In elementary school, one of my fellow students died in our hallway. She had an asthma attack, I think, but I can not recall.
My memory mostly centers around the counselors who arrived at school in support of all of us kids. I vaguely remember writing an essay explaining my feelings in response to their prompting us, but I can not recall specifics other than sadness and confusion.
The memory of that moment came rushing back this week as I listened to an episode of This American Life focused around the difficult conversations we have with our children — or the conversations we should consider having. The episode profiled a program focused on grieving children. They spoke of one young man who said he wanted to go to heaven, for just a few moments, in order to teach his younger sister how to ride a bike. The episode also featured young children wrestling with the suicide of a parent, unsure of what to say, or how others might react.
The conversations playing out in throughout This American Life stood out in light of my recent research into an estimate from the 2013 N.C. Youth Risk Behavior survey showing that one in 10 North Carolina middle schoolers have attempted suicide — a number which should shock us all.
Last week I spoke with author and researcher Paul Tough who noted during our interview that studies show that test results decrease at schools when gun violence occurs — a phenomenon which has been connected to neurological research around the impact of stress on students.
As we have traveled around the state, we have heard a lot of conversation about safe spaces. The question before many administrators and educators seems to be how does one build a safe, supportive environment for all students regardless of class, race, gender, or orientation. This question is a vital one as Tough notes in his recent book Helping Children Succeed, which addresses the need for environments that support resilience in order to make it possible for all students to have the opportunity to succeed.
But how do we build those kinds of environments? Particularly in light of a staggeringly high attempted suicide rate among our students, twelve instances of guns being discharged on our campuses since 2012, and more.
The world can seem scary when you focus on the news these days.
Violence on television is terrifying enough, but I know from my own life that when violence brushes against you it will transform you, complicate your own narrative, and it might even alter how you see the world.
Answers to these big, difficult questions are not easily found, but I believe one path forward could be found teaching all children to tell stories. Equipping children with appropriate language and frameworks, while encouraging them to lean in to even uncomfortable moments, might be part of the answer as I shared with two different interviewers in recent weeks.
If we build an environment where we address difficult subjects, acknowledge the stress of our students, and build the framework to deal with loss, then we might be able to take a step forward. I would encourage you all to check out Helping Children Succeed for additional strategies.
Below are the embedded podcasts with some portions of the transcript included:
“One, when it comes to having conversations about grief, that’s a difficult conversation. They are conversations that we as a culture and as a society think have been somewhat trained not to have for better or for worse and some of that is out of a rightful and correct understanding that we don’t want to send. I think sometimes where we lose sight as people, and I only knew this honestly because I knew this after my own experience, where we lose sight of things that matter with that is that really people just want to know that you are there to bear witness to them. Not that you’re there to fix it, but that you’re there, that you’re there to bear witness, that you’re there to see yes, you can’t solve or fix the problem, but that’s OK. You’ll just hold their hand, you’ll drop off flowers, you’ll let them know you’re there, and I think if we begin there with that understanding, then maybe the conversation will become easier because the conversation is not “Hey, I know this is a tough time so I’m not gonna say anything.” The conversation is “I notice you’re having a tough time so I didn’t know if you want to talk about it. I’m here,” or “I know this is a tough time. That’s why I brought you dinner tonight.” “I know this is a tough time so I just wanted to send you flowers to say I’m thinking about you.” Those small daily acts of kindness matter way more than saying the right thing. That’s just doing the right thing. That’s just showing up and it’s not a difficult conversation. It’s just bearing witness and I think the question for all of us is can we bear witness to our friends, our family and our loved ones. In the community it struggles and it triumphs alike and knowing that at the end of the day, that is the best part of life. It’s the best part of friendship. It’s just being there and for me, that was one of my best friends literally staying up every night with me until I fell asleep for weeks after Jamie died.”
“Certain elements of the media tend to, I believe, fixate on the victim’s means of death and also on the perpetrator, right? I think most famously Rolling Stone putting the Boston marathon bombers on the cover as if they were rock stars. Sometimes there’s a fetish with sort of telling the story of the perpetrator and it’s almost become a cliché. It’s a quiet person who no one ever thought they would do this. In that, often times the victim’s story become reduced down to how they died. It became very important very quickly to tell Jamie’s story so that she wasn’t reduced down to a few moments on a news clip or to a few lines in a press story.”
“There’s joy in finding common ground. There’s joy in understanding that our solutions do not have to come from either political party, that our solutions instead can come from well meaning, well intentioned hard working people who are on the ground and who see a problem and set out to solve it.”
“One of the things we talk about is finding the agency and finding your ability to confront unpleasant things and unpleasant experiences and unpleasant language and I think that that matters. I find myself using the term passed away. It’s one of these safe words, safe terms and you never realize how vague these terms are until you try to address it to kids. We’re out in the Camden Street Learning Garden all the time and I was out there one day and this kid asked me, he goes … I think his name’s Jerome.
“He says “Is that your girlfriend?” I started looking around. I was like “I don’t have a girlfriend.” I didn’t have one at the time. He said “No. On your shirt” and I was wearing a foundation shirt and I realized he was referencing Jamie and I said “Well, she was.” He said “Oh.” I said “Then we got married.” He said “Oh that’s great.” Then he said “Where is she?” How do you answer that? I looked at him for a moment and I said “Well, we lost her two years ago” I can’t remember what date exactly this was and he said “You haven’t found her, yet?” It was then I realized what in the hell am I talking about. We didn’t lose her. I mean we know where she is. I said “Well, no. She passed away” and he looked at me quizzically and he’s like “What do you mean?” He’s a young kid, probably elementary school and I looked at him and said “Well, she died” and it clicked. He looked up in the sky and he sort of looked around and he said “I’m sorry.” I said “Well, thank you.”
“He stood there for a minute and I’m thinking okay maybe I’ve gotten through with this kid, but where else can you go. He looks up at me and goes “Where’d you get that tee shirt?” You realize out of the mouth of babes, so now he and his friends wear their shirts around the neighborhood which is really great, but it was sort of this aha moment for me. I often tell people, if you want to learn how to reach people on your policy arguments, if you want to learn how to communicate, go try to talk about social mobility and rising tides of inequality and school choice and privatization and vouchers with a sixth grader and realize how quickly the terms that you’re using make very minimal sense to anyone outside of your narrow sector.”
“I think the same is true for grief. I think that if we fully embrace that circle of being born and dying; of loving and almost inevitably losing, then I think we’re paying homage to the human condition and we’re really paying attention to what it is that’s important and what drives us. There are some cultures where they say that you’re never really dead as long as someone loves you and as long as someone mentions your name. As long as someone tries to carry forth your work. That’s all we can hope for. The one thing we’ve done with the foundation that Jamie would absolutely dislike is that we named it after it because that wasn’t her. She didn’t seek the spotlight. She was incredibly humble, but anyway. We do what we can.”