I sometimes see "f--k you" scrawled on the bathroom wall. I also sometimes see a quiet "help me." Both unsettling.
I wash my hands and pull the paper towel, sometimes imagining the worst: a child, a gun, rage, despair, and contemplations of murder or suicide. Unlikely extremes -- but stories not uncommon to hear.
Autumn 2013 has been host to a semester of killings connected to schools. In September, an 8th grade girl in Florida threw herself from the tower of a cement factory. School bullying was a factor. Also in September, a Vermont girl took her own life. In October, in Massachusetts, a 9th grade boy killed his teacher with a box cutter. That same week, a boy in Nevada shot and killed a middle school teacher and then himself. And in December, as our nation prepared to remember Sandy Hook, a boy in Colorado came to school with a shotgun, shot two peers and killed himself. This isn't a comprehensive list, just the stories I've seen in the headlines.
In trying to understand these children, I reduce their complex lives to simple terms like "Pain," "Shame," "Rage" -- and "Classroom." As a public school principal, it's this last word that's most on my mind.
Every day, some kids walk into school with a sense of harmony and place in the world. Others arrive feeling worthless.
Whatever they feel upon arrival, if schools are to make a positive impact on their lives, it will happen -- for most students -- in the classroom.
Of course, many other dimensions of school matter in creating a place where students feel valued. Individual relationships with caring adults are essential. Assemblies and ceremonies, where common mission and belief are given voice and shape, are very important. Clubs and athletic teams offer many kids a sense of belonging and purpose. And humane, restorative disciplinary interventions are important, too.
All of these elements of school matter. But where do students spend most of their time? In our classrooms. And so it is in the day-to-day classroom where adults have the greatest capacity to create opportunities for work and learning that help kids develop a healthy identity and hopeful worldview.
This has to do with how we teach: the pedagogy, norms, rules and routines. It is essential that our classrooms be empathic and vibrant. But that's not enough. This also has to do with what we teach.
Shame, rage, nihilism, despair -- and the root causes of such feelings -- all have a place as topics in school. The emotional life of the child should be considered core content, as worthy of heavy resource investment and professional development as any other core subject or standard. This includes even the emotional extremes that can compel the violence reported in the headlines.
I take Teens Who Hurt from my bookshelf. Ken Hardy and Tracey Laszloffy have written a book full of insight and careful listening to young people who do violence to themselves and others. Their framework is simple, but not simplistic:
Devaluation [+] Disruption of Community [+] Dehumanization of Loss [=] Rage
And rage, they write, "is a natural and inevitable response to experiences of pain and injustice. When rage is channeled constructively, it can be a positive and transformative force. However, when rage is denied expression or treated as if it is negative, it intensifies and usually culminates in an eruption of violence."
Our core academic classes can provide opportunities for rage to be "channeled constructively."
High school is a liberal arts education. Our broad charge is to help kids understand the various and diverse dimensions of what it means to be human being on this earth. In our core classes, because the daunting whole of human experience is our subject, part of the work is to reckon with the realities of people who have been devalued, to study injustices not yet righted, and to acknowledge losses not yet mourned.
I'm not talking about group therapy. This is about offering our young people the concepts and tools they need to name the troubles that they and society have known and to effectively decry the injustices they see. I'm talking about equations, and essays, and drama, and science, and history -- and what James Baldwin says about literacy:
"It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
I can't know what could have interrupted the tragic stories of this fall semester. What if the African American boy who sexually assaulted and killed his white female teacher had read Richard Wright's Native Son? Had he? I don't know. In the right learning environment, could exploring the complex themes of such a novel have helped him differently apprehend his own experience and differently execute his fate? I don't know. But I do know that the content of school curriculum must reflect and humanize the lives our children have lived, and act as an engine for shaping their feelings and impulses into constructive acts of agency and positive assertions of belief.
Devaluation -- a foundation stone of rage -- will be known by young people in our country. Indeed, as income gaps widen, more and more kids are likely to feel devalued and dehumanized by their circumstances. "Poor children are now the majority in American public schools in South, West." This was another shocking headline from this fall. The impact of this obscene degree of child poverty in our society is hard to fully measure. But it is clear that no matter a family's fortitude, or an individual child's resilience, when you are poor and you live in the richest nation on earth, it can make you feel worth less than others.
Poverty, however, is hardly the only thing that can make a child feel devalued. Racial inequities, gender imbalances, negative peer interactions, loss of a parent, abuse in the home -- any of these factors, and more, can impact our sense of self worth.
Wherever our pain comes from, it needs to be spoken, deconstructed, and constructively channeled. This process breeds healing and resilience. And those bright stories of human resilience, too, must be part of the content of schooling, for they are as much a part of us as the darkness.
All of this should happen in the face-to-face company of caring adults and peers. Because the bathroom is too private. The rage of "f--k you" and the pain of "help me" need to be heard in the classroom. (Perhaps not verbatim...) For it is in the classroom that we can collectively honor the stories and constructively channel the feelings -- through discussions, learning and work -- toward agency, justice, and hope.