Josefina spent our Thursday night break in the doorway of my office, telling me she really felt she had to go home early, that her head was so all over the place that she couldn’t keep trying to concentrate on her work, and how she felt awful for leaving early and for letting her personal problems keep her out of school … and saying that over and over and over and wringing her hands and really spiraling toward hyperventilation or hysteria. I calmed her down and we talked a little more about her mom and about what she could do right then to take care of herself. She mentioned that she only feels that she can talk freely when she’s at the Ed Center, that she hasn’t even told any of this stuff to the counselor she sees in another teen program. She said she’s had that counselor for a few years, and has hardly told the woman any of the truly rough stuff that’s going on with her.
Between thinking about Josefina and finishing an essay about teaching teen women, I’ve been thinking a lot about how willing to be open my students are. This willingness is something I knew and accepted when I taught adults but which I thought wouldn’t be true about ‘youth’ (such a weird word to apply to the kids I work with who are often so painfully old for all their youth). My students are so ready to be warm and loving and open and inquisitive … if I am warm and loving and open and inquisitive with them.
This made sense to me when I taught adults. In many cases we were peers, or (in cases like Annabell’s) there was something almost familial thing going on. I was definitely daughter and granddaughter to many of my older students.
With the kids I teach, I expected the hard shells … and expected them to stay much more firmly in place. Shows how much I know. I understand the hard shells … and I understand why I still see them from time to time. Seeing them crumble and fall so quickly is the thing that has utterly fazed me. Would I ever, as a kid, have opened myself to my teachers, to a room full of people I just met, the way my students do? I really don’t think so.
My boss says it’s our classroom. We have the tiniest room, the oddly-shaped, intimate corner that is the second floor class. This is only a half-joke. There is something intimate about that room. I don’t know if Valerie, Jeovany and I would have bonded so tightly in another space, don’t know if Caroline and I would have a connection that persists even after a year of her absence from the program if the connection had been made in one of the other classrooms. There is something about that room.
But it’s something else, too. Yes, it’s that I treat them well, that I’m nice with them, that I listen to them, that I take their ideas and feelings seriously. But it’s even something more than all that. Something much simpler.
These kids are aching to talk honestly about themselves, to set aside their masks and exhale. I’m no miracle worker. That classroom is no vortex of truth-telling. My students want to talk, not just with each other, but with adults who can offer suggestions, be supportive, adults who will not judge. They want to share their stories. Our classroom is a safe space; I’m a good listener; we have rules about how to treat one another. But if my students didn’t want to talk, none of those things would matter.
I’m glad they’re so interested in telling their stories and that we’ve created an environment that makes that possible for them. I’m glad all the time, but I’m especially glad right now. If Josefina wasn’t talking to me and Damian — our youth counselor — what other adult does she have to talk to?