There are some books I know – before I even finish reading the Introduction – that I have to own. It’s less about the words contained on its pages and more about the very existence of the writer. That this writer is giving me something that is otherwise missing in my life. Adding their book to my shelves somehow adds their light, their perspective, their energy to my day to day.
I first felt this way when I read Mary Pipher’s The Middle of Everywhere. I had just gotten a full-time job as an ESL Teacher at a well-respected refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. I had dreamed of teaching in a setting that holistically addressed newcomers’ needs, offering not only English Language classes, but also employment training, cultural orientation, housing assistance, and comprehensive case management to ensure that students were enrolled in school and that families received the public benefits they are entitled to. I had imagined that I would truly fit in in such an environment.
What I found, sadly, was an office full of knowledgeable, seemingly inexhaustible social workers who were so burdened by their clients’ infinite needs and the limitations of an under-funded, tied-up-in-knots bureaucracy that they were miserable. Their frustration manifested itself in nasty comments about clients and in a privileging of those refugees who arrived with a ready understanding of American norms. I quickly knew I wouldn’t be able to stay there long.
I sought refuge in Mary Pipher’s perspective. As a psychologist working closely with a growing number of refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, Pipher sits with her clients, gives them time to share their stories. She offers them the safety to revisit their past experiences of tragedy and trauma, to use their distinct cultural knowledge to shed light on their current struggles, and through this process to settle into their American life.
I kept this book on my shelf at work long after I was done reading it. Having it there helped me connect to the way of being that I wanted to bring to my students. So she was not my co-worker. Her perspective was present in my office every day.
I was struck by this feeling again as I read the Introduction of Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. In fact, I paused on page 5 ordered a copy of the book, knowing that it wouldn’t arrive for a week and a half, and that I would have finished reading it long before then.
In the middle of the section entitled, “Becoming a Blessing,” Remen writes about an organization dedicated to helping children cope with the grief of loosing a parent or loved one. As part of their work, they sew and distribute pocket-sized velvet and velour hearts. A touchable, stroke-able symbol of the love their parents felt in life – and continue to give in death – to comfort the child’s less visible, less concrete, but aching heart.
She describes writing to this organization, telling them about her work helping physicians deal with grief and death in the professional setting – revolutionary work in that they are un-teaching these doctors to numb themselves to death – and receiving a donation of hundreds of these same plush hearts. For the doctors.
I think of teachers. For every student who graduates with college plans, how many have dropped out? How many have fallen into lives of violence and addiction, been to prison, had their lives changed unexpectedly by pregnancy, put others’ needs ahead of their own dreams? How much violence do we see on a daily basis, within the walls of our schools? How numb are we to recognizing the painfulness of these losses, of this violence?
When I was student-teaching, a tragedy struck the community I was working with. A van carrying 15 refugee adults to work at a chicken processing plant in Gainesville, GA got a flat tire on the highway. The van flipped over and crashed. Passengers, likely not wearing seatbelts, were thrown from the vehicle. Two men died, six or seven others were injured. The five children of the two men who died attended my school. One was in my second period.
I had an unusual level of freedom during my student-teaching, and two days after the accident, we invited the students into a conversation about death. I shared some of the traditions that Judaism has around death and mourning. The teenagers described their Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Ethiopian Orthodox, and ethnic traditions. We found surprises in the differences; marveled at the similarities. Through learning about each other’s traditions around death and mourning, we saw clearly that the experience of loosing a loved one, and the act of seeking comfort in grief, is universal. Then we wrote cards to these five friends and classmates who, two years after receiving “refuge” in America, saw their lives dramatically changed again.
I was certainly impacted by the things I learned that day, but my most pervading feeling is the sense of gratitude I feel for being able to give that discussion to the kids.
I’m clinging to that teacher, afraid I am loosing her.
When that discussion happened, I was still steeped in the Adult Education mentality that the classroom is the perfect place for such discussions. Adult Education philosophy and pedagogy recognize that such discussions enable students to share their emotional burdens so that they can set them aside for a few hours of study. It teaches that these conversations force students to confront issues of cultural relativity. And it values lived experience as a source of knowledge.
The environment in which I now teach could not be more different. It is a fast-paced school, where the focus is on mastering standards and getting students’ literacy and math skills up to a level at which they have a fighting chance of passing Graduation Tests. Knowledge exists on paper, and our students are chasing it. Knowledge exists outside of oneself, and is measured by standardized tests in a language these teenagers learned to read only a few years ago.
In such an environment, there is no space to pause. To talk. To feel. I have often wondered what I would do if our community were struck with a tragedy similar to the van accident. Would I ditch the already-tight lesson plan in order to have a conversation? Would my students know what to do with such open-ended discussion? More importantly, would they understand that the insights gained through such conversation are just as important as writing a paragraph or calculating a ratio?
My growing book collection – The Middle of Everywhere, My Grandfather’s Blessings – is my soft, fuzzy heart. My reminder that there are people in the world who do their work with the same intentions I have. Who meet their clients’, patients’, and students’ immediate needs for housing, medicine, and literacy without sacrificing time spent in truly healing, strengthening, overcoming, and discovering. They are my guide; they are doing the work of un-teaching me to be numb to the things that matter most.