When I was just out of college, I taught 8th grade with a very unruly group of budding teenagers who had successfully managed to scare off all but two of the previous 8 teachers (K-7). They basically made it their mission to dominate me at every turn. They worked together a lot of the time, like a vicious, frothing pack of wolves. Every day when the final bell would ring, and they’d run whooping and hollering out of the building, I would go into the faculty bathroom and cry. Ok, so it wasn’t like this EVERY day, but I have to admit, my primary goal was indeed, not to cry in front of them.
I loved these kids. I really did. They were so creative. They were so smart. They were so strong! They had navigated tragedies and obstacles the likes of which I had never seen. But I loved them because they were still kids and I could feel that sweetness and simple desire to just be themselves, peeking out behind their eyes as they looked at me each day. (Okay, every now and then, probably not each day.) But it was there and I was bound and determined to make it safe to be vulnerable, human, flawed and yet beautiful.
One winter day, after blessed recess, we all filed into the god-forsaken classroom, and I started writing on the chalkboard. Suddenly, a snowball, fired with a velocity I didn’t know was possible, barely missed my head and splattered right next to my face against the chalkboard.
I froze. I could feel the tears coming. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry….” I took a deep breath, turned around, walked to my desk and started silently grading papers. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t yell. I just pretended like no one else was there, so deep was my humiliation and defeat. The class became silent too. More quiet than they had ever been! Then, one by one, they started whispering, “Ms. Jones? You okay?” Stephen, bless his heart, came up to my desk and put his hand on my shoulder, “Should I go get the principal?” Then Gilbert came up to me. Then a couple others. I could feel their compassion, their guilt, their shock that I was so vulnerable, and not fighting fire (or snow) with fire.
I wish I could say that we had some “after-school special” kind of discussion after that. A teachable moment – about care and strength and respect and vulnerability. But I honestly don’t know how I finished that day. I do know that there was a turning point in my relationships with most of those kids. They could feel that I really cared, that I was human just like them, that it was okay to be human, and that I wasn’t going to leave them. My vulnerability in that moment drew out their innate compassion, and a bridge was forged.
It is so often that “in our weakness lies our greatest strength.” Because we need each other. Because we are not islands, and the expectation that we are is ludicrous. It is a good thing to reach out to others who are safe, who are caring. It is a good thing to respond with that caring. It makes us both stronger. That’s what we’re ultimately here for.