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August 17, 2017

Social Justice Sutra: the Education of My Heart.

“I know how hard it is. I’m a single mom, too…”

“You’re not the only one who fantasizes about the the day that you’ll have so much money that you can buy milk and children’s Tylenol for your daughter, instead of having to decide between the two.

I know how heavy the load is, ‘D.’ I understand how unbearable it feels to work and care for a child with little financial support from others. The only people who will ever understand what we go through are other single mothers. My body aches, too. I’m alone all the time, too. I’m here to tell you you are not alone, that I get it, and that I’m here for you. We’re all here for you.”

D’s eyes began to well up with tears. (In case you couldn’t tell, I’ve changed some names and identifying details to protect the privacy of my students.) She exhaled what seemed like more than a decade’s worth of of worry. She felt safe enough to cry.

I added, “You made a bad choice and we don’t judge you for that. But you are one of the best students here. You can go to college if you stop making these choices, D.”

I was weeping by the end of my impromptu speech; so was D. By the end of the meeting, we were all crying.

This was a typical Monday.

There were five of us in the office that afternoon: me, my teenage student, her caseworker, another teacher, and the principal. D, the teen mom of one, was pregnant again.

We weren’t in that meeting because she was pregnant again; we’d already helped her find services—bus passes, Medicaid for pregnant women, a Section 8 application. It was because her academics had been sliding. She’d shown up to school stoned a few times; she’d even started to miss classes. And ever since she started dating someone new, she’d shown up to class a few times with bruises in odd places.

That week marked my worst week as a teacher.

The Sunday afternoon before the day of that meeting, my Aunt Barbara had suddenly died. That same week, another one of my “star” students expressed to me that he wanted to start using meth again. Another student attempted suicide. While yet another was contemplating how to emancipate from his physically abusive adoptive parents.

By Friday, D had had a miscarriage (or an abortion), I never truly found out what happened because she just stopped coming to school.

Before I took the job, another teacher warned me, “You should know that this population is very difficult.”

Her statement conjured up some sort of “Dangerous Minds“/”Freedom Writers” scenario—and all the (racist/stereotypical) caricatures of 1990s gangsta rap culture that those movies portray.

We called our school the “the last stop.” Even though I did have students with priors of violent crimes and drugs, most of my students were teen moms, victims of physical and sexual abuse, LGBTQ/minority students, students who’d been abandoned (sometimes more than once) in foster homes or RTCs (residential treatment centers), students who were recent immigrants or the children of immigrants, or students who were the children of incest.

I never sought to be the real-life version of the cinematic, white woman savior, like Michelle Pfeiffer or Hilary Swank. But, then again, I never had the opportunity to involve myself in some sneaky, epic struggle to get my students to like Dylan Thomas (like Michelle Pfeiffer), or introduce them to a Holocaust survivor to help them feel that they’re not alone in their oppression, thereby accidentally turning them into creative writers (like Hilary Swank).

Those movies gloss over the reality of the situation: it’s not school; it’s a f*cking triage unit.

(Sidenote: those movies did, by the way, end up being a sort of inside joke with me and my students. “Miss, this school be like ‘Freedom Writers,’” they’d say, with a sort-of millennial self-awareness about how quaint those movies were. A (white) student, on numerous occasions, rode down the hall on his skateboard while blaring Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” as some sort of surrealist sarcasm.)

This job was difficult not because my students were scary, but because they were emotionally traumatized.

Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothingcould have prepared me for the difficulty involved in immersing myself, for eight hours every day, in that much pain and suffering.

At this school, I redefined my role as someone who provided my students a safe place to have feelings: I listened without judgement and I took their emotions seriously, no matter how convoluted.

The only way I could get my students to work was by gaining their trust. In order to gain their trust, normal student-teacher conversation boundaries began to dissolve. The more I learned about their home lives, the more I saw how convoluted the problems surrounding socioeconomics, race, education, and immigration really are.

The more I knew about their social and romantic lives, the more my mother-heart broke for these tender adolescents. The dark side was that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of other people’s emotions. I left school every day feeling deeply depressed—about their lives, about my career, about the education system, about America. I was so depleted that I rarely had anything to give to my daughter, save for a hot meal and one story (instead of the five I wanted to read to her at bedtime).

On the Saturday following that terrible week, I drove to Houston for my Aunt Barbara’s funeral. I walked into the room in the back of the church and I saw all of my family members except for her. I remember thinking, “Where’s Barbara?”

Then I remembered that I was at her funeral. A week had gone by and I’d successfully compartmentalized the painful reality of a loved one’s death. I’d avoided processing my own pain because I was too busy processing other people’s emotions.

Was I doing myself any favors? Was I doing my students any favors?

This refusal to feel my feelings began many years before my aunt died; I can trace it back to when I was sexually abused at age five.

I spent 30 some-odd years constructing an ego shell around my heart to avoid pain. It’s a subconscious act, and I don’t think that one must experience trauma in order to do it.

In fact, I assume that all of us do it. It’s deceptively nice not to have to feel one’s own pain, but unfelt pain never goes away. Unfelt pain accumulates on top of the neck and shoulders; it clogs up right at the lower back; it muddles thoughts; it turns into despair and isolation, into fear and anxiety; it lodges itself in every fiber of our being, and then we carry these feelings around.

Over time, however, the refusal to feel my own pain only made others’ pain so much more transparent and somehow unbearable.

I. Wanted. Out.

I’ve spent the better part of this summer looking for a new job, with no luck. I’m to return to the trenches in late August. In order to mentally and emotionally prepare for the coming school year, I’ve spent the last several weeks doing some deep contemplation.

I’ve practiced and taught yoga for 20 years, and over the years, yoga has taught me different things.

My first approach to yoga—as is most people’s—is the body: learn the shapes, understand the inner-workings of your muscles and bones and fascia.

Then comes the mind, often via meditation: learn that you are not your thoughts, learn how to disengage from the “monkey mind” that jumps from thought to thought with no clear purpose, learn how to come back to the breath in order to decrease obsessive thinking, and so on.

About five years ago, I noticed that in my asana practice, I was perpetually shifting. I needed to get to a deeper, more comfortable place. Several years ago, a teacher straight-up told me: “You need to stop shifting. Just be in the pose.” What they were really saying was, “You are ready to enter this deeper level; it’s not easy, but you have to do it.” I knew they were right. I resisted this heart knowledge for far too long. I’d sensed just how painful it was going to be.

I’d been approaching my life just the same as my asana practice: I was obsessively searching to shift out of this job (emotion) in order to avoid discomfort and pain.

The day I made the decision to make peace with my job, I went to a yoga class in which the theme was “aparigraha,” or gratitude—specifically for one’s teachers. (My teacher was sure to remind us that teachers can be defined as anyone who teaches you anything.)

We started in savasana; my teacher played Leon Bridges’ song “The River.” I began to cry. That was the song that had gotten me through the year. I’d played it every day on the way to and from work.

My greatest teachers were my teachers of the heart: my students. (It seems so obvious now.)

In the midst of raw, vulnerable, feeling, fiercely loving teenagers, in the safe space that I had built, my heart had begun the sublime process of deconstructing and dissolving the cumbersome and irrelevant protective layer I’d built. I’d resisted opening my heart for so long because I assumed it would hurt so badly that I couldn’t handle the pain.

However, on my mat that day, I finally stopped resisting.

As I allowed pain to enter and flow through me, it was not painful at all—in fact, pain felt surprisingly beautiful. I cried and it felt like my tears connected me to some collective river of love and sadness and hope and regret and disappointment and joy that is all of humanity. I’d resisted opening my heart because I assumed I would be alone in an act of solitary pain.

Pain has been misunderstood and mislabeled. True pain is pure love. This love is the binding and healing force of the universe.

And I’m feelin’ it, man.

~

Author: Patton Quinn
Image: Author’s Own; Still from Dangerous Minds
Editor: Leah Sugerman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell

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Patton Quinn