When I was 8, my bipolar dad put me on our unbroken horse with the advice, “Roll away from the hooves when he bucks you off.” Even better advice? Don’t let a bipolar ex bull rider talk you into breaking the new family horse in the first place. But I was 8 and loved my dad. So I got bucked off. A lot. Finally, after too many weekends, my dad gave up on my horsemanship abilities. But I never forgot how that horse looked at me. It was a look that clearly said, “Please, don’t break me.” I’m pretty sure my own face revealed the same plea.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are some students who will never talk about the harms they have encountered because to do so would be too painful. Their eyes will tell you, “Please don’t break me.” So I refer those students to the counselor even though they won’t go. I don’t push them on vulnerability. They will refuse and that’s okay. That is when I turn to the other gateway to connection: Love.
Horse whisperers don’t call what they do “breaking” a horse. They call their method “making” a horse. Teachers can help “make” students by connecting to students through what kids as individuals love and especially how they love it. For example, I have a good friend who is a filmmaker/scientist. My college transcripts will reveal that I don’t grasp scientific concepts easily, but when my friend explains the mating rituals of hummingbirds or why we don’t ride zebras, I fall in love with the natural world. She brings her whole self–personality, insights, and particular way of explaining things–to the non-science-minded. We connect in science through her eyes.
Recently, I had a student so dark, he was my Black Hole of Death kid. He seethed in his seat, refused to participate, sucked other kids into his foul mood, and drew furiously in his notebook. So I sat him next to the cute, chatty cheerleaders and praised the hell out of his drawing. I found ways to include his artwork into assignments. I dragged his his grumpy self in front of the class to present, and it turns out he was a closet comedian. Gradually, he became a part of our classroom community, loved for being himself. None of this took much effort on my part, but it was the difference between having the absence of a student in the room, a black hole, and a very present student in the room.
This matters for his life and it matters for mine. A kid hurt beyond his own recognition of self will hurt himself and hurt others. Someone who is able to see the value of all parts of himself has the motivation to heal himself, and in doing so, he will grow into someone with enormous capacity to help heal others. His particular experience of hurt, the particular way in which he eventually heals that hurt, coupled with his love of drawing and grumpy, slyly humorous personality, will someday all come together to be his particular brand of healing–his original medicine. We all have original medicine, and we all need others, at one time or another, to use their medicine to help us heal ourselves. My science friend helps heal the part of me that can feel disconnected from the natural world. She makes me sit in wonder again.
Caroline McHugh, in her brilliant TED talk, “The Art of Being Yourself,” gives a lovely example of what it is to not look to others when stepping into yourself. Instead of comparing one’s self to others by feeling inferior or superior, she suggests going inward to interiority, which leaves comparison out of the picture entirely. There is only you. Feel the freedom in that for a second. McHugh gives the example of performer Jill Scott being interviewed while waiting to follow Erykah Badu. The reporter asks her if she is nervous. Scott laughs and says, “Have you ever seen me perform?…Everyone comes with their own…queendom. Mine could never compare to hers and hers could never compare to mine.” Scott’s original medicine.
Picasso didn’t give up on painting because people had painted before him. Steve Jobs didn’t shrug his shoulders and say that the telephone had already been invented so what’s the point. We are what we love and how we love it. We are also how we heal and how we share ourselves with others. What would it be to share yourself in a way that profoundly helped other people just by doing and being what makes you so uniquely you? Darkness would have a difficult time hiding out.
My Black Hole of Death student is an example of how teachers can help students who are not going to give up information about the trauma they are experiencing or have experienced. That’s okay. We aren’t here to “break” anyone. Teachers are there to drop a line for students who want to share. For students who don’t, we help “make” them, listening for what they love and finding ways to nurture that. We give students opportunities to share themselves with others and plant the idea that they are people who matter to the class. This is so when those students are ready to heal, they already know there is someone inside of them worth leading out of the darkness.
Contact me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school and talk about Uncovering and Addressing Hidden Student Trauma, Original Medicine, and Black Hole of Death Students.
And here is a wonderful video of Maya Angelou recounting how she reminded Tupac of his worth.