Helping Our Children Process Violence, Through the Eyes of a Teacher & Parent
This article was contributed by Lisa Lame Quinn, a sixth grade teacher in Nashville, Tennessee. Ms. Quinn shares her experience, as both a teacher and a parent, in how she deals with the feelings she and her children face following acts of violence. Ms. Quinn highlights the importance of giving her students the time and space to identify and express their feelings.
Most people recognize that we are living in a period of uncertainty. Each day brings fresh headlines that are equal parts frustrating and frightening. Gun violence is no longer something that only happens in large urban areas. The current political climate of our nation seems to have everyone on edge. Anxiety over the news and distress over frequently conflicting views with neighbors, family members, and friends has many of us in a perpetual state of unease. The frequency of school shootings is increasing at an alarming rate and because we live in a time when news headlines are a mere click away, everyone, including children, has easy access to up-to-date information. As a parent and a middle school teacher I am aware on a daily basis of how this is affecting children and families.
One morning while at school, I returned to my desk to find a post it note placed in the center of my desk. Written in my own child’s distinctive handwriting I read the words: “Another shooting, in Michigan, two dead, shooter still at large.” My own child who attends the school in which I teach, saw the headline notification on his phone, snuck away from what he was supposed to be doing to find me and tell me. His need for comfort and security and familiarity outweighed the importance of whatever he was supposed to be doing and whatever consequences he might face if caught. I felt distracted for the rest of the day. Disturbed is probably a better word to describe the mix of emotions that filled me. Disturbed by the news of yet another attack that no one can predict, prevent, or stop. Disturbed by the fact that I feel so powerless. Disturbed that my child is living a reality that would have been unthinkable had someone tried to describe it to me when I was a child. Kids are frightened and anxious and adults are left explaining the unexplainable.
Feelings of helplessness, for me, are the goat cheese of feelings. Those who know me well, know that I would rather lick the bottom of my shoe than eat goat cheese. The same can be said for feelings of helplessness. My experience has taught me that for almost any other difficult emotion there is an action that can be taken that provides relief. When overcome with grief, I can cry. When feeling angry, I gain relief through healthy expression, usually in the form of speaking up. Feelings of shame require some intense reflection and self care. But helplessness? That is a tough one. My husband relies on a saying during difficult times, times when our emotions are raw and it feels like whatever we are experiencing will never end, “Chop wood and haul water,” he will say. Meaning, carry on, do the next right thing and a solution will appear. It worked for the Brits during the air raids of World War II, when their government urged them to “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Regardless, the idea of business as usual, when used as a tool to gain insight rather than as a means to deny, is a helpful suggestion during times of stress or intensity. The times in which I have had the wherewithal to employ this tool, a solution has usually appeared. Suddenly, a creative way to address a difficult situation becomes apparent, offering hope and reprieve.
The thing about being a parent and a teacher is that I have two sets of kids to help process the madness of the gun violence that is now a part of our society, whether we want it to be or not. Pretending it isn’t happening or pretending that it is less terrifying than it actually is, isn’t an option. Kids are smart. Denial of the truth only intensifies their anxiety. Therefore, I am continually searching for creative and real ways to help them.
My own two kids, now big and hairy teenage boys, linger in our room and on our bed longer than usual after the news headlines pop up announcing another mass shooting. They want to show us the social media posts that they are seeing. The horrifying audio posts of actual footage of gunshots and screaming and crying leave us silently weeping. We sit in disbelief. We lean on each other, my boys probably thinking about the children who died, and I thinking about the parents who aren’t sitting with and comforting their child tonight. I wait until the moment seems right and though it terrifies me to do so, I ask them if they know what to do if something like that happens at their school. When they describe their own plan, a little part of me grieves the loss of innocence they are experiencing. We run through scenarios, even though they are old enough to know that there really is no way to prepare for these unthinkable situations. Regardless, being physically close with those you love is comforting. Talking about it openly and honestly helps. The fact that they seek me out for reassurance and connection fills me with gratitude.
After every school shooting I come to school and look at the beautiful faces in front of me. It is impossible not to feel the heaviness of the responsibility that I face each and every day. There are standards to teach and conflicts to help resolve, there is field trip money to collect and papers to be graded. Teachers honestly do hundreds of things everyday to support and nurture the children in their care. But the responsibility that weighs most heavily on my mind these days is knowing that there might be a day when I am called to protect them. In the sleepless hours that follow a school shooting I run my own scenarios through my head. I imagine myself with a group of kids in the hallway, the cafeteria, or the gym. The most terrifying place to imagine is being outside; even in my bravest moments I dread even the thought of this situation.
The day after the Las Vegas shooting, it was particularly difficult to get up and moving. When I arrived at school I started my classroom version of chopping wood and hauling water. I turned on the lamps and watered my plants. I updated the homework board and changed the date and as I went to write a new journal topic on the board I was struck with an inspiration. Ditching the tried and true Monday journal topic asking students to write about their weekend, I found myself asking them to describe the beauty in the world. Write about the good and beautiful things you see in the world. As I wrote it, I knew that it was a reminder to myself, to seek and acknowledge the good, the beauty. The need to read about the good and beautiful through the eyes of these little humans who are carrying a burden that none of us had to carry at eleven years old outweighed all else. Just writing the words lightened my spirit. Do they still see it? The joy, the wonder? Later I will talk to them about lockdowns and lockouts and hiding. Later I will register for professional development on active aggressor training. But in that moment, our first moment together since the most recent tragedy, I just wanted to be reminded of all of the good. I was not disappointed. Their words and the discussion that followed buoyed my spirit. This exercise encouraged me to search for beauty. And, when I remember to do so, it helps.
Since then, I regularly ask them to notice the beauty around them. My journal topics have shifted to more thoughtful questions that require a deeper part of them in their response. I have made more time to discuss their answers, sometimes with a peer, but sometimes with the whole group. Middle schoolers have a lot to say and their answers reflect their individuality. I am surprised and humbled when the topic moves them to be vulnerable with the whole group, inviting empathy and compassion and intimacy, three words that don’t instantly jump to mind when you picture a room full of gawky sixth graders discussing feelings and perceptions. But it happens. Writing leads to conversations and questions. These questions and conversations lead me to being as honest as I am able.
As I write this, I know I am not the only teacher who gives kids writing assignments designed to help them sort out their emotions. I am not the only one who worries about shouldering the responsibility of keeping a room full of kids safe. I am not naive enough to think that I am the only one searching for beauty in this unstable world. And that knowledge gives me strength. Picturing tens of thousands of teachers chopping wood and hauling water to find ways to love and support children is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all.
Lisa Lame Quinn is a 6th grade school teacher at Meigs Academic Magnet School in Nashville, Tennessee. She shares her house with her husband, their two teenaged sons and two surly cats. When not watching high school baseball, she is busy writing about it. Her dream is to write the Great American Novel.
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