Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tales from the School: Lessons in Compassion


I just went to the bathroom between classes. Before me, one of our new kids had used it. The smell in there wasn't from anything he had done but was, as is often the case with poor kids who don't have a lot of parenting, the result of him not being very clean. It was a mix of body odor, smoke, and underlying dirt. I turned my nose up and quickly used the bathroom. I had all sorts of thoughts on it as I came back to my classroom.
I wanted to get a can of spray and go over the place, wash the stink out of the air, but I also remembered a time in high school when I realized that I had forgotten deodorant. I could smell myself and just knew that everyone smelled me too. They probably weren't, but thinking it is as bad as it being true. I remember suffering, castigating myself for hours as I waited to go home and get clean.
Because of that thought, I turned from thinking "ew!" toward compassion for the kid. I didn't move to pity. The kid is fine. He's alive. He showed up for school. I barely know him (he's new to our school). Instead of, "aw, poor kid," I thought, "he's not that different from me." That's the beginning of something.
This morning I have been anxious. I'm back to school after break and that always brings up anxiety for me. There's more to it though. Budgets are shrinking and there are rumors of twenty-five teachers being cut from our program. I don't think that I would be one of those twenty-five, but there's no telling what will happen. So I feel anxious and feeling anxious makes me feel even more anxious, on and on in a cycle.
I imagine the kid from the bathroom is anxious too. He might not show it the same way I do and he won't say, "hey, I'm feeling anxious." It's not that simple, but if I admit my own anxiety, before we begin writing, that honesty might set a tone. It may give that kid a chance to think, "I'm anxious too."
I'm trying to learn compassion. I'll be learning it to the end of my days. It's not a subject I'll ever master. So far I understand that compassion isn't a guessing game. I don't have to predict that he's feeling anxious so much as know that in the kid's shoes, experiencing something similar, I have felt nervous and in need of something. Feeling compassion involves stating what I'm feeling and showing the people around me that I struggle too. I thought that I had to keep everything under wraps and act as though I have it all in control. It is a gift to tell people how I'm doing. It invites them to feel what they are feeling. It also allows people to help me.
That last bit is a good place to finish. Compassionate education is about letting students teach me too. When I put out that I'm anxious, they can talk about what they do when it's hard, when they don't know what to do. It gives them a chance to be experts in their field. By doing so, they also learn some things. Talking about their experience and being heard teaches them to value the things they do. It's not a one-shot deal. They won't get it all today. It will take lifetimes.
We will write. We always write. We write and we share. The writing doesn't have to be graded or corrected. It is enough that we put ourselves on the page. It is enough that we sometimes share ourselves through that writing. Writing is another means of compassion which, for my money, is the goal of this enterprise. So we write, we write some more, and we write on.