“How did you get started in this?”
Her question caught me a little off guard. It was only 3 minutes before the bell would ring and the class of senior high school students would begin. In front of me were a couple dozen almost-adults seated behind large computer monitors, some of whom were looking forward expectantly and others were crouched down, completely obscured by the screen.
The student who asked the question was in the former group. Seated in the front row, she was attentive, with an open and bright affect, and she seemed genuinely interested to understand more about this stranger standing in front of her.
I knew time was short, but I didn’t want to throw away this opportunity, so I faced her and gave her a real answer that I had never spoken before.
“When you experience certain situations in life, eventually you will start to realize that there are some things that hit you in the gut and keep you up at night. You find that those things are generally about injustice and that you just cannot shut up about them; you are compelled to speak because being silent about them isn’t an option.”
I could tell from her expression that this was not quite the “how-to” answer that she was looking for, so I also added, “I’ll share more about how that happened for me during the presentation.”
I was there to share a 45-minute presentation on Building Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms with this group of students (all of whom were already engaged as student teachers), so as part of my normal introduction to the topic, I did share about my family experiences and how the lack of Trauma-Informed Environments has significantly impacted the ability for children from hard places to fully engage in everyday situations. The presentation went well; some of the students who had hidden emerged, several thoughtful questions were asked, and I was satisfied that at least 25 more teachers would have access to more tools and compassion for their classroom settings.
But the query from earlier stuck with me and as I was thinking about my response, I reflected on the first time I had heard anyone talk about justice in a visceral way. It was Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil (https://www.saltermcneil.com/) speaking at the 2013 Justice Conference (https://vimeo.com/60830049). I didn’t know it at the time, but my journey into this gut-wrenching, sleep-stealing place was already started, and I had just been given the words to describe how it felt to be compelled to shine light, to step forward and say, “This isn’t okay, and we cannot maintain status quo.”
This is why I teach/speak/preach. This is why I seek to have honest and loving conversations about trauma and reconciliation in all of my contexts. This is why I strive to engage in robust self-care practices – because I am compelled spend the bulk of my energy engaging my heart, mind, body, and soul in identifying and combating the adversity that tears away the humanity and promise of the smallest of us.
So, to the young adult who was taken aback by my honest and raw answer in the classroom, I promise you that if you take it to heart, you will find your place to speak truth and advocate for the most vulnerable in your classroom.
What is the thing that hits you in the gut and keeps you up at night?