Just over a week ago, I wrote a story. Or rather, it was a dozen stories, all rolled into one.
It was a true story, drawn from my experience as a teacher and administrator, now at the Calgary French and International School, and the experiences of my teacher friends, all over the world.
It was a true representation of a situation I have been through many times: an encounter with a parent, worried about what she has heard about THAT child, the one who hits, kicks and disrupts her own child's class. It was the story of how that difficult conversation goes for me, in my school. It was also the story I can never tell, during that conversation: That THAT child's parents are in the middle of a horrendous divorce; That THAT child has witnessed domestic violence; That THAT child is on medication that makes him agitated. And then there are the good things that I also can't tell: that THAT child knows more about thunderstorms than most meteorologists; that I've been tracking THAT child's aggressive incidents for months, and she's dropped from five a day, to three a week; that THAT child strokes her best friend's hair at rest time; that she whispers "you are my sunshine" to her baby sister every morning before her mom pushes the stroller away.
It wasn't just MY story. It was THAT child's story, too. And, because THAT child is, or could be, ANY child, it was also EVERY child's story.
I wrote the story, thinking of all THOSE children I have known over the years; how much I have loved them, wept over them, worked and worried for them; how much I miss the ones who have moved on.
I knew it was a teacher's story. I hoped it was MOST teachers' story. As teachers, it is our sacred duty to love and value EVERY child, to treat them with dignity and compassion all the time. Even when he is pouring milk on the floor. Even when she drops the F-bomb in gym class.
That was the story I thought I wrote: the story of teachers, and of the children we love.
And then the comments started. And my blog stats started to climb. And the blogging platform crashed under the weight of hundreds of thousands of parents, teachers, people seeking out this story. And I realized that MY story was not just MY story.
I learned that teachers need a voice. They walk this line every day – the one between the needs of ONE child and the needs of ALL the children. They split themselves in a million directions, spread themselves thinner than ice on a puddle, to make sure every child is seen, heard, loved, valued.
I learned that there are so many more sizes and shapes and varieties of THAT child than I ever dreamed; that the parents of THAT child have suffered more than I ever imagined. Their stories broke my heart: dismissal, humiliation, recriminations, from the communities that they had trusted to educate their child and support their families. I don't know why their child's dignity was not honoured. I don't know why their confidentiality was betrayed. I don't know how to make that right.
I learned that the other side of my story was the story of the children in THAT child's class. My knees weakened, at their anger and fear; at the horrors of children stabbed with pencils, choked with shoelaces, pushed down staircases, by THAT child. The responsibility of comforting them was suffocating. What do I know? What can I say, to fix what has happened to them? It is not okay, it is never okay, for a child to come home with stitches.… Their stories are just as real and sad and scary as THAT child's story.
The stories of gratitude, of love, of kindness and healing, were easy to carry – lightweight, even buoyant. But the stories of pain, of anger, loneliness were heavy. I didn't know how to carry them, where to put them, how to honour, comfort, reassure the parents and children and grown-up children who had trusted me with their stories.
And then … I didn't have to.
They started helping each other, linking their stories together. Right there, in the comments, before my eyes, they wove their stories together, filling the gaps, healing the scars, one story at a time.
Grown-up versions of THOSE kids and THEIR parents, shared their stories: of happy, healthy, productive adulthoods.
Parents of children who had been hurt by a classmate started telling each other what had helped, at school and at home.
Teachers listened, shared factual information about rights to education, to specialist services, to family support.
Grown-up THAT KIDS thanked the teachers, neighbours, principals, who had seen them, heard them, loved them.
And so, 1.5 million blog hits, 827 comments, 12 different syndication posts later, what have I learned?
Perhaps, there is no THAT kid or THIS kid – only THESE kids, all of them. THESE kids are 3, 8, 15, 22 years old. They are shy and bossy, big and tiny, boys and girls, "victims" and "aggressors." They are average. They are gifted. They are loved by two parents, one parent, grandparents, foster parents, step-parents. They go to private, public, charter, home school. They have autism. They have ADHD. They have freckles.
To love THESE kids, to raise and educate and honour them, we have to live the clichés.
We have to be the village – the one that is required to raise THESE kids, to heal and help all of them. We have to walk the miles – the ones that can only happen in the shoes of THAT kid, THIS kid, their families, their teachers. We can never say "never," because the line between THAT kid and THIS kid is razor-thin, and either one of them can cross it in a heartbeat.
We have to tell our stories.