Dorchester."  We worked in another part of Dorchester in the Fall and I remember leaving school grounds during a long break between classes.  I was teaching to find chapstick.  I went into three difference convenience stores, all within walking distance from the school.  Every single one of them had floor-to-ceiling bullet-proof glass between where I stood to pay, and the teller.  That was harrowing.  To think that my students knew this as normal. This environment of fear, danger and violence, day in and day out.  That it was all some of them, if not most, had ever known.

For the first three weeks of May, I was teaching in Cambridge.  Cambridge is the education mecca of the country, for both primary and secondary schools as well as higher education.  Some of the most prestigious colleges are located in or around Cambridge.  Places like Harvard.  The students have access to opportunities unparalleled anywhere else in the country.  And a plethora of them.  Many students are children of prestigious professors who are leading minds in their fields of study.  The schools have the best in education at their beck and call and the best resources Boston has to offer.

Going into Cambridge earlier this month, I tried to have no expectations.  But, deep down, I thought -- Cambridge!  These kids will be able to take the curriculum to new levels!  With what they have at their fingertips...

It was rough.  The students, by and large, looked at me and said, "what do you have to teach me?" It was an uphill battle.  A climb from sea level to 15k in three weeks.  They had so much around them, so many people clambering to give to them that, by and large, they didn't want anything anyone had to offer.  Most of the 6th grade students I taught were resistant, to say the least.

I learned a lot of Cambridge.  Learned that it is very important to go into all teaching engagements, actually any situation, with a Beginner's Mind.  Learned that the pain body, as we call it, in our students is present anywhere and everywhere.  Resources available or not.  Although these students had much more available to them than the kids in Dorchester, they were still in pain.  They were still reaching out for help.  They showed it through their resistance.  I wasn't asking them to give up anything.  I came with a gift.  A gift of wisdom and many of them, at first, shoved it away as if it were toxic.  I felt their pain through their inability to listen, to sit and to embrace.  But, day by day, they adapted.  Day by day, they began to accept that I wasn't giving up.  I wasn't going anywhere and I would keep knocking.  I would keep asking to be let in, to lay out before them a different way.

And one by one, they let me in.  One by one, they listened.   Each student participated, each student transformed.  Each student took the journey and came out the other side.   The students, as hard as they rebelled, all got up on the stage and delivered their lines, proud.  Speaking the lines of ancient wisdom; in this case the wisdom of Socrates.  What they do with what they learned, is up to them each.  But, they all smiled and looked over at me as they finished their performances, full of pride and hope.

This week, I'm back in Dorchester.  And I am dumbfounded.  These students are begging for instruction, by and large.  They struggle, they show their independence but by and large they are attentive, interested and they listen.  I am learning how students in different situations, listen.

Sure, they have their resistance leaders.  They have their attitude armor placed so delicately present but underneath it I can see their vulnerability.  I can see that they just want to be reached.

That isn't to say that kids in Cambridge aren't in the same boat.  That is to say that the kids in Dorchester, maybe because they are facing a different kind of mass adversity, a collective understanding of the "trenches" as many Dorchester teachers call it, they are more rapt and attentive toward learning about these ancient wisdom traditions I teach.  We are all clambering for wisdom.  And these kids, these kids who face homelessness, domestic violence, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy and suicide at alarming rates, they sat, ears perked and eyes forward waiting for the next cue; waiting for the moment they could jump start their lives into something better.

We had a journaling exercise.  I remember in Cambridge, the journaling exercises were a joke.  The kids talked over me; they laughed during the meditation intended to bring them more focus and draw them inward.  This isn't a judgement; this is where they were and I met them there.  The Dorchester students, they quieted.  Yearning to look inward.  Yearning to search for an answer from within.

The journal entry we worked on last week was "Know Thyself."  I'm teaching a unit on Socrates and to know yourself is a central tenant of Greek Philosophy.  I shared with them how learning to know myself, at their age, when I was severely depressed, anxious and angry saved my life.  I invited them each to look inward and ask themselves questions about who they were, in that moment.  I asked them to answer the question: "in my life, I would like to understand why I..."

I took them through a few more breaths, "breathe in courage, breathe out fear..."  And asked them to quietly open their eyes and begin writing, silently, in conversation with themselves.

After a few minutes of writing, I asked for volunteers to share what they had written.  "Sharing is entirely voluntary, no one needs to share.  Your grade will not be affected.  What you wrote is entirely confidential.  But, if there is anyone who would like to share, please raise your hand..."

One by one, courageous sixth grader after courageous sixth grader raised his or her hand.  The first student said he had been bullied since as long as he could remember.  For being different.  He started cutting himself in fourth grade and would sit in the bathroom and cry during lunch, asking why people bullied him so much.  He wanted to try to understand why he was so different.  The second student, a girl, simply asked, in a quiet voice, "I want to know...why do people hate me so much?" She laid her head down and silently cried for the rest of the class.  A third student, usually vibrant with energy and enthusiasm, raised his hand solemnly and asked, "I want to know, why don't people say hi to me, even when I know they hear me?"  A fourth student, who was separated from the class because of his learning disabilities asked, "Why do people think I'm boring?"  Questions kept coming.  With the same depth of emotion, the same yearning for wisdom and the same honesty.

I was honored to have been trusted with such questions.  I answered each with as much compassion and truth as I could find within myself.  Trying to reach each student where they were while trying to teach them that it was within themselves that they could find love, comfort and solace.  The lesson was to know yourself.  To listen to yourself.  To love yourself.  I encouraged each student to listen to what was being said, not just outside their heads, but within themselves.  "The things you tell yourself create who you are, and if you don't treat yourself with love, it will be hard to see and feel when others try to treat you with love."  I told the student who felt different that others may bully you yes, and the girl who felt that everyone hated her that yes, it may feel that the whole world is against you. The boy who felt that others thought he was boring and the boy who fixated on getting responses from those around him that yes -- we can take our cues from others.  In all of these ways.  But, if we want to find happiness and stability in life, we have to learn to stand up and tell ourselves we are important.  We are worthy and we are loved.  Hear it a thousand times from those around us and it may not settle but hear it once with meaning from ourselves and it can stick forever.

I left that classroom last week shaken.  I had been a part of a real transformation.  Those kids, together, stood up and said, I feel pain.  Can you hear me?  I am suffering, do you see?  And I tried, with all my might, to embrace them and to encourage each of them to embrace themselves.

Dorchester isn't very different from Cambridge, no.  The students in Dorchester, the students in Cambridge, all seek wisdom.  With resistance or without.  We all do.  Sometimes its with an earnest hopefulness in our eyes; other times its through steely eyes so forcefully intent on not letting anything in that all I can see is pain.

Wherever I am, Cambridge, Dorchester, or anywhere; some things are certain.  Our kids need more than aptitude tests in math, science and reading.  Yes, these are important.  But they also need to know how to listen to truth, within themselves.  How to trust themselves.  How to know themselves.  And how to be compassionate toward not only themselves, but everyone around them.  They are begging for this.  Aching for guidance.

This last week, I witnesses more than a few students reach out.  Vulnerably so.  And I was humbled.  We are so distant from each other sometimes.  When all we really need, deep down, is to connect.  With ourselves.  With one another.  With life.  It's really that simple.  Connection.  Take away the fear, clothed in so many forms, and all you have is light looking for light.

My students are light.  And they guide me as I guide them.  Perhaps they will grow to learn to do the same, with many others.  That is my hope.  That is why I do what I do.