Today I cried in front of my sixth grade social studies class.
We start each lesson with the news. I cycle through the class, and the kids do a great job of checking the list and preparing in advance when it is their turn. Each student concludes his presentation with a debatable question, and we hold a five minute discussion based on that question before students journal about the event.
This afternoon a student reported on the recent firebombing in the village of Dalori, Nigeria. The student mentioned that 86 people, including children, had been burned alive. When others expressed dismay and asked questions she couldn’t answer, I stepped in and clarified:
No, Boko Haram isn’t ISIS, but they do want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic government, in Western Africa. They have actually killed more people than ISIS has. Really? But why don’t we hear about them? People are influenced by what they read in the news, and attacks south of the Sahara don’t make as many headlines here. Maybe it’s because the Middle East is closer. Maybe it’s because of that attack in Paris. Maybe it’s because people from Iraq and Syria look more like Europeans than Nigerian people do. But that’s racist! I know it is.
As I spoke, tears leaked out and the indignant class grew pensive. Eleven year-old faces contorted and pencils furiously scribbled in notebooks. There was no need for a debate.
It is in moments like these that I think it is perfectly fine to express genuine emotion. As I thought about all of those people–especially the children–dying horrific deaths that barely garner any news coverage (compare to, say, Donald Trump), in such large numbers that these people become abstracted in our minds, so that we quickly dismiss them and move on to the next topic, it hurts. I look at my students and think, those were someone’s children. They were kids just like the ones sitting before me. And I can’t help myself.
I’ve cried in front of classes before, in certain circumstances. Once, on a field trip to Ypres, Belgium with my tenth graders, I cried at the gravesite of a teenage boy who had lied about his age in order to fight in World War I, so naïve and with as much potential, surely, as the teenagers standing beside me. I’m glad I cried. There had been some irreverent behavior earlier in the trip, but none of the students who saw me cry were seen misbehaving afterwards. When they saw how seriously I took the trip, my students began to drop their attitude. I was amazed at the depth of feeling and personal stake the students in my class took in their poetry following the trip. Some of those students attend my weekly creative writing club to this day.
I also cried when I read the ending of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men aloud to my eighth graders. You could have heard a pin drop on my carpeted classroom floor. At that moment, we were all George, making the most painful, compassionate decision of our lives. Everyone was upset, of course, and they wanted Lenny back, but they understood and appreciated George’s anguish. Getting students (especially “cool” adolescents) to empathize with fictional characters isn’t easy. I’ve found that getting lost in a character, truly feeling along with him as you read aloud, can be astoundingly effective.
Adolescents may find it refreshing and endearing to have a teacher open to vulnerability, who has feelings just like–gasp!–a real person. The younger ones tend to have little frame of reference for what, outside of their own experiences, constitutes tragedy. The older ones, to appear tough and apathetic, often react to emotional experiences with flippancy. Perhaps sometimes, a role model who expresses appropriate emotion, without shame, is just what students need.