Wild Horses, Black Hole of Death Students, and Original Medicine

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.

Maya Angelou and Why Character Development Alone Won’t Change School Connectedness

Social Emotional learning is great. Character Development is wonderful. So is mindfulness. None of those, on their own, will create true connections in the classroom. I point to Maya Angelou and my turbulent past with toddlers to illustrate why.

School connectedness is a new buzzword in the districts near my home. High performing schools are great at getting (most) students to make the grade, but those same students are not feeling connected to their classrooms or their school in general. Those schools use Healthy Schools, a survey in California, as their method of measuring students’ own reporting of how connected or disconnected they feel in school.

Many schools in my local district have placed student feelings of connectedness as one of four priorities for their next accreditation cycle. They’ve enlisted a wonderful organization that uses character development curriculum as the sole method for creating this connectedness. Schools host inclusion rallies, show character-building movies, and create spirit days that celebrate the “other.”

In the case of my local school district, schools put a video clip on their character development web page featuring a Maya Angelou clip from YouTube as their rallying cry. The clip is entitled “Just Do Right.” In it, Dr. Angelou speaks about the time when she left her mother’s house, at 17 and with a baby, and her mother told her, “Now you have been raised.” She knew right from wrong. “Just do right,” were the words her mother bestowed upon her.

Kids, it’s easy: Just do right.

Um, yeah. Here’s why it fails:

A few years ago, after a particularly grueling day teaching and worse commute home, I stopped at my local grocery store. After stomping around the store to get something for dinner, I made my way to the checkout counter. A toddler with her mother was in the line ahead of me. The little girl stared at me, and I gave her my meanest glare back. The kind I would never have dared to shoot at any adult. The kind that tells you to go F yourself. That’s the kind of glare I gave this three year old. Somewhere, a unicorn died.

Yes, I do work with kids. Yes, I do have my own toddler now and am even more horrified at my actions, but then, as, I suspect, even now, the “Just do right” mantra wasn’t going to change me into someone who recognized how far I had slipped from reality on that day.

When you’re having a bad day, thinking about how someone else is feeling isn’t going to transmute you to connection. Neither is mindfully focusing on how you feel on the insides of your feet. I imagine it is the same for a student whose parents are divorcing, who is neglected at home, or whose brother just went to jail, or…any of the crappy life events that happen because it’s, well…life.

No, “Just Do Right” isn’t the Maya Angelou clip that illustrates how to get to connection. On the other hand, another Maya Angelou interview, entitled, “Love Liberates,” is.

In this clip, Dr. Angelou relates a memory of her mother telling her, again when Angelou was a young woman who was leaving her mother’s home, “You can always come home.” And Angelou says, “I went home every time life slammed me down and made me call it uncle.” She recalls, on those occasions, how her mother was always delighted to see her, never gloating over the event that made Angelou need to move back. And then her mother told her, “You’re the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” This from a mother who had abandoned Angelou and her brother to her grandmother when Angelou was a small girl.

Dr. Angelou then talks about her mother on her deathbed, and how Angelou told her, “You were a piss-poor mother of small children, but you were a great mother of young adults.” Angelou says her mother’s love had liberated her, and she wanted to liberate her mother by telling her how much she loved her and it was okay for her to go. It was a seeing of faults and a gratitude for the love of an imperfect mother.

Mindfulness asks students: How does your breath feel? Social-Emotional learning asks students to imagine how someone else feels. Compassion, Empathy, and Vulnerability asks students, “How do you feel?” Then the teacher listens, and goes to a place within themselves that says, “Yes. I have felt that way at some point, too. Let me sit with you while you feel that way now.” It asks teachers to courageously be vulnerable and talk about their imperfections and sadness too.

“Love Liberates” provides schools with context and vulnerability that “Do Right” misses. When a student is having a horrible day, “Love liberates” says that parents make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. Even Maya Angelou’s parent. It doesn’t mean that the student will not become successful. It doesn’t mean that that parent is shameful or will be a person who makes terrible mistakes as a parent forever. Maybe they will. But maybe not. Angelou didn’t forget or forgive her mother for her mistakes in the past, but she didn’t define either herself or her mother by those mistakes either. She clung to the love her mother offered later. People change. Thank God.

When teachers offer their own stories in a safely vulnerable way, especially stories that say, “This happened to me when I was young. It was awful. I wish I had told someone.” And students see that you are okay now, they see that they, too, may just make it through this awful spell. And they can feel like if they talk to you about their tough time, they will be seen.

Oh, and the toddler in the picture is mine. Karma is definitely Team Unicorn.