Bearing Witness to Student’s Lived Experience


In the past few weeks I have realized something: my job as an instructor/adviser is just as hard as it was as a crisis counselor. Though the schedule is much easier, the fact that I am simply in a position to bear witness to lives, rather than be the person to actively help seek the resources and see immediate change, is where the exhaustion is coming in. I know that I was built for this work, but lately there are several students who have been heavy on my heart. So heavy that I downloaded Anne Lamott’s new book Stitches and am flipping through it, because she talks about the utter fuckedupness of the world and how we stand and face all the cruelty in situations that often don’t have any ‘meaning’ (she cites the Newton shooting, for example.) Her words give me comfort.

So I’m nestled in my pajamas, at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday, drinking red wine and watching Jake & The Neverland Pirates with Potamus and musing about the fate of my students. And I’m sad, and angry (at parents and schools that have failed my students) and excited and proud, but also this feeling that is deeper than all of that, something about awe and heartache mixed with immense fear and hope. It’s hard to express adequately, ya know?

This week I had a student tell me that in their photography class they were instructed to take “street shots” and so they were in a piss-filled alley taking photos of graffiti. And they struck up a conversation with a homeless man, who spilled his life story, and after an hour the photographer moved on to a different location…getting two blocks away before they heard screams. And when they turned back into the alley, the homeless man had been stabbed to death by someone on drugs. A man who had previously lost his wife and daughter in a car accident and had chosen the homeless lifestyle, donating all of his posessions to charity, in order to “start over.” If heaven exists then maybe he’s met by his daughter and wife, but only minutes before my 17 year old student had been chatting with him, taking his photo. And then he was dead, just like that. And my student witnessed it.

How do you make sense of that? How do I hold the space for that story, for the emotions that go with it, without trying to solve it or make it all magically better?

What about the student who told me they missed class last week because they were arrested and with 1 week until their 18th birthday are most likely going to be charged as an adult and sent to prison? This student who I found on the news was selling close to 300 “molly” and crystal meth pills at a local rave. My student fessed up to their actions, but still? And school is the best option for them right now, but my heart is heavy because prison is the real deal and all the hard work to get on the right track were blown in a night.

How do I hold that?

And the students who have been writing about their drug addictions and the process of getting clean. Or their experience being in lockdown psych wards for psychotic breaks. Or the 11 concussions and expulsion from high school because they didn’t pass their class but no teacher gave any accommodations for the sports related injuries. My students are struggling with SO MANY things. And they come every day, and write about SMART goals, and learn study habits, and sometimes they do it when they haven’t eaten for a day or two, or don’t know where they’re going to live.

I admire their tenacity. Their ability to rise above the challenges that no kid should have to face…homelessness, drug addictions, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, natural disasters, etc. I bear witness and have to sit with their stories and know that maybe that is enough. When I can’t do anything but smile at them, and tell them hello, and hear their lives in a way that many educators haven’t done in the past. Is it enough? I have no idea. But I hope that it makes some small difference…

3 Comments

  1. You need supervision my dear. It should be mandatory for everyone who is doing emotionally baring work as you are. I went to see a therapist for supervision once a month when I was working as a psychologist. She helped me a lot when I needed to ventilate like you are doing now. Sometimes I did not know how to handle a case and supervision can help when you are stuck.

    xoxo, Eszter
    http://kukolina.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/step-in-to-my-gallery-and-leave-me-your-book/

    • Seriously, I totally need supervision. Bad part is that the counseling dept that’s in my college is in total shambles. I get consultation from my friend from grad school, but there’s not competent supervisor in that department. And because I’m an Instructor and not a counselor, supervision isn’t a part of my job description and I don’t have the $$ (or time) to pay for an outside supervisor. I think I’ll focus on informal supervision and consultation now that I have a better idea that it’s really affecting me.

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