Last week, our school held it’s first slam poetry night. To say the least, I was blown away. For the very first time, I got to hear students’ voices through art. And though there is no arts program here, these students were nothing less than creative, dramatic, and inspiring. Though not many people went to the show, those who did go were extremely supportive. In the midst of someone messing up, the audience stood up and cheered him on. THAT is the culture I seek to create in my classroom and THAT is the culture I seek to spread throughout my school.
The next day, I shared my experiences with my classes. I told them that for the first time, I was able to see students’ hearts and their thoughts. To be able to showcase your heart is something that takes immense courage, especially if your heart is in pieces. However, that is what the performers did. They sent the message, “here’s my heart, take and see. It may not be perfect, it may be broken. But that’s okay because I want you to know that you aren’t alone in this”.
I then showed them this video about a guy who used to be bullied. Instead of wallowing in hurt and negativity, he took that pain and produced something beautiful and powerful. That is what I aim to instill in my students. I know they experience hardship daily, whether in school, or at home. But it’s not about going through hardship, it’s about being able to turn the tables and use that hardship to elevate yourself, to empower yourself and others.
Here’s the video. Please share this with your students!
When the video ended, the room was so quiet. I knew that the message had really hit their hearts. I allowed a few more seconds before I turned the lights back on and when I did, I noticed a few watery eyes. In my 6th period, one of my students had to leave the classroom crying because it spoke so much about her life. I talked to all my classes about it, and as they shared their thoughts, I realized how human they are. I asked if they could relate to this video or if they knew people who could relate, and they all said yes. There were a few who immediately shook their heads, but I know it was because they did not want to be judged. I told them that I could relate to this video. One student asked me if I was bullied when I was little. I said no, but now that I think of it, I think I was. There were a few individuals who made my middle and high school life miserable and that defined who I was for a long time. But I told him that even if I wasn’t bullied, I know the feeling of not being comfortable to be yourself, to be smiling on the outside, but hurting on the inside. I know how it feels to live in shame, guilt, and in pain. I know how it feels to have your heart cut open. I told them that they shouldn’t feel ashamed about their lives, or about what has happened in their lives. Instead, use that pain to inspire. That is the most powerful.
As my background is in psychology, I shared a psychological study on pain. Researchers took individuals that came from physically abusive or emotionally abusive households. They did a brain scan on both and found that when someone was physically beaten or verbally abused, the same part of their brain triggered. I asked my class what this meant and one student so eloquently put it, “two different causes, but the same effect”. Beautiful.
Then I asked them, which is worse? One student, who had his head down the whole time (usually I would address this, but I didn’t know what was going on in his mind) lifted his head and said, emotional, because it’s unseen. Now, his response awed me not so much because of what he said because it’s true, but the fact that he would even say it. This kid entered my class in January because for the first half of the year, he had be in jail for robbery. He wears an ankle bracelet, signifying that he is under house arrest. He is affiliated with a gang and the threatening way he looks at me gives me a chill down my spine. So when he said that, I jumped up in excitement. YES!
Because when you break your arm, you can put a cast on it and it will heal, but when you have a cut on your heart can you put a bandaid over it? And so because it is unseen, people think that it’s not there, so they ignore it. They feel it, but they don’t know what to do with it. So they start to build walls to protect their hearts. Not just walls, but barbed wires and electric fences. And though they keep out the bad, they also keep out the very good that can heal a heart: love. This is how people fall into depression. Because their walls are so enforced that even if they are surrounded by love, they can’t feel it. Love is in vain if one cannot receive.
I’m so proud of my students because when they come inside the classroom, they are able to let those walls down. This is evidenced by their helping each other. But I know that the second they walk out of my door, those walls have to come up again. I don’t blame them because I would be terrified walking through the same hallways they walk through each day. But this is something that I want them to be aware of. That as they walk through the hallways, they are passing through people with open wounds. “Everyone has a story” as one of them put it. So one comment, even though it may be funny, may actually be another gash to the heart.
I told them that this is why I teach at Homestead, because there is a lot of change that can be made. But it starts with the individual and gradually ripples out. I told them to be cogniscent of what they say and what they hear. Even if they don’t directly put people down, them laughing at a mean joke encourages and fuels this hatred that goes on. I asked them if they can help me make that change. They all nodded.
As February is ending, I’m starting to see a change in my students. I see it most in R, a student who is infamous for wondering the hallways last year because he would get kicked out by his teachers. The first day I met R, I knew why. I thought that he was rude, immature, and would just always play around. I heard from other students that he would always get into fights because he would bully other kids. He was also bullied himself. They call him “coffee” because of his dark complex. They tease him everyday and to protect himself, he became a bully.
I started being more attentive to him, always helping and directing him first before the class. I found that his short attention span was not something he could control. And it wasn’t that he didn’t want to do the work, but he needed to be proven that he could do the work before he went ahead and did it. It was a confidence issue. Things with R started getting better. There were less calls made home (his mother was starting to feel hopeless).
Then, a few weeks ago, the change started happening. He would pop his head into my classroom afterschool, perhaps out of curiosity. He saw that my classroom was always filled with students. He would never come in though. He did that almost everyday until finally one day I called him in and told him that we would work on homework together. Ever since then, he has been in my classroom either helping me or doing his homework. Last Friday I took him home and right as he left, he said, “alright thank you and love you ms. wu”.
I thought I didn’t hear correctly. I looked at my rearview mirror to make sure it was him who said it, but he was gone. But those words ring out in my memory. I’m sitting here and I still can’t believe that happened. But it’s quite simple actually. He just needed to know that someone cares. That’s it.