What a week it has been – both privately and professionally! As I faced some big “life” matters, I realised that one of the things that has stopped me from connecting to important people in my life is our armour. We spend our whole lives collecting bits and pieces of protective armour as we go through life’s battles, and now I have begun to take mine off. The more I discard, the more I see others are still wearing. And, most heartbreaking of all, I watch my students just starting to collect their pieces. As we “armour up” we rarely give ourselves the love and compassion we need to get through difficult experiences, but instead we feel we just have to “get on with it”. We put on a band-aid and don’t check to see if there is anything festering underneath. Now, I am not entirely sure whether this pressure comes from ourselves, our society or a combination of both, but I know that it’s what I did. Grief upon grief. I tried to create this person around the armour, showing the world the version of myself I wanted them to see, and yet never really knowing what that was. As my true self has begun to emerge through discarding those protective layers, I am, quite suddenly, comfortable with myself.
These children I see in front of me are not comfortable with themselves. They don’t know who is responsible for terrible things in their lives, but they know it hurts. This week I have seen children devastated by relationship breakups, leaving them with the sudden loss of a family member from their lives. I’ve seen a child excited at the prospect of getting to spend a night over Easter at Leukaemia House with his mother, who has been in hospital 3 hours away from him since Christmas. I’ve had a bright, bubbly girl fall to pieces because her mother’s best friend has taken her own life. I’ve seen a boy with Autism called all sorts of names by another child who got a kick out of seeing his distress – this in my classroom where I bang on about kindness and compassion until their ears bleed! Girls whispering about one another, boys trying to “man up” and stay cool in front of their peers. They’re all picking up their pieces and building a forcefield around themselves. They’ll stop some of the hurt, but they’ll stop some of the love as well.
So I have been pondering what needs to be done to change this path. See, I cannot accept that this is just what they have to go through as human beings. Why don’t I pull those children aside and make sure that they understand that these terrible things that are happening are definitely not their fault, and tell them that this is going to hurt for a while and they shouldn’t try to stop the pain? I don’t spend enough time on this, and I think it could make so much difference!
I think what we need to do is be open about more things in our world. We should seriously have conversations with children when we know there has been a separation in their family and explain what grief is. We should rally their classmates around them and wrap them in our love so that they don’t need armour to protect them. We should NEVER try to make a child feel better when he or she is experiencing grief or trauma, apart from saying “I love you and I’m here for you”. We don’t want to dull their pain, but share it around so that it isn’t as heavy. We make so many things taboo, but maybe the way forward is openness and honesty about the things in life that hurt, always with the understanding that with pain comes growth and healing.
As it stands right now, we seek out support and assistance when there is a major incident, such as a death in the family. And yet, every day I see students experiencing traumas of broken relationships, bullying, neglect, domestic violence, and even just general schoolyard “friendship” issues. All of these things hurt children deeply. We teach them to use the Catastrophe Scale, telling them not to make such a big deal out of things. Of course, they need to know how to keep things in perspective, but we shouldn’t be telling them that these things are not supposed to be hurtful. Instead we should give them safe protective tools. We should remind them of how wonderful they are, and that when someone is nasty to them it is a sign of lack in the nasty person. We should never tell them not to let it bother them, but help them to process it. The Catastrophe Scale has its place, providing we are not brushing off their pain and hurt with “don’t make a big deal out of nothing”.
I know I am on shaky ground here. I am not a psychologist, and there are school councillors to support students through big life issues. I just think that we could have a wider impact if we all learnt to be okay with pain. We run from it, hide from it, dull it, ignore it. We hope it will go away. What I have learned is that when you stop and acknowledge the pain, feel it, marvel at it, our understanding of the world becomes clearer. If we push it down like it is something to be ashamed of, it just changes shape and does more damage, causing more pain in different ways, not just to ourselves, but to others around us as well.
Last year one of my dearest friends lost her husband, very suddenly and traumatically. I remember watching with awe as she opened her heart to feeling the grief, rolling around as the waves of pain threatened to drown her at different points. Of course, I ached so deeply for her, knowing that there was nothing I could do to soften it, other than sit and wait until she needed me for something, anything. I also stood, amazed, as I watched these tiny tendrils of new growth sprout from the very heart of her anguish, wrap around her, and make her formidable. She never tried to dull the pain. She grew from it, loved it, and still nurtures it every day.
I have seen many people navigate their way through grief, but rarely have they opened their hearts to it. Our society’s general approach is to numb it, wait for them to be ready to “move on” from it. People think we should use our battle scars to toughen up, armour up. I just don’t think it is working.
So, I implore you to think carefully about what your students are experiencing. It is so difficult when there are so many things we are juggling on any given day as teachers, but if we just take a different perspective, it might actually become easier. Let’s help children develop resilience through honesty, understanding and appreciation for who they are. If a child values himself as a worthy and wonderful little being, he won’t find it so distressing when another child calls him names. We must stop children developing the desire to harden up and fight back!
I have been known to adopt the attitude of “take a teaspoon of cement”. I am definitely not saying we should pander to the little things that kids can get so caught up on. I do think we should assess things more carefully though. If someone is crying because they made a mistake with a seemingly tiny matter, perhaps there is something deeper that is bothering them. Children’s processing of one thing often manifests as some trivial reaction to another. We should be alert. We should lead with compassion. Sometimes our assessment might show us that they are just pushing buttons or testing boundaries, but sometimes we might find that there is a pain festering below the surface, and what we see is just what seeps out of the cracks in their armour.
Does this make sense to you? I believe that it will make sense to the people who have already begun to remove their own armour, but if you’re operating from within your own protective shell, keeping the pain of the world at bay, you’ll be resistant to all I have said. Life is not some war to be fought. It is a garden. There is mud, there is death and decay, there is darkness. But there is also growth, regeneration, flowers, colour, sunshine and cool rain. Throw down your arms. Teach these kids to pull the weeds and nurture themselves and those around them. Things don’t grow inside a suit of armour. It is dark and heavy. People will be amazed at how much lighter they’ll feel when they strip off those layers!