It has been a challenging few weeks. My school community has felt emotionally wrung out. A fourteen-year-old student was shot at random and lost his life. Our former SRO was killed in a grisly and incomprehensible ambush-style attack. The election has rendered many lost, confused, scared, and devastated. Teachers aren’t emotionless beings who stand and deliver a lesson, we are human. We feel. We grieve. But we are also the models our students turn to for guidance. Our students look to us and trust us to teach them a way forward.
We talk about the importance of being vulnerable, authentic writers with our students. We model that the words don’t come easily or smoothly. Minutes pass without a word on the page. The cursor moves backward as much as forward. And yet, we always find a way forward. We persevere. We lead. We teach what we know. When the world feels confusing, we must also be vulnerable and authentic; we must help pave a road forward then, too. Even when it feels impossible.
Many mentors have taught me the value of words. I came across Jane Kenyon’s advice some years ago and am grateful (especially in experiences such as these) that I’ve taken her words to heart: I “keep good sentences in [my] ears.” When I’m reeling, words offer a way forward. One such “good sentence” that comes to mind is from Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. He offers: “Disasters … create a community of sufferers that allow individuals an immensely reassuring connection to others.” And it’s true. These disasters we’ve suffered offer shared experience. However, experience alone doesn’t make the lesson; it doesn’t build the connection. For some, disaster spirals people into survival mode – for them survival isn’t throwing oneself into community, it’s folding into oneself. Turning inward can absolutely be a tool for healing and survival, if the individual is armed with tools to heal and survive. But many of our students are not. We must create safe environments to speak and share and connect.
After Officer Beminio’s death, I shared words. I was honest. Tears fell and I didn’t hide them. I allowed myself to be vulnerable and my students responded in kind. I shared how his life and mine were interwoven. I told them about the students who were changed, who were better, because of him. But I also attempted to widen the narrative. Students didn’t consider that the shooter also had children. They hadn’t considered the isolation his daughter – a high school student herself—must be feeling. Suffering is wide. It isn’t binary. We have to hold space for each other. We do that through connection. It’s not literary, but I think of another line we all know by heart: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We can choose to react with love. I asked my sophomores to turn and say a true word to their table partner, to let the other know he/she is seen, heard, appreciated, and valued in our space. The shift in the room was powerful. I watched students truly take the task to heart. They extended. They moved out of chairs. They shook hands. They made eye contact. I saw my toughest boys shaking hands with classmates they hardly knew and say, “I appreciate you, bro.” Those are weighty words and actions for a 15-year-old kid; they meant them. I then asked them, in honor of Officer Beminio, to go out of their way to practice kindness. I directed them to the posters in my room – words that inspire and provide a way forward, words that have guided me many times before. Several gravitated toward Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” They understood in a way they hadn’t before. There is a way forward. Not a perfect way, but a way. The disaster created community and a reaction: love.
Authenticity requires truth, even when it isn’t pretty. My students know that I’m grieving alongside them. They know I worry what lies ahead of us. The results of the election have left me shell shocked. It feels like a tragedy for many (and I’m not being hyperbolic). But I have a responsibility to my students; they look to the adults they trust to show them the next step. How do we respond when the world turns sideways? I have the unique opportunity to model the importance of reflection, connection, and a way forward. That means I must be truthful. When we surround ourselves with those who believe just as we do, we have a limited scope. When we build walls rather than bridges, we miss the opportunity to truly understand. I think of Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road: “We learn most where we know the least.” I must face my own reality and lead by example. I made assumptions. I placed myself in an echo chamber of my own ideas. I surrounded myself with people who believe just as I believe. I didn’t listen to other narratives. I didn’t seek those with a divergent opinion. I was arrogant and I was sheltered. If I truly want to understand, I must seek other perspectives. In doing so, I am learning just as Steinem learned, “Instead of either/or, I [will]discover a whole world of and.” If I want others to listen to me, I must listen to others. I cannot dismiss. I must hear. I must connect. I must diversify and extend my community. Division, anger, and resentment do little good. We need connection and stories – they are what move us forward.
Dark days are inevitable. Luckily, there are words that provide salve and clarity. Martin Luther King offers: “Only in darkness can we see the stars.” Within the weight of these terrible tragedies are stars that burn bright. There is always hope. There is always goodness. There is always a way forward. So I will ring the bells I can ring. I will turn attention to the words that soothe and comfort. I will teach kindness. I will tell stories. I will reflect. I will build community. I will lead. These are the most important and valuable lessons I can teach. I hope you’ll teach them with me.
Haley Moehlis teaches English at Des Moines Roosevelt High School.