Sunday, May 6, 2012

When a Student Suffers

Having empathy is one of the most difficult parts of the job. I don't mean that acquiring empathy, or accessing empathy, or imparting empathy is difficult. That's pretty easy. I mean that facing whatever makes us access or impart that empathy is hard. Just knowing that we must, or why we must, engage our empathy is hard. And when a student suffers, and we subsequently engage our empathy, we do so freely and willingly. But it's still very, very difficult, because we hurt, too.

Years ago, I stood by a student who had caused an injury, inadvertently, to another student. Everyone - students, parents, teachers - knew the accident was just that, accidental. But, as teenagers can be cruel, the kid was ostracized, ignored, and shunned by his peers (they'd chosen sides, and understandably, they'd chosen the hurt kid's side). Some parents chose sides, too. And too many teachers judged him as reckless, a danger (and I can say this now, with confidence, because even recently, at our faculty room lunch table, teachers were reminiscing about the incident and applying those same descriptors). At school, lunch time was the worst for him, and he sought refuge in my classroom. Every day he'd rush through the lunch line and bring his hot lunch to my room, where he and I would sit across from each other and eat, sometimes in a surprisingly comfortable silence, sometimes deep in conversation about the accident, but most times while chatting about what seemed like the ridiculously mundane: uses for catsup, hiking boots, skateboarding. When the bell rang, he'd dump his tray in my garbage and shuffle out the door. And I'd take a few minutes to gather myself and shift my energy. I had more students to take care of who'd walk into my room within minutes.

I never stopped thinking about that boy, though. My heart broke to see him working through this very tough spot (he did eventually, and successfully, and for the most part, his classmates did, too). Providing him with a place to which to retreat, giving him the conversational space he needed, and confirming my unconditional support was all I could do. That, and to feel so deeply for him.

Sometimes the cause of a student's suffering is more clearly defined, more straightforward, easier to discern. Sometimes it's relatively simple. And they need us then, and the empathy comes, though it still hurts. But when it's a complex pain, they need us more, and our own subsequent hurt might be stronger, deeper. But still we support, we give, we comfort. It is the nature of our teacher-beings; it is who we are.

Empathy is easy, but it never gets easier.

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