All the Feelings

Tonight, I miss my students. I miss them so much, and in tandem with that feeling, I feel fear. My fear is rooted in the worry that we have lost something fundamental, not in schools, but in our society. I am afraid that the “normal” course of things is now fundamentally altered. I just finished watching “Friday Night Lights” for the 5th or 6th time, and all of the things that I saw for those kids in the last two episodes of the show may not come true for our kids, simply because our economy as we knew it was a lie it seems, or at least, it was true only for a few.

I spent this morning talking to my friend Von about all of it, and I think we have a pretty solid plan to see how things go over the next year, and then maybe all (the friend group) try to leave the United States for greener, perhaps Italian, pastures. Everything seem so confusing and as if a giant rug was yanked out from underneath all of us at the same time. 16 million people have lost their jobs? And yet, I sit on a couch with a puppy watching  “Apollo 13” because it was just the 50th anniversary the other day. Maybe it was yesterday?

Anyway – there are good things happening. There are the birds and the bees and new variegated geraniums and the fact that our house now has a/c and heat for the first time since we bought it. Our friends and family are fine. We are getting along great, although there are stories of the opposite being true. I suspect if you didn’t get along before the pandemic, you sure as hell aren’t getting along now.

This is non-sequitor, but important. Today I received an application for Early College High School from a student who was rather well known for being a scamp earlier in the year. Then, he went to Mexico for three weeks, returned and was transferred into my class. The kid and I just got along really, really well and he turned himself around and started to take his schoolwork seriously. He passed one half of his college entrance exams. I called him a couple of times over this strange break of ours and asked him to apply to ECHS. He said he would think about it, and I gave him til last Thursday to tell me either way, no pressure. He called me back and told me he wanted to do it, and then I dropped off applications at his brother’s house (no contact on the porch!). Late this afternoon, I received 5 photos via text, which were his full-page essays that he wrote explaining his goals, his challenges, and his three best qualities. The school counselor, who received his application, wrote me to say “wow”. This one incident let me know that maybe I did something good this year, despite how strangely it has (almost) ended.

I worry about our future and our kids, even though I know I have no control over this. People say this a lot: we have no control over x or y or z, but that doesn’t change the feelings. I was listening to a podcast today and the host said that she felt we should stop saying “how are you?” because no one has a good answer, and we should come up with something else. I wish someone would come up with something else to say to me instead of “you can’t control x, y or z”, or perhaps I should learn non-attachment. Perhaps both.

Tonight, it is late and I am so tired and just hope to sleep tonight. I am having so much trouble sleeping, and so many others are, too. But, suffice it to say, I did not realize how much love I had for my students, and for the “normal” way of life until a few weeks ago. This too shall pass, but into what?

Date: 16 April 2020

Cases: 2,064,815

United States: 639,628

Deaths: 137,020

Mortality Rate: 6.64%

 

 

 

 

It’s Been a Few Days

It has been a few days. I haven’t known what to say, but by now I just think I am shirking a responsibility so I will try my best.

By tomorrow there will be 2 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. The United States is still beating everyone in our number of cases, and now, our number of deaths. Our federal government continues to fail miserably at anything resembling leadership. New York City seems like a death trap, but the governor of New York actually knows how to lead, so that is something. It seems that the resolution of this crisis will only come from the states, but primarily, the individuals that experience it. It seems that the world is lacking leadership: there is no one who has stepped in. I hear that the women presidents of the world are doing a wonderful job, but we hear nothing of them here.

I suppose I feel cynical today. I feel cynical about the United States and where it is going, and where it is. After all, I only became a citizen a few years ago, in 2015. It has been 4 years. I am considering renouncing my citizenship to this country that now seems patently absurd and abjectly cruel to its people. How can a president almost mock his own peoples’ suffering, disregard it, and only care about the levels of money that he and his friends can earn? It is despicable, it is deplorable. It is the lowest point yet of a low-road presidency. I have been hesitant to write my inner desire to renounce my US citizenship out of fear that someone will read this and take me to task, but now, I think it is all right to be honest.

Where do we go from here? What happens to the world? Will it all just go screaming forward into “normal”? 4 million garment workers lost their jobs in Asia, and none of them get stimulus money from their governments, although I can guarantee you in 2 years, they will be back, forced into factory work so that folks in the United States can buy t-shirts for $5. Or maybe not. Maybe the Coronavirus COVID19 is so powerful that it really will stop us in our tracks. What does that mean? What would we all do? I think we all are so anxious at this moment that it is impossible to think clearly. We are all on edge and just trying to distract our minds from those moments of terror and concern.

I miss hugging my friends and having dinner parties with them. I just baked a new cake, a parsnip cake, from the Lost Kitchen cookbook and it smells divine. I can’t wait to make if for them. I am waiting to receive a new book, written by a namesake, and I am very much looking forward to devouring its pages and begin crafting my own minor masterpiece. It sits in a box to my right, begging me to dive in.

What will we all do? It is impossible to know. All I know is that today and each day are very tiring in their complexity and their lack of clear information and facts. Perhaps it is by design? Perhaps it is a pandemic.

Date: 14 April 2020

Cases: 1,920,985

United States: 582,580

Deaths (Worldwide): 119,686

Mortality Rate (Worldwide): 6.23%

Dystopian Worry

These last few days, I have been drowning in worry. I have been enmeshed it in, held down by it, choked by it, pressured by it, swayed by it, distracted by it, addled by it. It has held me by the throat. Everything seems so chaotic and insane, like how could it have all been so fragile that it fell apart in just a few weeks? Just like all the dystopian fiction I have read for all of these years, those stories were exactly right in predicting the pace of the dominoes falling.

But then there is another side to this. The control piece is the other side, and the reality is that there is no control now or any other time. I think, though, that the now feels so out of control it is rather starkly constructed with the relative peace of “before”. Let’s say that, anyway. And add to that a lack of leadership so profound it seems that no one cares, let alone has the skill, to lead. We are all just watching it unfold in real-time. And real-time feels fast sometimes, and sometimes ever…so…slow.

I type this sitting by a cook fire in my garden. I can hear crickets and frogs, birds, and my neighbor’s little girl on her playscape. I can hear the distant sound of trucks on the highway, and sometimes one even drives down our road, past our house. The dog just barked at a toad: I don’t think he’d ever seen one before. The wind plays with my hair, and the almost full moon is caught in wispy clouds over the eastern sky. The sun has almost set, and tomorrow is….Tuesday?

Where do we place worry, or free-floating anxiety when we have nowhere to go, when we are asked to stay at home and do nothing? When we are no longer working, except for maybe an hour or two, here and there. When we are asked to not go out to shops, to wander, to talk with friends on their patios. When we are asked to be at home with our family and our own thoughts for the third week in a row. The mind reels, wobbles, pursues strange rabbit holes of thought and indecision, concern, and worry. But then it passes, again, to another rabbit hole or recipe, project or paranoia.

I have seen more beautiful meals cooked and photographed on Instagram than ever: people are getting crafty out there, My friend Shanarra is making COVID-19 themed quarantine cocktails that just sound lovely and have many snarky, slightly ironic names. People are challenging themselves to create beauty out of what they have, rather than seeking it from someone else, outside of themselves, with a perfectly curated vision of beauty and bliss, Perhaps it is becoming more real.

This experience, while bizarre, does feel like the Maine winter. We have come through the first phase in which we accept it is winter and we will be snowed in quite a bit and have begun to look around for things to do on snow days. Some people are still trying to pretend that nothing has changed. My friend Linda once told me that winter forces you to know the nooks and crannies of your own mind, and you might be surprised as to what you find in there. I wholeheartedly agree with her assessment. I found anxiety and worry and irrational fear, not of the virus, but of society’s lack of security and stability in the face of grave trial. Queen Elizabeth spoke yesterday of the strength of Britons, and I took some solace from her. She is right, and she has been alive a lot longer than me.

Tonight I was staring at the evening star through whispy, humid clouds and wondering what to do, and a little voice in my head said: publish your book. Work on your book. That is something that I can do, and I do have a lot of time.

I am hoping I can take some tools from my toolbox and try to remember that anxiety is fear feeling real, but it’s not real, really. I will try to remember to breathe and bake a yummy cake I have been wanting to try, and roast some veggies and call friends I haven’t chatted with yet this quarantine time. I have to remember that the bees don’t care about COVID-19: they are off to the races, and after all, they are the lynchpin to our food system. The bees’ work is much more important than my worries.

Perspective,  I think, is my takeaway tonight. I hope you out there are doing all right. Stay home, stay safe, be well. Create something beautiful out of weird stuff around your house. You never know what it might end up meaning to you.

Date: 6 April 2020

Cases: 1,346,299

United States: 367,507

Deaths: 74,679

Mortality Rate: 5.547%

Great Wave

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Great Wave Off Kanagawa – Hokusai – 1829-1833

I feel so sad and I can’t tell you why. I just planted elderberries as part of my Victory Garden and tried to not think about it for awhile, but was still overwhelmed by a heaviness and a sense of frustration, anger and being overwhelmingly tired. I think of my friends who are immuno-compromised, my husband, my friends who are nurses and doctors. The old people like my aunts and the young people like the new babies: it just makes me want to cry with worry! And yes, you might say: you have no control over this, why are you so upset? And i would say to you: I have no choice.

I remember once in college when 9/11 happened and I felt like there was this giant weight or wave of humanity pouring out everywhere and there was nothing I could do but walk across the South Mall and feel it. I feel that way now. I have always felt that my heart is outside my body, not inside like other people. There are so many feelings. I understand why I used to push these away with drugs and alcohol and avoidance strategies that were so well honed they were indetectable even to me.

I imagine a giant tree in a forest in a storm. It is being hit, swept up, threatened, borne upon by forces of wind greater than itself. It whips around like the Whomping Willow in Harry Potter. The only time that I can control the feeling of that storm is if I am doing something active: walking, dancing, planting, painting. But I can’t do that *all the time*.

It is so fascinating that we are being asked to be so still in a time of such upheaval and uncertainty. Who knew that the best idea would simply be to stay at home and wait?

I am making a Spotify Playlist that is mostly aimed at being something to listen to when you are actively doing something: dancing, writing, painting, planting, walking, etc. I hope it is something that people like. I worry about my students. I will miss them so much tomorrow.

A Thousand People – Same Human Being

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AIDS Memorial Quilt, Washington, D.C. 1987

I am feeling a bit bleak today. I just took the dog on a very long walk through the old parts of Elgin, and I feel better, but still bleak. The news seems so odd, so full of danger and uncertainty. No one has any idea what is happening save that there is a rising tide flowing fast towards us.

Cody is outside gardening; he is planting cucumbers. I started a lot of seeds a while ago, mostly focusing on flowers but with a few veggies in there for good measure. We usually have a pretty and amazing summer garden, and this year feel a bit more pressure to step it up a notch.

Today we had a Digital Learning Team conference call to discuss how to help teachers transition to remote learning. People expressed the worries that kids won’t do anything and we then discussed the fact that a) we have no control over that b) we can’t grade anything and c) we have to abandon expectations and just do this for the sake of the kids who will do it. I think there will be many of them. I think, for me, my overwhelming sense is of worry for them. I worry that they won’t get to see their friends and their teachers and ask all the weird questions that teenagers ask. I worry about missing them and that they won’t learn anything and they will be sad. We don’t live in Austin, where kids can get out and walk around and look at things. A lot of my students live on big properties with a few tiny houses or house trailers on them and a whole lot of nothing for them to do. School is such an important place and outlet for rural kids.

My general bleak feelings come from fear, I think, and I know that fear is the mind-killer, but it is there nonetheless. I am worried more bad things will happen, bad things that I can’t even foresee since things seem to change every few hours. I feel terrible for the people who are sick and all the doctors and nurses that are taking care of them. I have this horrible fear of not being able to get food. I don’t think that one is super realistic, and I also know that lots of other people feel that same feeling. It is a horrible feeling and one I have never had before. I think that is part of the bleak feeling I have today is that the feelings/thoughts/passing brain impulses that I am having I have never had before, and so they are very disorienting.

My friends Kevin and Darrel went out for a walk in their neighborhood in Altadena this morning and found that their neighbors had made sweet signs for their yard, so I think I am going to go and channel these feelings into something positive and pretty. I think little things do make a difference, right?

Date – 23 March 2020

Cases – 329,862

Deaths – 14,378

Mortality Rate – 4.3%

Uncertainty

This morning, as most of the school was walking to morning assembly, two 8th graders bounced up to me and said: “Ms Blythe!!!! It’s been SO long!” These two were my students when they were 6th and 7th graders, and I came to know them from when they were very small to when they were very awkward to when they were almost teenagers, and now, they are on their way to high school. It is amazing to bear witness to the growth of children, and to be a person they trust with their feelings: both fears and joys.

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Robert Indiana, first day of issue January 26, 1973

One told me about a drama about a friend, a fight, and head lice: the fare of middle school experience and friendship. As we were walking into the gym together, the other one said: “Ms Blythe? If we go to war, will it be like World War III?” I said, “Well. I need you to look at me while I say this.” She said, “ok” and looked directly at me. I put my arm around her and said, “I have absolutely no idea. But if it is, we will go through it together.”

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Ali Cat Leeds of EntangledRoots.com

It’s been ages since I wrote here, and really ages since I documented my last public school teaching experience in inner city Philadelphia. This school year is so trying: the students are dealing with so much stress, and so are the teachers. What is funny (the type of funny that is tragic, not laugh-out-loud) is that, in the public education sphere, or at least my public education sphere, no one is speaking out or with each other about the stress that the outer world is causing in our hearts and minds.

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Hope by George Frederic Watts, 1886

I taught a professional development yesterday on how to teach good quality projects. At the beginning, I asked teachers to play by working 6 feet of wire into something that represented what was going on with them yesterday morning. Most jumped into the task, a few fought it at first, one point-blank refused and left. After a few minutes, it was fascinating to watch a group of 30 adults playing with wire, bending it, shaping it, talking to their friends, laughing, wondering: bemused at their own inner-workings. A few spoke about their sculptures, but most just left them on a large table, much like children do. I realized during the second session that the vast majority of my adult students were overwhelmed, tired, sad, confused, stressed-out and hollow-eyed. They didn’t know what to do in terms of developing a project. I realized at the end of the first session that we really should have canned it all and done something else, but it was too late, and there was no Plan B.

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Candles burning in a Buddhist temple: photographer unknown

When that student asked me about World War III earlier today, I almost cried then and there. Later, we had a tornado drill and I envisioned my portable being picked up and carried by a giant tornado that would drop us on our side somewhere down the road.

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Teachr, Teach Peace – his Facebook is here

I watched a video by Robert Reich the other day in which he explained that stress, feelings of trauma, dread, despair, are all common-place in our current state of affairs. I think we can see evidence of that from before this president was elected in the opioid epidemic: we are the only country in the world who is dying in huge numbers of hopelessness, sadness, and desperation, however, I will say that those feelings may be experienced currently by more people than pre-election day 2016.

America, poor America! You sick culture of racism and of classism, and of feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, rich enough. As adults, we can try to dismiss those fears or at least cloud them with exercise, working in the garden, cooking, drinking wine,  and eating too much dessert. But our children: my question is, what can they do?

My students are in 7th grade. They were born in the year 2005, four years after 9/11, and after the beginning of what is now America’s longest war. They have never known their country in peace-time. During their lives, America has increased its prison population, and the awareness of the murder of African-Americans by police has become commonplace thanks to social media. Their media life is one of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Paris bombings, Orlando and now Las Vegas shootings. Their governmental life was one of hope with President Obama, shot down by the election of Donald Trump, and colored by his rants about North Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Iran.

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Unknown, brilliant Twitter cartoonist

Most of my students are immigrants or children of immigrants. Most of my children are economically classed as “poor”. Most of my children have parents who are working so hard just to give them what society demands is necessary: tiny mega-computers that broadcast this information-propaganda-fear into their pockets, into their living rooms, into their eyes, into their minds at night when they are alone. How frightening is this? How more frightening is it that we, the adults, are so scared that we do not know how to discuss it in a pro-active, assertive, and hopeful way?

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Almond botanical drawing: in the language of flowers, Almond is for Promise

Hugs do a lot, but they do not do enough. As a teacher, as a step-parent to a 7th grade child, it is up to me to shield where I can, but be willing to talk when the questions come up, because the shield that my parents had for me no longer exists. The courage lies in looking into the dark and understanding that we know very little more than we did when we were 7th graders, and the courage comes from the very thing itself: courage to believe, courage to speak, courage to love, courage to hope.

I hope to write more here. I hope to hear from you. With love, P

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Ali Cat Leeds from EntangledRoots.com

 

The Story of Adam

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“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” 

Corrie ten Boom

I met Adam in the early fall of 2011. As a new teacher at my North Philly charter school, I was required to visit the homes of all of the students in my home room. Adam lived in the Ojo de Oro neighborhood of North Philly: an area just off Lehigh Avenue that is most easily described as a melange of row houses, bodegas, cars, streetlights, and families.

When I pulled up to Adam’s house, or where I thought it was, anyway, I ran into a group of little kids sitting on a stoop, watching a movie on a laptop. Inside, their house was dark and they told me how great it was that they were watching the movie on the stoop. I asked if this was Adams house, and they said, “No! But he lives over there!”. Pointing, they steered me to a cream-colored house with a plain door. I knocked, and was let in by Adam’s mom. Inside, the house was dark, and I soon noticed that there was no floor. I sat on an armchair in the living room, and, looking up, I noticed that there was a huge hole in the ceiling where pipes were visible. His mom told me that some of the pipes had burst and they had tried to fix them earlier,  but that the basement still flooded all the time.

Into this room walked a tall, slender boy carrying a huge bottle of blue Kool-Aid. He was wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, and had just come from his room where he was playing video games. Politely, he told me it was nice to meet me. His mom told me that I was the first teacher that had ever come to their house.

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Adam was challenged and challenging: life had set up many obstacles for him including a learning disability, emotional disturbance, a father with a history of incarceration, poverty, and a dominant anger management problem. During the first few weeks of school, Adam refused to attempt any assignment, and when asked a question, would laugh at the fact that I had dared to ask it of him. He sat, in the front of the room, where I had moved him, and did his best to do absolutely nothing.

In this room was a wall of closets, leftover from an educational past that would have had all the students hang their belongings in the closet at the beginning of the day. The school building was about 100 years old and had been built, owned, but not maintained by the School District of Philadelphia for all of those years. When the building was taken over by the charter school, it had sat, abandoned, for many years. Inside, homeless people had used it as a squat house and had stripped every piece of wire, every light bulb, everything of value, from its walls. When the charter started, they had to rewire, paint, and scrub every surface to make it into a semi-functional school again. Its three floors held its history in the peeling paint of its surfaces, its lack of air-conditioning, its squeaky floors, and those long, open-doored closets.

In the closet I kept all the tricks of my trade: lab supplies, baskets, colored pencils, paper, books, and fabric. I find that fabric is a great teaching aid, both as decoration and as a mechanism of soothing troubled children. All of us love touching fabric and looking at patterns and bright colors: this sense of touching something soft and flexible is a tangible way to relax and experience our environment.

One morning, Adam was supposed to take a test to determine his “levels”. These tests are notorious for the stress they cause in the students who are forced to take them. Racially, culturally, and economically biased, their results are questionable and do not take into account the individuality of the test taker. Adam had taken these tests every year he had been in school, and he knew what he was getting into, and most likely, what the results would say. So, he disappeared.

A few minutes passed and I asked the children where Adam was, and no one seemed to know. It was typical for the students to defend each other against the new teachers: they treated us like enemies who were out to hurt them in some way. This reaction to new people was not their fault: it was simply how they had learned to deal with the constant stream of teachers, counselors, and other adults who desired to help them when they didn’t want any help. In a moment of frustration, I happened to look into the closet and noticed that the fabric was moved, and looked almost wrapped in a cocoon. It was then I realized where Adam was.

Walking to the closet, I looked inside and saw a pile of fabric in the shape of a tall and slender boy. Crouching down, I touched him gently and said, “Adam? Why are you wrapped up in fabric?” He said, matter of factly, “I’m just in the closet”. I asked him if it was okay for me to ask him to unwrap himself and come back to his seat. He said no, again, very matter of fact. I asked again, gentler this time, if he would come back to class. Slowly, after a few moments of weighing his options, he uncurled his body, climbed out of the closet and back to his seat, laughing to himself the whole time. In his seat, he seemed to not acknowledge anything strange about his behavior. When the other teacher came to get him for his test, he refused to move, sitting in his seat, stuck as if with glue. When asked again, he became angry: cursing, he still refused to take the test. After much time and power struggles, we succeeded in getting him out of the room, after he locked the door, refusing to leave, and pushed himself against the door frame to stop the adults from being able to physically move him. Despite his slight stature, he was strong and young and absolutely determined not to have his intelligence measured by a test. Later, when we received the results, he was flippant and refused to engage with what those results meant. Again, sitting in the front row, he refused to attempt any of his assignments, and began his path to almost failing the seventh grade for the second time.

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Adam suffered from anxiety and, no doubt, felt an incredible amount of pain due to the circumstances of his life. He, often, could not see beyond his feelings to be able to see solutions that were actually fairly simple and direct. In refusing to attempt his assignments, he set himself back day by day, hour by hour. In becoming angry and potentially violent, he instilled in the adults around him a belief that this child was always going to be this way: there was no capacity for change. He had grown up in a terrible neighborhood that was enslaved by urban blight, poverty, open air drug markets, and violence. He lived in a house with no flooring, with a family that was trying their best to succeed when the deck was most certainly stacked against them.

Over time, Adam would occasionally arrive to school in a good mood and his almost constantly sarcastic laughter would give way to real laughter and enjoyment, Slowly, I could tell, he was learning something, even if hardly a pen touched paper during our ten months together. He complained that he was in the front row, and oftentimes was rude to the point of causing me to emotionally react to his behavior. Eventually, though, he grew on me and I on him, and he began to defend me against the other students who insisted on disrupting my attempts at teaching. One time even he turned to the other students and told them that “Miss is the only teacher that ever came to my house”.

I told him once that I was going to take him to Maine with me and put him on a lobster boat because that job was something that would be good for him. He needed time every day to do something kinesthetic: he needed to do things with his hands in order to bridge the gap between his anxiety and his intelligence. Adam was remarkably intelligent, funny, bright, sharp-witted, calculating and had a great capacity to learn and do almost anything. What stopped him were the negative feedback mechanisms of his own brain. When I told him about Maine, he laughed and said, “nah, Miss, I can’t leave my hood!”. I told him that he deserved a better ‘hood, and he just shook his head.

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Almost at the end of the year, when I had reached my wit’s end with the school, with Philadelphia, and with teaching science to a group of kids who had never been given a science lesson in their lives, we were learning about dinosaurs. Each day we learned about a new animal because it was a good way to pack vocabulary words into a concise and manageable space for the students. Also, one of the teachers had told one of my classes that dinosaurs didn’t exist because they were not in the Bible. I decided to fight fire with fire and teach the students about one dinosaur per day for two weeks. On this day, we were learning about Pterosaurs: flying dinosaurs. As I was teaching the names of the dinosaur to the students, and talking about its dimensions and what scientists thought its behaviors might have been, Adam raised his hand.

“Yes Adam?”, I said.

“Did you know that the military uses flying dinosaur skeletons to design drone aircraft?”

Stunned, I said, “no, Adam, I didn’t know that. How do you know that?”\

“I just like this sort of stuff”, he said, and went back to being quiet in his chair.

During that period of time, as I watched each day pass on toward the end of another school year, my seventh as a classroom teacher, every day I wanted Adam to pipe up and say something. He did, on only one day, but that one day was a huge step forward for him as a student and as a citizen of his class and school.

Anxiety and our interpretations and expressions of our past experiences can show our pain, raw and red, to the world. Sometimes we cannot understand the actions of someone with anxiety because we cannot see beyond the ends of our own noses, and because, honestly, we wish to help when sometimes no help can be heeded. In those moments, it is important to remember that we are all only existing in this one, present moment, and to look for the glints of hope amidst the darkness. Those moments of precious clarity are fleeting, and some would say insignificant. I say that in that one moment, Alex let go of his anxiety and his anger and his learning disability and his father and his past, and was a normal middle school kid who loves dinosaurs, and planes, and video games.

And I will always be thankful to him for that.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God [whatever we consider her/him to be] to open up another route for that love to travel.” 

– Corrie ten Boom