Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 21 2012

I didn’t even cry.

One of my Regulars came into the office today, absolutely fuming with rage. She was yelling and ranting nearly incoherently and talking to her was impossible. It took her a loooooooooooooooooooong time to calm down. I was maneuvering so delicately with her that I was paying attention to my posture: I made myself consciously sit back in my chair every time I knew I needed to lay off her a little, and for some reason that helped slow her down too. (I don’t know if it helped because of the message I was sending her or the message I was sending myself, but that’s the level of detail we were at.)


When she finally relaxed a little, I had her start coloring. I was having a really rough day and she’d sent my stress level through the roof, so I figured I’d try my own medicine. I got up from my desk, sat at her table, and colored with her (while hoping hard that no adult would walk by, see me, and doubt my ability to do my job). While we helped each other pick colors for our pictures, some wall inside her almost visibly shattered. Without warning, she started talking really openly about her life and bringing up all these memories.


She ended up telling me a story about being outside years ago with her little brothers and seeing a man get shot to death. She remembered every single detail of the shooting, even though she’d had to push her little siblings to the ground when it started. She knew what was said beforehand and how many times he was shot in each part of his body and how the man looked as he died. She could describe which of his family members had found him without a pulse and how the news stories had been mistaken about the getaway of the shooter. Then she got all tough again and said, But it’s okay. I didn’t even cry.”


No, baby, it isn’t okay. It has nothing to do with whether or not you cried. You are human and that horrible moment matters to you. There is a reason you can remember every detail so clearly. This is not a time you have to be tough. You are hurting and that’s okay. Has anyone ever told you that? You are hurting. That’s the part that’s okay.

8 Responses

  1. I’m volunteering for a program similar to Teach For America. I’ve only been doing it since school started this year, and I’ve already heard stories this painful. All I know to do is say I’m sorry they had to see/do/hear what they did. Then I let the school social worker know.

    Do you have any tips for me and my teammates when we’re in this situation?

    • mathinaz

      A couple years ago, a school psychologist told me that the most valuable thing you can do is just listen and validate the experiences you’re hearing. Platitudes and euphemisms rarely go far with children, and don’t feel the need to try to “solve” things in your conversations. Notifying the school social worker is always a good idea.

      Parus’ comment below is also good advice.

  2. Hope Required When Growing Roses In Concrete:

    Believe me, it’s worth watching.

    • mathinaz

      I did believe you! I’ve watched it three times since you recommended it on my other post. I almost mentioned that video writing this entry but it didn’t end up really fitting well. I was definitely thinking about it the whole time I was writing and the whole time I was talking to her. And I’ve been meaning to thank you for that wonderful recommendation!

      • Wonderful, I’m glad you watched it! I try to share it as much as possible, because it helped me have a framework for beginning to understand my students’ needs, and for thinking of behavior, not as the problem, but as a symptom of deeper issues. Every child wants to succeed, every child wants to be loved.

        Another recommendation: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook — What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing

  3. “Being tough” is an adaptive strategy when you grow up with this kind of thing. It’s not something you can put on and take off like a coat, and when you take it off things can become unbearable, so eventually it gets to be a second skin for a lot of people. I don’t want to sound like I’m being critical about your kind, empathetic response. But that kid is not leaving that environment anytime soon, and while growing up I saw often enough what happened to soft people – particularly soft girls – to think that an overdeveloped sense of “toughness” isn’t the worst thing for a kid to have. I guess what I’m saying, if this isn’t overstepping, is to be careful not to let that empathy cross over into pity and/or fruitless hand-wringing. Pity is useless. What is useful IMO are healthy outlets for feelings, and supportive peers and adults who can help kids work things through, ideally people who’ve been there themselves.

    • mathinaz

      Thank you, Parus! I agree with everything you said and I think that’s important advice. I don’t feel that I’ve crossed over into pity, but I’ll keep an eye out for that. I just want her to feel safe to let herself have feelings sometimes, because I hope she gets the chance to process some of them….

      • Does your campus have the budget and/or connections to get some kind of shrink-facilitated peer support group going for kids who’ve been victims of, witnesses to and/or had their families touched by violence? My previous campus had something along those lines and it was invaluable. Not the kind of thing you’d want an amateur running, though.

        Physical activities (in my experience, especially martial arts…I think they can re-contextualize the application of physical force) and the fine arts can also helpful for a lot of kids. Might see about channeling some of your kids into city programs or getting them involved at your school. If you aren’t already.

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