We need to be ready for tragedies by learning to listen well, and by helping our students learn to listen well too.
“It ... it was … long … time.”
He spoke so softly that the circle of students collectively leaned forward to catch the last word. This was the first English sentence we had heard L--- speak. It was Ms. C---‘s homeroom, a brief period after lunch. The last five minutes were always student check-in time. This week’s prompt was to share something difficult that had happened that term.
She had taught many of these students for four years and had carefully crafted an environment of safety and openness. But, L--- had only shown up at the classroom door a week or two earlier, speaking very little English; he had yet to open his mouth in homeroom, despite his teacher’s bilingual questions.
The day’s student leader nodded encouragingly.
L--- haltingly continued in English and Spanish. In short but powerful sentences, the fifteen year old told us the story of his long journey from El Salvador, ending with the harrowing crossing of the border. Even though the majority of students in the room were first or second generation immigrants, even though many of their family members had made illegal crossings or been deported, being undocumented wasn’t something that they wanted to talk about it. It was taboo.
The silence after his short monologue was palpable, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Ms C--- nod at the student next to her, a friendly and open upperclassman. The girl turned and asked L--- a question, the content of which was lost on me as I tried to keep up with translation. But, the effect on L--- was visible. He cracked a small smile and replied. Conversation in the room continued to flow around his experience until the minute hand warned that the bell was about to ring.
Ms C--- stood up and held silence for a moment before she spoke quietly. She reminded the class that this was a hard thing that L--- had shared and thanked him for his courage. She noted that it was an even harder thing to think well about.
“So, let’s keep listening. Okay?” The bell rang nearly on cue, and students rushed for their next classes.
I had the privilege of spending a couple months in this classroom while I was student teaching. Ms C--- taught me much about classroom culture and how to talk to young people, much of which I am still learning to use. As I’ve faced difficult, heart-wrenching, and sensitive conversations in my own classrooms, her questions and her interactions with those students comes back as though it were yesterday.
The Sandy Hook shooting and gun-control…deep disagreements about politics, economics, and immigration…the current and historical racial violence between African Americans and Latinos in my students’ neighborhoods… LGBTQ rights…this year, in Scotland, the bitter national divide of an independence referendum…divisive religious differences.
I rarely lesson plan these conversations; in fact, I often avoid the distraction and immature hype of “controversial” topics. But, students enter, already in conflict. Student enter, already upset. Students enter, curious. The world breaks into my carefully designed lessons and demands a response.
What are we to do?
What are we to do in an increasingly polarized world? What are we to do when the bias of media (in every which direction) is so noisy it is hard to form a clear thought? What are we to do when many of our students’ primary places of discussion are virtual platforms designed for self-expression rather than for careful listening? What are we to do with misunderstanding? What are we to do with the rage in our students’ eyes? What are we to do with the anger in our own hearts? What are we to do with hurt? What are we to do with injustice?
What are we to do?
We pray that we might know ourselves, that we might have the wisdom to know when to speak and when to listen, that we might have the wisdom to know that our students’ souls are more important than winning an argument, that we might have the wisdom to know when to throw out the course objectives because a matter of justice is before us.
We pray that we might know our students, know their hearts and their hurts, know how to speak gently and know how to ask the right questions, how to create space for healing and how to inspire right action. We pray that we might know how to graciously remind them of a world and people outside their limited experiences.
We seek to teach our students to listen, to really listen. Not to listen with our ears while our minds are rushing ahead to a counter-argument, but to listen and allow for silence. Not to listen with hardness in our eyes, but to listen and ask questions, the sort of questions that help us understand more fully the person across from us, or a community beyond our streets, both those like us and those unlike us.
And, finally, we seek both to be patient and to model patience. We must be able to sit with tragedy beyond the news cycle. We must remind our students that the burst of anger might be justified, but will wither away without continued listening, careful thinking and prayerful action. We must model the patience that looks for real healing, a process that is much longer than a 50-minute period or a 39-comment discussion thread. We must not forget the incidents that sparked our rage, but we must look beyond to unjust societies and hurting individuals.