I’d been K’s teacher for two years, but I found him difficult to get to know. He was a good student but didn’t take risks in his writing and rarely shared anything personal. He related to the world through relentless sarcasm, which sometimes made me laugh and sometimes got on my nerves. I’d always been a sarcastic person myself, but my students were helping me understand something about sarcasm: it’s a defense mechanism. People who go through the world with a snappy comeback for every situation are people who are afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to feel. There was one more thing about K. that made me wary: he dwarfed most of his classmates and sometimes used his size to intimidate others. I felt close to so many of his classmates, but never to him.
Yet here he was, wedged uncomfortably in a student desk, sobbing.
It had happened very suddenly. One minute he was sitting there saying something witty about transferring to a different school, and the next minute, he was collapsed over the desk, making choking sounds.
I couldn’t see his face, and for a moment, I thought he was laughing. Then I thought he might be having some kind of fit. But then I recognized his shaking shoulders and the sounds he was making for what they were. Pain.
I did what I always did when confronted with a student’s tears: sat beside them and felt inadequate.
K. was hardly the first student to cry in my room. Room 123 was famous for crying. I had to start wearing waterproof mascara because I teared up at some point almost every day. And it seemed that there was always a student there, before school, after school, during lunch, during my planning periods, sitting at my desk and sharing something horrible. So many of my students had led such incredibly hard lives. They were tough and resilient and so full of joy, but many of them also carried unimaginable pain.
I used to think they revealed that pain in my classroom because I taught English, and English, more than any other subject, is about how we live and what it means to be human. We bring all of our complex humanness to it, and we use the tools of this discipline—reading, writing, words—to make sense of our lives, to learn how to live, to connect in the deepest ways with others.
They certainly didn’t share their stories with me because I was good at helping them. I had witnessed other teachers in the act of responding to student emotional breakdowns, and these other teachers always had so many wise words of reassurance and understanding. Students would process their feelings, dry their tears, get up and go about their day.
In my room, they’d sit and sit and sit. Long after their words and tears had dried up, they’d sit.
And I’d sit with them.
It was agonizing. I wanted words, and I didn’t have them. I wanted words of shock at the brutality they’d experienced. Words of anger at the adults who should have been protecting them. Words of despair at the hopelessness of their situation. Most of all, I wanted words of comfort and reassurance, but even though those words came more easily to my tongue, they felt inadequate, hollow. I didn’t say them.
K.’s story began to spill out in short bursts. It was his story, uniquely his, but the bones of it were familiar. Trauma, bad choices, bottoming out.
I sat beside him as he talked. I dispensed tissues and got cups of water and handed out sticks of peppermint gum. I awkwardly pat his back.
After he left, I sat alone and stewed over the inadequacy of my response. Why couldn’t I find words of reassurance like other teachers? What was the matter with me, sitting there silently with someone who was in so much pain? I was supposed to offer solutions, find fixes, patch people up with my words. Wasn’t I?
Time and again, I felt like my words failed me.
But the truth is, inexperience and inadequacy helped me blunder into something wise: when people hurt, they need presence, a sitting with and a sitting beside. Not words.
I had to become my son’s mother before I could truly understand this.
Now, I have so many words I want to speak. Words of reassurance and comfort. Words of hope and direction. They are always right there on my tongue.
But I remember the students who kept coming to my room, and I stay quiet, sit beside, breathe with, honor my son’s words with my careful, attentive silence.