Kindergarten Lessons – Trauma

The very hardest part of my job is not the kids and not my colleagues. Currently I work with a great team of adults and when in the emotional security of my own home it’s very clear to me that the children are sacred beings truly struggling to process trauma that is beyond their ability to process. The very hardest part of my job is facing the me that comes out when pushed beyond my own ability to cope. It is not a me that I wish to own, not a me that I wish to acknowledge, but is a me that I must face (or choose to deny) daily in this setting. This me brings tears to my eyes… and it is this me that I must come to face, own, and love before she too can find healing and peace.

For seven hours each day, I am in a self-contained classroom with 10 little boys and one other adult. Occasionally we go out together for meals (twice each day), PE (daily) and recess; always we travel together. Occasionally another adult is in our classroom for a short time or takes a child out for special services.  On really good days, I can slip out to the bathroom and turn in daily attendance (usually while the kids are in PE); on bad days I forget to drink water and go home dehydrated, grateful that I didn’t have to pee.  Most of our day is spent in the classroom and most of my time is spent catching flying shoes (and pencils and blocks), restraining children to keep them from pummeling one another, and trying to ignore the constant stream of obscenities that flow from any number of sources.  And on very rare moments, I teach reading and math and science.

I would like to write about the bulk of the day when I actually do feel and practice remarkable patience and genuinely high regard for my students. This is the part of the story that I would like to remember.  While it isn’t my goal to be Michelle Pfeiffer (read: the heroine of “Dangerous Minds”), swooping into the chaotic space to sprinkle love-dust that charms the children into new realities of hopefulness, it is my intention to meet the children where they are and without judgement. My task is simply (monumentally) to offer an educational opportunity for children whose behaviors are so egregious that (already in kindergarten) they have been exiled from the public school system.

The problem is that no one is addressing the cause of the behaviors.

The challenges that my children face are far outside my realm of expertise and control; severe and generational poverty, prolonged patterns of abuse and neglect, trauma of every imaginable sort and many beyond imagining. While I am expected to “modify” behaviors, I have no access or tools to address the causes of the behaviors. Quite frankly, every one of my children has a legitimate cause to tantrum and the louder they scream the more certain I am that they have a will to survive. They will need it. To thwart the lament is to disarm the survival skills that they most certainly need.

Yet in the meantime, the children are gathered together into one room with two adults and they have uncovered and are now trampling on my last tender nerve.

I’ve never been a big believer in imposed consequences, which is probably good because my kids, lacking all manner of impulse control, have already been consequenced out of schools and homes and any sort of normal privilege afforded to children. But what to do when the patience wears thin and one more child pushes one more button?  Consequences may be ineffective but safety is paramount and my need for some degree of control is my Achilles heel.

My job description includes physical prompts and redirections and I’ve been encouraged to be quicker to intervene with negative behaviors even as I’m coached to notice and praise the positive ones. The more “successful” I am in confronting the misdeeds (and literally corralling the room), the more I loathe the person that I see. I would like to tell you that I didn’t yell at Michael on Friday, but what was lacking in volume was present in tone. I would like to tell you that I guided him back to his seat, but when he refused to comply and laughed in my face, dragged might be more fair description. I wasn’t my best self.

Perhaps it is worthy to note the places where my spirit breaks. The constant whine of Charles’ foul-mouthed tantrums that mark the start of each new day, the backward spin of Carlton who’d been making such progress and is now inexplicably falling apart, or the tantrums that accompany Donnell’s almost daily toileting escapades (read: not toilet trained). As I type I realize that there is no one cause, no one Achilles heal, no one place where my spirit needs shoring. The challenge is the enormity and constancy of the barrage.

Dealing with trauma is in itself traumatizing.  Perhaps it is also true to say that the children strip away the mask and lie bare the wounded healer that is at my core. Beneath layers of practiced calm and grounded presence lies a child who is herself very tender, a little girl who has a strong need for order and a fear of chaos. This little girl, though unfamiliar, is fierce.  Much like the little boys that fill my classroom, this little girl within has a strong will to survive. I wonder how much of my adult energy has been spent hiding from her and how different my life might be if I found ways to befriend her.  Already she’s helped me to find more direct patterns of communication and inspired me to experience wonder. But like the little boys in my classroom, she needs to know that the adults are present and providing safe boundaries; without that reassurance, she is in full-scale rebellion herself.

For today, I take a moment to acknowledge that my heart hurts. I rehearse the small strategies that our team identified before leaving for the weekend.  Mostly I consider the upside down truth that in our vulnerability we find strength, in our breaking we find wholeness, in our embrace of the questions we let loose of the answers that keep us trapped.  Knowing this to be true, I know that on the other side of this strange current is a gentle stream.

And I give thanks for the resilient little girl who lives deep within, tantrums and all.