The Kids are Alright, pt 2

I’ve been delivering Special Education services remotely since September. Some of my students are learning in school. Others are learning from home, but all of them are teaching the adults in their lives an inadvertent but valuable life lesson.

Even if you’ve only accidentally clicked one news link in the last eight months, it would be almost impossible not to hear some newscaster talking about the challenges of online education for students (and teachers) in rural areas.

The internet in our ‘town’ of about 300 has definitely improved since the early days when we practically needed to rig up a kite and key and hope a bolt of information-laden wireless signal would find its way into our laptops. Still, most days as I try to stay connected with my kiddos, I wonder if the powers that be are using gum and fishing-line to connect Vermont’s information super highway (it’s really more of an information dirt road in mudseason).

But, just like mudseason, there are two ways to deal with our inter-not. You can do what I do — silently grumble while keeping my best classroom Zoom smile plastered on until the next break in the action.

You can also do what the kids seem to do.  You can accept that this is just a minor hurdle as you restart your Chromebook and log back into your class and catch up on the 2 or 3 minutes of the lesson you’ve missed.

All of my kids seem to be learning — and teaching – this lesson every day of school. They come into school unable to enjoy many of the communal activities — sitting together at lunch, talking face-to-face – that make elementary school memorable in a good way. The in-person learners wear masks most of the day, and the remote kids pine for their friends.

Some kids sit down at their computers and get right to work. Others may need a little redirection to focus on the task at hand, but, regardless of the degree of engagement, they don’t grumble or complain about all of the new hurdles this pandemic has thrown at them.

So, this morning, when Zoom and our rural internet booted me and two of my remote readers out of class, I didn’t utter an oath at the internet gods in the sky. I took a page from my students’ playbook, restarted the class, and cleared the next hurdle, knowing that each time we do, we only get stronger.

The First Thing

About five years ago I was invited to lead a drawing workshop for a group of teenage boys recently arrived to this country as refugees. I had never taught anybody anything and knew nothing about classroom management. I understood the workshop would be an education for all of us, but some of the lessons of that day have only recently become clear.

The boys were attentive and engaged with the workshop. By the end of the class, they had filled the pages of the sketchbooks I’d brought with drawings of trees and garden statues. As their confidence grew, some of them began to sketch their lives as refugees.

Those very personal drawings often depicted experiences no human, especially no child, should ever have to endure. When I got beyond my outrage at the thought of a child having to hide from people with machine guns, however, I wondered if the resilience of these boys was the most valuable lesson I would take home, but my education was only beginning.

A few years later, I began working with students with complex trauma. Many of the students came to us through the juvenile justice or foster care systems after experiencing years of assault or extreme neglect at the hands of parents or trusted caregivers. Some students tiptoed into the program, scanning every room they entered for threats and jumping at the sound of a torn piece of paper. Other students raged against their lives with profanity and destruction.

These kids take months and years to navigate far enough around their trauma to be able to build their futures. Some never get around it, and, when I first started this work, I wondered how the boys from the workshop who had survived war circumnavigated those memories, seemingly, so much more quickly.

When Thing1 was born, I morphed, in the space of 36 hours, from an ambitious, tech-driven programmer to a bowl of pudding that wanted nothing more than to hold my child until he no longer wanted to be held. At the time, the Ferber method was still very popular, but something felt very wrong about not picking up my child when he was crying. I asked a social worker friend if I should just have Thing1 ‘tough it out.’

My friend put her hand on my arm and said, “Rachel, the first year is about establishing basic trust.”

I never forgot that. Establishing and keeping trust with Thing1 and Thing2 became my parenting touchstone.

Studying education, I read Erik Erikson, the psychologist who promulgated the stages of psychosocial development starting with that first year or so of basic trust. It was bias confirmation, but, as I met more children healing from trauma, I wondered if the loss of trust reset those stages of development. 

Last year I drafted my family into a 5K to raise money for charity. The race, an hour away from our house, gave me a chance to talk a family member and child psychiatrist about the different trajectories I was seeing.  I asked him if the breaking of trust by a parent or trusted individual such as a teacher or police officer cause a more profound or permanent trauma than experiencing atrocities by people who make no secret of their bad intentions.

He didn’t a quick answer for that question. He didn’t have easy answers to the more difficult question of how we help people recover from that trauma. I still suspect there are no easy answers to either question.

Working with children who have been betrayed by people they should be able to trust has brought the lessons from the workshop full circle, showing me that rebuilding a life is begins by addressing the first thing all humans need– the ability to trust.

Selfless self-care

One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.

All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.

I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.

I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.

This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.

When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“

and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.